Effective strategies for guiding your child through the digital landscape and preparing them for a tech-savvy future!
Join us in this episode as Dr. Devorah Heitner unravels the mysteries of parenting in the age of social media, online gaming, and rapid technological changes. Gain practical insights into setting boundaries, modeling positive behavior, and empowering your kids to navigate the complexities of the digital universe with confidence.
From modeling positive tech behavior to understanding your child’s readiness for social media, teaching consent, and fostering offline connections, we’re covering it all! So don’t miss this episode for some keys to creating a harmonious digital family life.
Dr. Devorah (00:00):
Our kids are seeing us text and they’re not hearing us on the phone. They don’t have the same information about our social worlds that we had about our parents’ social world. It’s important to understand that our kids are missing, that they don’t really know how we’re conducting our social lives. They’re not answering the phone for us. They’re not even getting that modeling that we got from just hearing our parents on the phone. So we need to spell out as much as we can what we’re doing when we’re texting and decisions that we’re making around being social.
Dr. Sarah (00:32):
Are you ready to unravel the myths surrounding screen time? Discover practical strategies for fostering digital resilience and gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities that technology presents for families in this modern world. I am thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Devorah Heitner. Dr. Heitner has a PhD in Media Technology and Society, and she’s the author of the book’s Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in the Digital World, and also Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. In today’s episode, we’ll share not just research backed insights, but also real world experiences for how parents can create a balanced approach to raising tech savvy and emotionally intelligent kids.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hi. Today we are talking with Dr. Devorah. Thank you so much for coming on. I’m so happy to get to talk with you today.
Dr. Devorah (02:04):
I’m happy to be here too.
Dr. Sarah (02:06):
Yeah, so I, I mean, I feel like I have so many questions for you on behalf of myself, but also so many of the parents that I work with about how do we help support our kids who will be inevitably engaging with technology in a million different forms, many of which we are Luddites at, like don’t know, don’t understand. How do we support our kids to do this in a healthy way here and we have to figure out how to live with it.
Dr. Devorah (02:39):
Yes. I think that’s a question that consumes so many parents because these things don’t come with operating instructions, right.
Dr. Sarah (02:50):
Or if they do, it’s like…
Dr. Devorah (02:53):
It’s not about our kids’ development, it’s just about how to work the technology.
Dr. Sarah (02:58):
I’m like, wouldn’t that be amazing if a Nintendo Switch came with a developmental handbook?
Dr. Devorah (03:04):
It would be very helpful. But instead we just have to kind of work with what we have, which is the advice from older parents of older kids observing our kids, seeing how they respond to the stimuli and how it works for them, and also reading as much as we can about different games, watching sometimes gameplay videos on YouTube. I mean, there’s a lot of ways in, but yeah, the Nintendo Switch is not that you give, your kid is not going to come with a developmental guide, and in fact you may have two or three kids and they’ll all respond really differently to it.
Dr. Sarah (03:37):
Yeah. So I guess how did you get into this particular area of specialization?
Dr. Devorah (03:44):
So I’ve been working on this for more than 10 years. I wrote my last book Screenwise on this topic. I was teaching college before that, so I’ve really been focused on this for a long time. And when I was speaking, because I speak a lot at schools and corporations and when I was at schools in particular, a lot of parents would ask me, how do we deal with the potential for things to go really sideways when kids maybe share things that they shouldn’t or do things that are problematic? What can we do to help prevent that and how can we make sure that we are supporting kids in our communities when things go wrong? And so I started researching what it’s like for kids to grow up so surveilled and in public and so shared by their parents even. And it helped me to understand the way parents sometimes are helping, but also sometimes they’re actually contributing to the challenges kids experience. And that was really eye opening. And so I spent a lot of time talking with parents, tweens, teenagers, sometimes younger kids for growing up in public to just really understand what that universe looks like and try to help people come up with ways to help kids understand privacy, reputation, balance of tech use and unplugged time, all of those things.
Dr. Sarah (04:55):
Yeah. You mentioned that you would see parents doing certain things that would help, but also doing certain things that might get in the way. What are some of the things that parents might, with the best of intentions be doing that actually might actually not be serving their ultimate goal, which is to help their kid navigate this stuff in a healthy way?
Dr. Devorah (05:14):
So there’s a whole chapter of the book on change and the ways parents are sharing about our kids. And even though I think parents generally share about their kids on social media, of course with good intentions and because we’re just so in love with our kids and we feel like we can’t help ourselves and because everyone else is doing it, we should be really thinking hard about what we share about our kids because we’re taking away their control of their public identity and the ways the world sees ’em. So we need to be sure that we’re being thoughtful about boundaries and that we’re ideally asking permission before we share and that we’re making sure that we don’t share anything that in another developmental stage might be a problem. So I’ve talked to a lot of middle schoolers who get teased for things their parents have shared about them in past when they were younger, and that stuff is still on the feed.
