Sept. 28, 2019 — “If there’s one thing that you leave tonight knowing, it’s that you don’t have to know anything about technology,” Collin Robinson said. “What you need to do is have conversations with kids. Early. Before you put a phone, laptop or tablet in their hands.”
Robinson, the guest speaker at Florence Community PTA’s “Parenting in a Digital World” Workshop on Tuesday, is a freelance web developer with two kids, 14 and 18.
“I’ve raised kids in a digital world,” Robinson said.
He works with the National PTA to provide real-world tools for parents in navigating the sometimes difficult world of social media, mobile phones and video games that have become an ever evolving presence in everyday life. The topics he included in his discussion cover screen time, online reputation, forming a digital family plan, and meddling behavior.
The overriding theme of the discussion was simple — “Don’t panic.” While the diversity of available technology may seem daunting, the content often disturbing and the ramifications of misuse devastating, keeping an open and honest dialogue open between children and parents is key to surviving the tech induced world society has created.
“As parents, we just need to realize it’s generational, and this is just what our kids are into now. And it’s okay,” Robinson said. “They’re going to be okay.”
The first thing to understand about technology is that it is difficult to fully understand, particularly when it comes to social media.
“How many of your kids are on Facebook?” Robinson asked the group of 30 parents, few of whom raised their hands. “Kids won’t go near Facebook now because that’s where we are. They have their own applications and their own channels. But those things change all the time.”
The list of popular teen apps is endless — TikTok, Discord, Tumblr, Twitch, Snapchat. But the list is transitory, with different apps gaining and losing popularity at the drop of a hat.
“I try and keep app agnostic,” Robinson said. “We don’t know what’s going to come out tomorrow.”
Instead, it’s important for parents to talk to their children about what they’re in to.
“When a child comes to you and says, ‘I’ve got this new app,’ we want to ask them about it — then listen,” Robinson said, listing off some of the common denominators between apps. These included how users create a profile, if the app is able to locate users, how users communicate with each other.
“Kids will give up all this information, on why they want to use these things. And if we’re engaged in the process, like we’re interested in what they’re telling us, they’ll be more apt to tell us things,” Robinson said.
When Robinson’s children first showed him SnapChat, he was confounded.
“It just didn’t make sense compared to all the other apps that I used,” Robinson, who develops apps for a living, said. “So I asked my kids, ‘What do you like about Snapchat?’”
Then they sat down and his children went through the app, pointing out the features they liked, comparing them to other apps. This conversation led to more complicated issues. He asked his children if the app had location services, which allows friends to see where they are in real-time.
“They can see blips of all their friends. And that’s okay. It’s not a bad thing to know where your friends are. But as parents, you have to be aware that the ability is there. That leads to the question, ‘Who do you allow to follow you?’ If you let these random strangers follow you, and you have a public account, chances are they can find out where you are. What do you do when someone tries to find out where you are? If you know them, will you friend them back?”
By having that conversation in a non-confrontational way, it opened the door for more difficult discussions down the road.
“When my daughter first got a phone, I said, ‘If someone wants to friend you that you don’t know, let’s look at their profile to see if that’s an appropriate person.’ We had conversations about this. The other thing was, they knew I wasn’t going to have a knee-jerk reaction to this. ‘Oh no, Joe42 from Albuquerque New Mexico decided they wanted to follow you, you can’t use the app.’ That’s going a little far.”
Harsh reactions can have some negative consequences for parents.
“That’s the toughest thing to do as parents — not react. The first thing you want to do is fix it and have a knee-jerk reaction. The issue is, kids are going to remember that’s how you reacted. And unfortunately, when it happens next time, they won’t come to you. You want them to be able to come to you,” Robinson advised.
And conversations like this can also help ease parents’ concerns about what their children are doing online.
“Does anybody know what a ‘finsta’ is?” asked Robinson. “It’s a fake Instagram account. My daughter had her primary account, and there she posts best photos of her life. The glamorous life she leads now.”
But his daughter had a secret finsta account which Robinson didn’t know about. He had been following his daughter on Instagram and saw her picture appear in another profile. But instead of blowing up, he asked his about it.
