Over the 15-or-so years I’ve been covering family technology, I’ve noticed a kind of siege mentality that developed among parents about kids’ use of digital media. Then, a few years ago, when sociology professor David Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire gave his milestone talk, “The Internet, Youth Deviance & the Problem of Juvenoia,” I heard him offer the most plausible reason I’d heard or seen yet for what he called this “juvenoia” – “the exaggerated fear about the influence of social change on youth” – that had developed around children’s seemingly unprecedented and uncontrollable exposure to a diversity of values and influences not our own. Not helping was awareness of our children’s delight in and comfort level with the media and technologies enabling that exposure (here‘s where I wrote about that), a comfort level many of us had not ourselves reached.
24/7 exposure to somebody else’s values
“Virtually every parent from every station in life,” Dr. Finkelhor said, “sees him or herself as raising children in opposition to the common culture. Parents feel undermined by it – pitted, depending on their point of view, against consumerism, secularism, sexual licentiousness, government regulation, violence, junk food, public schools, religious and racial bigotry…. Of course the Internet is one of the institutions that increased the diversity of that exposure, and this leads to a constant anxiety about [children’s exposure to] external threats” to their family’s values. The professor hypothesized that this siege mentality has grown over the millennia as we’ve gotten further and further away from tribal society, where the tribe reinforced the values parents taught their children.
I’ve been working this problem for a long time, and up until now, about all I could think of to suggest to fellow parents besides getting informed about digital media and – much more important – playing and talking with their kids in the media they love. I felt that, by focusing on the kids, the tools they love, and the facts (the research about the kid-media nexus), other parents might see what I’ve seen with my own kids: that their experiences in and with digital media are about 99% positive or neutral but, when not, can be worked through because mostly about people and parenting (I’d come to see that the context of those experiences in media was mostly home and school and the rest of offline life and sociality, not so much the media).
Your family story
Now, however, I think I’ve stumbled upon a missing piece to the equation – and it has even less to do with technology than my own antidote of engaging with our kids in and about the media they love. In a thoughtful commentary in the New York Times by parent and author Bruce Feiler about his own family and research, I read that “the last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs [from a number of fields] in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively,” and it’s not just unplugging (see this).
“Develop[ing] a strong family narrative,” Feiler discovered – helping our kids know who and where they came from with those family-history stories and little rituals (some of the best are the hokiest) that clans develop together, helping our children have a sense of family history – is one of the best things parents can do to help kids develop self-esteem, resilience, identity, and all the other good things that sustain safety, mental health, and good relationships online and offline. “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned,” Feiler writes, citing the work of psychologist Marshall Duke at Emory University. Think about the safety that fuels.
Focus more on internal protections
Probably because the online safety field has long suggested risk and safety online are somehow all about technology, its messaging has always been weighted way too much on the side of external tools for kids’ wellbeing – filtering and monitoring software, parental control, abuse reporting, school rules, laws. What about the resilience, confidence, empathy, moral compass – the internal protections – that help them deal with challenges and connect with others successfully for the rest of their lives, the “tools” more important than ever in a networked world? Way back in 2008 a national task force on Internet safety I served on conducted an extensive lit review of the youth online risk research and found that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments were better predictors of online risk than any technology a child uses.
So there’s something really substantial, now, for concerned parents to go on: Know that neither your child’s inner strength nor your influence can be swamped by technology and that, even if you believe they can be, there’s something you can do about it – as well as something you can do to reinforce healthy child development. You can help your children know themselves better by knowing “they belong to something bigger than themselves … the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness,” Feiler wrote.
When you think about it, we haven’t actually lost that ancient tribal support David Finkelhor referred to in his 2010 talk. We’re building on it, as we work toward a better balance between internal and external protection for children and families.
- “Study on long-neglected factor in Net safety: Resilience” (2013)
- “Of fearless parenting in this unmapped landscape” (2013)
- “Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released” (2009)
- “Net safety: How social networks can be protective” (2009)
- About another thing we can do for children, society-wide, to reduce bullying and increase social and academic success: social-emotional learning K-12: “Invaluable social literacy lessons from an anti-bullying conference” (see how it’s working in Illinois).