For example, a picture of a kid doing something really silly and adorable, which might seem really fun to share about your 6-year-old, might not be something you still want in your timeline by the time your kid is 11, because if their classmates find it, they might tease ’em. And it’s hard for parents to wrap their minds around that because we tend to think that anything we would share about our kids would just be positive. And the idea that other sixth graders will tease your kid for something you shared a few years ago or even now is hard to foresee. So we need to make sure that we’re sharing, if we share it all about our kids, we’re doing it in a thoughtful way with good boundaries and that we’re periodically checking in to think about, do I still want to be connected to these people online? Should I be sharing this much with these people? Should I be sharing with a smaller circle? Asking our kids permission for what we share about them sets them up with a really good habit because it teaches them that they should be asking permission as well before they share friends and other things, and that they have a right to say no. And that consent based conversation is really great preparation for all kinds of boundaries and friendships and relationships that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Sarah (07:06):
Yeah, I think that’s, my head goes straight to how much modeling is actually more important than lecturing. You can tell your kid not to do a certain thing or not to do a certain thing, but if you’re constantly contradicting that with your own actions, you’re modeling something very specific actually, which is these rules don’t actually apply all the time. And that’s a tricky message that sometimes if we were aware of it, we might double check if that’s the one we want to be sending.
Dr. Devorah (07:42):
Dr. Sarah (07:43):
I also wonder, one of the things, and I’ve love your take on this because I’m about to say something that I’m also completely guilty of myself, but I recognize it as a potential thing that parents may do that they don’t quite realize is maybe not in the best service of helping raise kids with a healthy relationship to tech is our own kind of constant device use. I myself, for sure, without a doubt, am incredibly addicted to my phone. I’m on it way more than I want to be. It definitely rules a lot of my waking life and I hate it, but I also am very aware of how hard it is to let go of it, and I know that my kids see me on my phone. Just for context, I have a four and a half and a six-year-old, and so they don’t have phones. They’re not even asking for phones. I mean, my four and a half year old daughter definitely turning every single toy in the entire world into a phone, and she’s very, very phones, but she doesn’t expect a phone at all right now. But I’m that I’m probably setting the tone in a way that if I were a little bit more thoughtful, I don’t want that tone set. I don’t want that. If my kids did on their phone, what I do on my phone, I would not be comfortable with that.
Dr. Devorah (09:10):
Modeling is so crucial. If we can really model thoughtful use in front of our kids, including putting it away, maybe not sleeping with our devices, et cetera, it’s really helpful when your 4-year-old crawls into bed with you on a weekend morning, and if they’re going over a nest of chargers, they’re going to be like, oh, what grownups do is they sleep with their phones.
Dr. Sarah (09:31):
Yeah. So what should we do? Help me. I got to get out of this rut.
Dr. Devorah (09:36):
You need to think about, you know, if your toddler is constantly bringing you your phone, they know how important it’s to you. We need to think about like, oh, could I go to the playground with them and leave my phone? I live in a densely populated area. I’m not going to be in a situation where I desperately need a phone and there’s no one around with one. So I think it’s important to think about, could I just leave this at home some of the time? Could I be with my kids reading to them and have my phone in another room turned off? What can I do to be more present to my life, including taking breaks, making sure that we’re using it in ways that are kid friendly?
Dr. Sarah (10:12):
What are some of the kid-friendly ways to use it?
Dr. Devorah (10:15):
So for example, a shared use, you’re looking at a video together or you’re playing a game together and passing it back and forth as opposed to you’re on your phone and your kid is just doing their own thing. Now, I’m not saying adults should never let their kids just play. I’m not saying every moment on the playground, for example, needs to be engaged at the same time. If they just see you checking out and not would rather they see you chatting with another parent, for example, on the playground versus just checking out and being on your phone because you want them to model those related feelings and connections with others. And so when we’re in the presence of others, say you’re sitting next to another parent at the park bench and you’re all ignoring each other and on your phones, is that what we want to model for our kids? Or do we want them, we’re saying like, oh, why don’t they play together more at recess? Well, what have we modeled? So I’m not suggesting again, that we need to be attending to our kids every second, but we should when we’re not attending to them, model other behaviors that we would want them to engage talking to other adults.
Dr. Sarah (11:12):
Or even just sitting and being.