“My first thought as a parent was, ‘Oh, these are the photos she doesn’t want me to see,’” Robinson recalled. “In reality, because we had these conversations about what we post online, she said, ‘No dad, it’s the outtakes.’ And sure enough, it was the funny photos, her with one eye open, that didn’t match what she wanted the world to see. And that was totally okay.”
Robinson and his daughter did have a discussion on creating accounts without telling him, “but it wasn’t bad, because of the conversations we had early and often.”
And it set up a map for more difficult conversations regarding social media, in particular online reputation.
“Some people will tell you that everybody is getting bullied online,” Robinson said. “That’s patently false. Realistically, it’s only one-in-five. This still high, but it’s not everyone and it’s not all the time.”
Instead, what Robinson is finding that children are shutting down the bullies.
“Kids are standing up for each other in these spaces,” he said. “‘Can you remove this comment, it wasn’t very nice.’ That’s what we’re seeing more and more.”
But what can trip children up are issues with online reputation.
“That’s digital citizenship,” he said. “When we were growing up, you talked to people the way you want to be talked to. It’s the same thing online. It doesn’t change just because you’re in a digital world.”
But sometimes children make comments that can have severe consequences.
“In Bend, two kids have been arrested for two separate incidences,” Robinson said. “One kid said, ‘Don’t go to school on Monday.’ Somebody else says, ‘Why?’ The kid responds with one word: ‘Bang.’ He was arrested, charged with a crime. There was a copycat two days later, the same thing.”
The children involved had no actual intention of harming students, as it turned out, nor did they have the means to carry out an attack — they were just “trolling,” or making controversial statements online.
“All it takes for someone to take a screenshot of some dumb comment you made and it’s there forever. … If we’re not telling our kids that what they say online has real consequences, they don’t really know that.”
Robinson stressed the need for both children and adults to be more careful about what they say.
“I know it’s very easy to jump on Facebook and rant about something because someone annoyed you that day and you just pop off,” Robinson said. “But what if that’s the last thing you ever get to write? What does that say about you? What impression is the rest of the world getting from the last post?”
Thankfully, Robinson continued, “We write the story. It’s our profile, It’s our kid’s profile. I tell my kids, ‘If grandma read this, what would she think?’ And it makes them take a sec. Think about what they post before they post it. Really, if that’s a half second and they think, ‘Eh, maybe this isn’t the best thing to post,’ and they just don’t post it, no harm, no foul.”
But the one thing that children cannot control is what other people say about them.
“People will say stuff about us. I know all over the internet, there are things said about me that just aren’t true. … I would just sit there and watch it. It’s almost like an addiction. You have to break it. No more. I’m not watching it.”
But that’s a difficult task for an adult, and for children it can be almost impossible.
“They take it internally,” Robinson explained. “I tell my kids, ‘You can’t control what people are going to say. That says more about the person saying it than it does about you.’ It does not show the true extent of your child. … We have to consistently and as often as we can, remind them that it doesn’t matter.”
But sometimes getting that message across can be difficult, particularly when parents don’t follow the advice themselves.
“Don’t worry that your children never listen to you, because they’re always watching you,” Robinson said. “I work in a digital world. I am constantly online. Always looking at my emails. I was always on my phone. I found that when I was supposed to be with my son, I was checking my phone. I wasn’t modeling the behavior that I wanted my son to have. And he called me on it.”
The moment came when Robinson was playing a game on his phone when his son came up to him and asked, “What’s so important?”
“Ouch,” Robinson said. “Good for him. He knows that we’re having these conversations, and was sure enough of himself that he could say that to me. Good for him. So really start to take stock on what you’re doing when your online. If you’re at your kid’s soccer game, and you spend most of your time on your phone? Something happens in the game, your kid scores, you don’t even see it.”
Robinson went over the typical adult’s day — wake up in the morning, grab the phone, check emails or the news.
“What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed? Check your phone one last time,” he said.
And then there’s every glance in between.
“Most parents’ concern is that kids are using their phones in their rooms before they’re going to bed. Where do you think they picked that up?” he asked.
And then there’s what the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are actually writing online throughout the day.
“When was the last time you read your own posts?” Robinson asked. “What if your kids read that comment. What would they think about it? We have to model the behavior we want our children to follow.”