Dr. Devorah (11:15):
And being present, right. Just sitting and being present with our own thoughts. We don’t need to fill every second. Exactly. And we want them to know that it’s okay to not fill every second.
Dr. Sarah (11:25):
Yeah, I mean, I think this idea of we do live in a culture where at least for grownups, it’s acceptable for grownups to think this way, but I think most adults wouldn’t want their kids to think this way, but we do. We live in a culture where it’s very much acceptable and even sometimes praised to be constantly productive. You don’t have negative space, you don’t have white space. You should be filling it. If you’re waiting online at the grocery store, you should be multitasking and getting those work emails responded to. And in some ways, we’ve created this sort of prison for ourselves where we have to, because we have too much work to do in 24 hours, and so we have to do those things and our phones become the vehicle by which we do it. So I am not sitting on my phone scrolling Instagram when my kids are eating dinner, but I am checking my email sometimes, and if an important one comes through, I’m like, oh, one sec, I’ve got to respond to this.
Dr. Devorah (12:28):
We also have really up the ante even on what the expectation is for response. And because our kids are seeing us text and they’re not hearing us on the phone, they don’t have the same information about our social worlds that we had about our parents’ social world. I answered the phone all the time and answered and got friends of my parents and other people that were calling mostly my mother. My father didn’t do a lot of social phone use, but it’s important to understand that our kids are kind of missing that they don’t really know how we’re conducting our social lives. They’re not answering the phone for us, and we are also not interceding when their friends call, which is something that a lot of parents of tweens feel very lost about because they don’t know who’s contacting their kids, which is something we can talk about is how can we mentor kids on who to be in touch with and who’s okay to be in touch with. But with little kids, they’re not even getting that modeling that we got from just hearing our parents on the phone. So we need to spell out as much as we can what we’re doing when we’re texting and decisions that we’re making around being social.
Dr. Sarah (13:29):
That’s a very interesting point. Can you talk more about that?
Dr. Devorah (13:32):
Sure. So for example, if there’s news I don’t want to share with someone when they’re alone that I want to give them in person, I might make that decision, but I might want to spell that out for my 15-year-old so that he can make decisions about, oh, if I have big news or a big important conversation, maybe that’s an in-person thing, not a texting thing.
Dr. Sarah (13:52):
Yeah, it’s almost like making the invisible visible. Yeah. I think about it when my kids are watching me on my phone, I am looking at the screen and I know what I’m doing. They’re looking at me looking down and they see the back of my phone. They have no context for what I’m doing, so they don’t know the, like…
Dr. Devorah (14:16):
They’re just watching us thumb out our lives.
Dr. Sarah (14:19):
Yeah, this is something that makes me very, I have lots of mixed feelings about my own phone use, but I just think I’m at a place right now where I actually have to just bite the bullet and do something about it because I know that this is an area personally where I know I struggle a lot with this, and it’s becoming, as my kids get older, I can’t brush it away anymore. I often would just be like, they’re not, eventually I’ll have to deal with this, and I think it’s upon me. I have to deal with it. If you were going to give advice to me, where would you suggest I start?
Dr. Devorah (15:04):
Yeah, I think it’s really important, and it’s also something you shouldn’t feel bad about because the devices have been designed to be really hard to put down, and the pandemic kind of got us all extra glued and having little kids can be isolating. So it’s a way to stay connected. All of those things are true. It’s not like something, and this is the thing why I think we struggle to talk to other parents about kids in tech. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been so sort of shamed about our own screen time or our kids’ screen time that we’re scared to even talk about it. We feel like there’s something wrong with us using tack, but instead, if we can just look at our habits, honestly, we look at any other habits and say, oh, how do I want to get more steps in a day? Oh, can I just park further away when I go to the library or whatever? It doesn’t always have to be this huge thing to scale, but I think it’s important to think about what does my tech use look like and is there one time in particular, maybe I don’t want to look at my phone before I’ve had my coffee in the morning, or maybe I don’t want to, whatever it is, what can I do differently that just one small habit change that might lead me and my family to feel better and more connected.
Dr. Sarah (16:18):
Yeah. Yeah. I think ultimately our bigger goal is greater connection, and that’s something I also think about. Obviously with me, my own use and how it gets in the way of me connecting with my kids, but that modeling, right? I want my kids to value connection. And so I’m also aware though, I work with a lot of much older kids or parents with older kids in my practice, many of whom have phones and are figuring this stuff out. And there’s a lot of ways that kids really do their social world rely more and more on communication through devices. And it’s interesting because on the one hand, I think it’s helpful to allow kids to have access to that world because they want to feel connected, and that’s where the connection is happening. One is like, how do we do that in a way that is developmentally appropriate and to helps them feel like they’ve got tools to navigate that? On the other side of that question though is how do we support them getting off their phones and doing that connection in person? Because I think that’s harder for them to come by, and we might have to facilitate that.
Dr. Devorah (17:37):
Sometimes I make my kid leave the house. I’m like, I don’t care if you see a friend, go for a walk, go to the library by yourself, but you have to leave the house. Or sometimes I might say, I really want you to think about the balance of how much you’re gaming by yourself versus others online versus seeing friends in person. And just think about what does your weekend look like and try to make a balance and let him think about it for himself. Because I think it’s important for kids to also have autonomy and make decisions, but think about what brings them joy. A lot of us think that we’re getting joy out of our online connections, but when we really think about what brings us joy in a given week, it’s probably more of our in-person hanging out time. So for some of us, it might be time on Discord or in an online community as well, or I have a biweeklies noom that really brings me joy. So I’m not saying online, I’m just saying we really need to look at it because sometimes we think something is bringing us joy and it’s not.
Dr. Sarah (18:33):
Yeah. And I think our kids are maybe also can sometimes struggle to identify that because there aren’t, it’s not like there’s this rich, everyone’s hanging out in the quad. I dunno if that’s happening as much anymore. So it’s like a child might want to…
Dr. Devorah (18:53):
I think that schools and colleges need to think more about that. Colleges definitely need to think more about that.
Dr. Sarah (19:00):
Even, what about high schools and middle schools, or are you seeing that still be something that exists?
Dr. Devorah (19:05):
High schools and middle schools as well, like unplugging kids at recess and lunch can be really important. Some schools are banning cell phones and I don’t know if that’s the way to go, but I do think the schools that are banning cell phones are partly doing it for a reason for this reason.
Dr. Sarah (19:23):
Do you find that that’s been successful in those schools?
Dr. Devorah (19:26):
We’re not far enough in to know. I think teachers are saying that it’s helpful. Certainly I know many high schools just have individual teachers have policies in their classrooms. With the high school, I think it’s quite difficult to do, but I think the schools that have done it, I haven’t heard anyone say it’s been a disaster. And many of them say that parents are the ones who are pushing back. They want to be able to reach their kids during the day, and I think that’s worth rethinking because if you are reaching out to your kid regularly during the day, it’s very distracting for them at school. And I think a lot of parents think they won’t do that, but people have anxiety and understandably, especially in these recent years with so much going on, and it’s very understandable, but it’s also important that we don’t bother our kids when they’re in school and focusing on school and learning.
Dr. Sarah (20:15):
Yeah. I’m wondering too, talking about kids having devices, whether it’s at school or elsewhere, what are things that parents want to consider before they, as they’re trying to figure out, is my kid ready for this? And what is a typical stepwise introduction that you recommend for introducing devices and within those devices further access to certain types of media platforms?
Dr. Devorah (20:44):
I think it’s important to observe how your kid does in digital communities and in-person communities and notice are they impulsive? Are they struggling with winning and losing in games? And just noticing that before your kid gets into Roblox or even seeing how your kid did in Roblox or the classroom, Google community and third grade. And that’s going to tell you a lot about how they’re going to do in the group text in sixth grade and what skills they need to work on interpersonally. Or maybe it’s being patient about waiting for a response. What are the skills that your kid needs to thrive in these situations? And by the way, making a lot of mistakes is typical and expected. So I’m not saying if you observe your kid making a mistake yelling too loud at a friend playing Roblox, that means they can’t play Roblox anymore. But it’s just information to be like, how is this going? Where do they need support? How can they be helped?
Dr. Sarah (21:38):
And once you’ve identified a skill deficit, are there any suggestions you have for how to build up that skill?
Dr. Devorah (21:47):
Well, I mean, I think if your family is working with a therapist like you obviously asking them if you feel less like if your kid is impulsive or they’re saying things that are harming their friendships. But again, a lot of that is pretty typical. So I would really, if you’re not sure if something your kid is going through is kind of beyond what’s sort of developmentally expected, that would be a good time to ask their teacher. There’s a school counselor mental health professional, just to get that perspective because so much of what we’re talking about is kind of expected developmentally.
Dr. Sarah (22:20):
Speaking of what’s expected, I think most parents, it’s like if you are parenting, chances are nine times out of 10 the stuff that your kids are going to be exposed to. We don’t have a framework from our own childhood. So in terms of tech, so what are some typical tech milestones that we need to be aware of? What are the ages? What do we do when?