Robinson ended up taking Facebook off his phone for 30 days, just to break the habit.
“I didn’t miss it. At all,” he reported. After the 30-day period, he put it back on his phone, but found it had lost its importance.
“I’ve learned to live without it, and I’m more present with both of my kids. I learned that almost immediately. The time I was spending on Facebook, I was not interacting with my son and daughter.”
Parents should just learn to put their phones down once in a while, Robinson encouraged.
“That’s a huge thing. Put them out of your vision, out of the room. It makes a huge impact. Your kids notice.”
But don’t ban the phone entirely, even for children. During dinner, Robinson’s family has some specific rules. When the menu is out, no phone. When the waitress is there, when the food is in front, no phone. But after the meal and the parents are just chatting?
“Realistically, the kids weren’t interested in what we had to say,” he said. “So we let them use their phones.”
He stressed that everyone is different, and some people’s rules change. But the point is, to think about these issues discuss them with children.
“A lot of the conversations I’ve been having, people say, ‘It’s kind of like talking about the birds and the bees,’” he said. “It’s that tough conversation we have to have with our kids, that we’re not quite sure how to have. But technology touches everyone, everywhere.”
And sometimes, that technology can be a positive force in a child’s life.
“Screen time is a double-edged sword,” Robinson said. “In the early conversations about screen time, it was ‘Give your kids 15 minutes and then they’re done.’ Take the screen away, put it in a lockbox. They can’t see it again until a 24-hour period.”
But as online information has become more ubiquitous, so have the demands of online.
“The school district my kids go to, every kid gets an iPad. They do all their work on it. If I said, ‘You only have an hour to do your homework,’ it might not work,” Robinson said.
In an online world, Robinson’s posited that the question shouldn’t be how much time a person is spending online, but what they’re doing on it.
“Not all screen time is created equal. Are they being content creators, or are they being content consumers?” he asked.
There’s of course scrolling through endless hours of mindless content, YouTube rabbit holes and never-ending lists on what celebrities look like without makeup.
“If all they’re doing is scrolling, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a short time. But if they’re creating while they’re on their screen, that’s a good thing,” he suggested.
Robinson brought up an example of his son, who had been using an online music creator. For hours he would create a sound, bit by bit, with small soundbites creating a full-length song.
“If my son was on the screen for two hours not doing anything, then we needed to have a conversation. But he came out and said, ‘Look what I did!’ That’s great! I support that. That’s like me sitting at a piano and spending two hours trying to learn the Jeopardy theme song, driving my parents insane.”
The technology may have changed, but the instincts have remained the same. Whether it be creating art or music or researching the next great novel published on a blog, technology is just a tool to perform the same tasks parents did when they were children.
“It’s generational,” Robinson said in an interview after the discussion. “When our parents were kids, it was Elvis shaking his hips. That was the worst thing that kids were going to do.”
Siuslaw Elementary School Principal Mike Harklerode, who was speaking with Robinson afterward, agreed.
“In the ‘40s it was a poolhall, in the ‘50s it was comic books, in the ‘60s it was rock and roll, ‘70s it was heavy metal, ‘80s it was rap and ‘90s it was home video games,” he said. “This is just the new thing that the current generation in power is shocked by because we don’t get it. Because it’s not geared toward us.”
“Sex, drugs and social media,” Robinson joked.
Online pornography is an issue for many parents, but in Harklerode’s experience with his own children, kids know what’s right and wrong.
“They will self-report,” he said. “‘Hey dad, this came up on my screen.’”
There are more dangers in a connected world — actions can be more consequential, people have become more disconnected, and “I think the media we can get into is different,” Robinson said. “I think the world is different. “But the kids aren’t different.”
Harklerode added, “And the impulses aren’t different. I think the gap between their knowledge and our knowledge is the same between me and rap music and my dad and rap music. That’s more content than technology. I think everyone is always shocked by what the younger kids are doing.”
“We raised them,” Robinson added.
“But I don’t think the urge to seek individuality and community is different,” Harklerode said. “They’re not rejecting what we’re instilling. It’s just parallel to what we’re trying to do.”