Dr. Devorah (22:50):
We see kids getting into gaming communities pretty young? So that’s Minecraft, Roblox, et cetera. And a lot of parents maybe don’t understand fully that on a public server, kids can talk to strangers. So it’s very important that they have a framework for knowing who to talk to, what to do if somebody asks them a two personal question or if somebody’s being mean in that space. Now, if it’s a friend, that’s a different resolution, but if it’s a stranger, one option would just be get out of the conversation. If it’s a friend, you want to have the skills to work it out, but it’s very important to talk with kids and ideally observe them. So if your kid is playing Roblox, maybe they’re playing with no headphones and they’re in the room with you so that you can observe how it’s going, and that’s going to be a really good gift to know, okay, I see that you’re not responding to losing in a very happy way.
How can we help you? One thing with gaming is helping kids by helping them reground in their body, whether that’s a deep breath, glass of water running around the block, doing a pushup, anything that grounds you in the body can help slow down the brain to the speed of regular life. So that could be helpful with the next thing is often texting or kids will even want to get on their school devices and connect with classmates in a Google document, or some kids might be getting watches in middle elementary school like third, fourth grade. Some kids are getting phones in fourth and fifth grade. Certainly by middle school a lot of kids will have phones, and so the question of how to navigate a group text and fifth, sixth or seventh grade will come up. That’s kind of another milestone. Ideally, maybe they’ve practiced texting on a parental device before this time, but that’s not always the case.
But ideally, if there’s an opportunity to practice texting or practice with just one friend, it’s very important if kids get a first phone, which is another milestone that they know who they can and can’t be in contact with. So you don’t want them just giving their phone number, for example, to just anyone if they’re allowed to be on social media or YouTube or TikTok. Those are all kind of other spaces. So I would say that first gaming community, the first time they’re in the school, Google Doc, those are two kind of early milestones. And then the next one is texting, which would be maybe on a first phone or a watch. And then the next set of milestones could be either social media, discord, YouTube, or TikTok, all of which are different ways of relating. So social media would be something like Instagram or TikTok and anything where your kid is posting about themselves is kind of next level. So ideally they’re getting used to texting first, which is a little less public, and then maybe learning how to do social media at some point.
Dr. Sarah (25:35):
And in terms of even getting more granular, I am thinking of, okay, Roblox, Minecraft, these are this early exposure. Younger kids are doing this. Obviously older kids do this too, but there are younger kids on this. Would you necessarily, what kind of restrictions do you think can be helpful? My thought would be even more of an internal step process inside of each of these platforms. So if you’re going to be doing roblox, you like having some parental controls so they have less access to a stranger.
Dr. Devorah (26:17):
There’s no real way to do that on a lot of these games though, I think it’s really important to understand that if you are going to allow your kid to plan a public server, they’re on a public server. With Minecraft, you can build a server just for your child and their friends or they could join, for example, your local library or your school might have a Minecraft server just for that community. Roblox. There’s no way to do that. So you have to decide if you want your kid to play Roblox. I made a decision early on that we didn’t want to do Roblox until my kid was a little older, and we did use a Nintendo Switch from your example earlier, which you have a tremendous amount more control over as a parent. So that was our decision. We did eventually allow Roblox, so it’s not that we never did it, but a lot of people are doing Roblox much younger than we did.
I think it really depends on your kid, how comfortable you are, what your kid will do if they’re faced with problematic content. Occasionally Roblox has, people have run into things like porn and other things, so it’s not common, but anything that’s an open-ended architecture that strangers are using, someone can go in and actually change the code. That’s not going to happen. If your kid’s playing Zelda or Mario Kart on Nintendo Switch, you buy the cartridge, you get what you got, and you only play with others if you share your code with them. So that’s a very different world where you and your child have a little more control.
Dr. Sarah (27:39):
Which is something to consider. I think I was working, I’ve worked with a number of families who have actually introduced a Nintendo Switch as a way to get off of more internet server based things, and it allows ’em to have a little bit more parental control.
Dr. Devorah (28:02):
Exactly. So I think that could be really smart and your kid can still play with their friends. It’s just the easy and hard thing about Roblox for example, is it’s so ubiquitous. It’s sort of everywhere. You don’t have to bring anything with you at the same time. Yes, your kid can be with whomever, and that may not be what you want for your seven-year-old. You have to really look at, do I have a kid who would know what to do in that situation if I help them be ready for it? No kid will know what to do if you don’t help them. But there are kids who will kind of forget, or again, are either more impulsive or more vulnerable or more easily led, and other kids do pretty well, and obviously they can meet their friends there. They can say, let’s all go and meet in Roblox at three o’clock after school or whatever. And then ideally, you can have a conversation with other parents that your kid is playing with and maybe come up with some strategies to keep things positive. But as kids get older, you won’t be able to do that. But with little kids, that’s an option.
Dr. Sarah (29:04):
Yeah. Okay. So then we’ve graduated up to maybe we’re talking and texting and chatting in, whether it’s Google doc or a group text or other types of ways of that. Is this where you’re starting to see cyber bullying happening and kids really…
Dr. Devorah (29:22):
Oh, a hundred percent. I mean, not even just bullying, but just exclusion and inclusion. I mean, all of the sort of developmentally typical things that happen in middle school will happen on the group text. Whether your kid is in sixth grade, seventh grade by eighth grade, it may be calming down, it may be shrinking as well. The scope tends to shrink by eighth grade, ninth grade, and then people really aren’t group texting in the major ways anymore. But sixth grade is when you’ll see half the grade on a text, and it’s quite exhausting. And kids both know that it’s annoying and feel like it’s distracting from other things they care about and they know people aren’t being nice or that a lot of people are just texting emojis and pinging them and it’s annoying, but they don’t want to be off of it. They don’t want to miss what’s going on with others.
Dr. Sarah (30:08):
That’s an interesting lens, right? Because again, the goal of this whole conversation is not to dissuade people from one direction or the other. It’s more like wherever you’re at, how do you look at it from a lens of like, okay, I want an informed tech savvy kid who understands who’s doing what and why this sort of being an educated consumer of this kind of material. So if you have a kid who’s doing these text exchanges, I guess one of the things I would think of is how do we help them have healthy boundaries, not just within in interpersonal communication and that sort of thing, but also just in terms of with my engagement, how do I be able to say there’s this constant flow of chatter and it’s very alluring magnetic, and I could go in and I could get lost in it, and how do I balance that out with other things I want to do? How do I set boundaries with my engagement with the chat, but then also inside the chat in terms of engaging with the content of the chat and the ways that people are speaking to each other? How do I have healthy boundaries there?
Dr. Devorah (31:34):
You mean as a parent, not to over read. You don’t want to read all of the seventh graders texts. I think it’s important instead of to have healthy boundaries by letting your kid know they can come to you, but that you’re not going to read the text proactively. But I would also let them know that somebody’s parents probably are, especially in sixth grade, and it’s just good for them to keep that in mind that some parents are probably reading the whole thing.
Dr. Sarah (31:59):
I’m thinking, I was thinking in terms of how do I teach my kid to have their own boundaries? If someone’s saying something mean, how do I engage with that in a skillful way? If I’m feeling hurt, how do I talk about that? But also I’m hearing, and maybe we should go there to parents having boundaries with their own kid and being able to say, I’m going to let you have some space to figure this out.
Dr. Devorah (32:25):
Yeah, I think it’s really important to navigate with our kids what they would do. What’s a situation where they would maybe leave the group text, for example, if people were being or unkind or if they felt like they just weren’t comfortable with what was going on. And for younger kids, they can use you as one boundary. Like, oh, my parents, look at my phone. I’m going to get in trouble for this. I don’t want to be part of this. Another thing they can do is navigate change the subject. And a lot of kids use that strategy. I don’t want to be going there. If they think that it’s a conversation that’s so problematic that somebody might get in trouble for it, it’s worth knowing that they probably do want to leave that conversation. Someone might screenshot it and show it to the principal. They can certainly interject also with an individual.
And it’s important for kids to know that say there’s a group text with 60 people on it or 20 people, whatever, and someone’s being mean, you can go to someone in front of everyone, but most people double down when they’re called out in public. So something we can do is also go to them privately and talk to them in person, or at least text them privately and say, Hey, I think that person would be really hurt if they heard that, or I’m not comfortable with this is going. Or if somebody’s being mean directly to your kid, your kid can try setting a boundary with that person individually. Like, Hey, I don’t use that nickname. That’s not okay with me. Please stop calling me that. Now, if that person ignores your child’s attempt to put in a boundary, put in place a boundary, I would just say at a certain point, yeah, your kid may want to get out of that group text.
They may want to cut off digital contact with that kid. That wouldn’t be the first thing I would do. A lot of fifth graders and sixth graders will block somebody the second they annoy them, well, they’re all 11. They’re going to be annoying. Sometimes if you sit with somebody at lunch and you have an 80 20 situation, which a lot of friends in middle school are like 80, 20, 80% of the time you like them 20% of the time, they make you nuts. That’s not a situation where you block that person and you block their phone number. You know what I mean? It has to be like, this person is intentionally hurting me. They’re not stopping, they’re not listening to my boundaries. We’ve talked to school, whatever. Then maybe, yeah, you block them, you change your number, whatever you have to do, but you’re not there yet if your friend is just being annoying some of the time to you.
So I think it’s important to teach kids skills, including letting someone know what they’re doing that’s bothering you, because sometimes kids really don’t know, and your kid may be more socially savvy than the kid that’s bothering them, but if you haven’t told the friend, Hey, when you text me 60 times between six and six 30, I’m meeting dinner. Just like, don’t do that. Let the friend know and err on the side of being explicit and clear. Because sometimes you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re, someone’s saying to your kid, if you don’t know what’s bothering me about your behavior, then I’m not going to tell you. It’s like, no, tell me. Right. And I think we want to tell our kids, look, we’re all making mistakes. You’re all learning. So I do want to say we want to give other kids the benefit of the doubt. Now, again, if somebody’s telling your kid something horrible and mean, and there’s no doubt that’s a different scenario than somebody’s just being annoying and texting a lot of emojis when you’re trying to sleep. But there’s a huge range of boundary issues with kids, and I just want to say, a lot of times kids will immediately react with something like blocking someone. And I think that can be an overreaction that doesn’t help them all move forward.
Dr. Sarah (35:58):
Absolutely. It’s funny, as you’re talking, I’m like, oh, this sort of is an opportunity to teach social skills in vivo, which my parents didn’t really get a chance to do that. I was like not at home when it was happening. I was in person with the people. Whereas these kids, they’re literally in the living room right there with us while these things are going on, and maybe they’re not sharing that with us, but…
Dr. Devorah (36:26):
Hey, yeah, I mean, it happens. For example, Roblox, again, as much as we can bash roadblocks and say what we don’t like about it, when you hear your kid playing, you can be like, okay, I get that everybody’s trash talking a little in the game, but I think your friend got a little bit hurt when this got said. You know what I mean? So maybe that’s not a place to go again or whatever. Did you hear how things changed when that came up or whatever? And that’s really helpful for kids. And again, we don’t want to give them a play by play. We probably don’t have time to, nor should we listen to every conversation our child has with peers. And I’m going to say too, especially if you have a kid who’s struggling socially, you probably have some idea that that’s happening. And that may be a kid who would benefit more from more support or maybe a social group or other things, but most kids could use some feedback on how they could be more supportive or noticing like, Hey, I heard somebody say something mean to you. How are you feeling about it? We don’t always know how our kids are reacting to what’s being said to them.
Dr. Sarah (37:28):
And I’m even thinking in much the same way that with really little kids who are having difficulty with social skills or having anxiety around social situations or more explosive or just struggling there, one of the things that I’ll often suggest is a play date, therapeutic play date, not really therapeutic, but in quotes, sort of a pseudo therapeutic play date where it’s like, I’m going to identify the strongest kid I know the kid who’s the kid in my kid’s class who has really good skills. They’re really kind of up there. The bar is high. I’m going to want it to be something structured and supervised and short and sweet. Those are really great play dates, and I kind of am, in my head, imagining a really similar scenario with if I have a kid who’s struggling to figure out how to navigate certain social situations or they’re feeling left out, or maybe they’re a little bit too volatile and they’re the ones that are getting hot fast and saying the mean things, that’s all, as you said, developmentally pretty typical. But hey, there’s a skill that I’ve identified I want to help them work through. Using something like Roblox could be with your support, like, Hey, I’m going to, let’s play a game and let’s invite some friends and play a game. And you don’t have to tell them you’re going to live coach them, but in the back of your mind, you might be giving them some support, but you’re engaging with them in it, and it’s an opportunity to kind of learn.
Dr. Devorah (39:03):
A hundred percent.
Dr. Sarah (39:06):
Do you see that happen? Are you plugged into anybody who’s using Roblox almost like…
Dr. Devorah (39:11):
I’ve seen people do it with Dungeons and Dragons, but that’s more of a live role playing game. But I’ve seen people do that online, but I guess I haven’t seen as much with video games, but I think it could work, and I’m sure there’s people out there in SLPs or social workers or other people probably doing that, but because my research is a little bit in a different space, I don’t know of them, but I think it could be really a good opportunity.
Dr. Sarah (39:39):
Well, if anybody’s listening that does this therapeutically email me curious. I want to learn more about that.
Dr. Devorah (39:46):
A hundred percent.
Dr. Sarah (39:47):
But yeah. Yeah. Okay. We talked about the earlier tech milestones, but then we haven’t talked about social media necessarily, and I think that’s a really important one, which is if our kids are ready for social media, first of all, what are we looking for in terms of readiness for that? How do we introduce it in appropriate way with initial, again, breaking down into more granular steps, the layers of access, like parental controls, private accounts. Do we get a say in who they’re initially going to be connected to? At what point do we pull that back?
Dr. Devorah (40:30):
I think it’s really important that we understand that by the middle of high school, by the time our kids are driving, for example, they’re going to be largely in charge of this themselves, and they’re going to have for many of them one foot out the door, and we’re not going to come to their college dorm and take away their phones at night so they can sleep. But they certainly need a lot of support regulating in the elementary school, middle school, and early high school years. And then I will kind of see how it’s going. The more concerned you are about your kid, obviously the more you may want to externally regulate and make a plan for them going forward with them going forward. But with old kids, I would be trying to work with them to make that plan. And certainly, I mean, in elementary school, your kids shouldn’t have contacts that you or another co-parent doesn’t know.
In middle school, they’re going to start to have contacts that you don’t know they’re going to join a team and be with kids. You don’t know. I mean, I moved to where we live now during the pandemic with my kids. So I think in particular, we’re in a new community. I don’t know all the parents of the kids he went to middle school with and then he started high school. I certainly won’t know those kids necessarily, all of them unless they come to my house. And so that’s a very different situation than elementary school where there shouldn’t really be anyone in your kid’s phone list of contacts where you’re like, who’s that? And they tell you and you’re like, oh, I have no idea who that is. Right. Again, as your kid gets older, their world is going to expand.
Dr. Sarah (41:51):
And it’s supposed to, and that’s okay. And I think can be really scary for parents.
Dr. Devorah (41:55):
That’s positive. That’s good. We don’t want to limit our kids,
Dr. Sarah (41:59):
But then, okay, so we’re giving them access. We’re trusting them. We’re helping them to build the skills. I’m really curious too, how do you help parents help their kids understand some of the permanence of their digital footprint and how to navigate? I feel like there’s a bit of a, it’s chess not checkers. You know what I mean? You got to think five steps ahead, not one when you’re posting because the stuff can be forever out there and that can hurt us.
Dr. Devorah (42:34):
So as we think about the permanence of what our kids share, it’s easy to get into the negative side of it and say like, oh, you’ll never get into Princeton or whatever. If you share that, and it’s much more important to focus on is this aligned with who you are? Do you feel like if someone saw this about you, they would get the wrong idea about who you are, what kind of person you are? And I think that’s just more important because when we threaten kids with, you’ll never get a job if you share that or whatever. It actually gives kids, I believe, the wrong set of incentives. We’re saying to kids in that case, don’t get caught. Right? We’re not saying be a good person. We’re saying Don’t get caught, and that’s really not a message we want to give kids.
Dr. Sarah (43:18):
I think that is such a valuable piece of advice, this idea that helping them identify what their values are and have that be the lens through which they make decisions and weigh out pros and cons because that’s so much more salient to them. They have a lot more stake in their identity and how other people perceive them and how they want to show up in the world that is really motivating to them, and to help activate that part of them that is motivated to think about that and think about their actions through that lens is like, that’s a life skill that we could build from day one with our kids. And so I think that’s so valuable. Thank you. That’s great. If people want to learn more about the work that you do, if they want to read your books, where can they find you?
Dr. Devorah (44:07):
So my books are everywhere. Books are sold. All the online places and your local bookstore and your library and my website, devorahheitner.com, is a great place if you want to bring me to speak, if you just want to see pithy things that I’m saying, hopefully Instagram where I’m @devorahheitnerphd, and then I also have a Substack. Devorah Heitner on Substack. So those are all the places you find me.
Dr. Sarah (44:33):
Amazing. Thank you so much for coming on, and I really appreciated this conversation.
Dr. Devorah (44:40):
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it, and I hope that you have great conversations and don’t beat yourself too much up about your phone use. Just try to change those little habits one by one. Another person you might want to talk to is Catherine Price, who wrote How to Break Up with Your Phone. That might be a fun one for you.
Dr. Sarah (44:58):Ooh, maybe she’ll come on the podcast and tell me what I could do. That would be a great follow-up. Thank you. Have a great day. If you enjoyed listening to this conversation, I want to hear from you, share your thoughts and your feedback with me by scrolling down to the ratings and review section on your Apple Podcast app or whatever app you’re listening on, and let me know what you think of this episode or the show in general, your support means the absolute world to me, and just a simple tap of five stars can make a real impact in how the show gets reached by parents everywhere. So thank you so much for listening and don’t be a stranger.
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