Foster skepticism, increase child safety

By Anne Collier

Here’s fuel for child safety on many levels: “If we model skepticism … our children would inherit a world that would be less dependent on power and authority and more dependent on critical thinking and good judgment.” That’s from Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, a developmental psychologist and researcher in positive youth development and civic engagement, in Psychology Today. She suggests we not mistake skepticism for the cynicism that we’re seeing way too much of, especially in an election year, defines them both, and offers “5 ways to model positive skepticism.” [I suggest that families together apply these techniques to all the dire predictions in the news this week about children in social media.] Dr. Price-Mitchell’s definitions of the two are clarifying: “A cynic distrusts most information they see or hear, particularly when it challenges their own belief system,” which often “cannot be changed by contrary evidence.” Consider that approach in the context of today’s light-speed in-coming flow of information, drama, and social engineering through all kinds of networks, online and offline. Then consider Price-Mitchell’s description of skepticism, “a key part of critical thinking” and “a goal of education”: “The term ‘skeptic’ is derived from the Greek ‘skeptikos,’ meaning ‘to inquire’ or ‘look around.’ Skeptics require additional evidence before accepting someone’s claims as true. They are willing to challenge the status quo with open-minded, deep questioning of authority.” Inquiring, testing claims, and assessing risk builds resilience and independent thought, which increase safety.

So how safe is it, really – in the face of a fake profile, a phishing attack, a technopanic, or multiple news stories about a cyberbullying epidemic – not to question the “evidence” by talking with our kids about their own experience? How safe is it, really, for our children’s healthy development and academic, social, and future success not to look past claims that digital media and technologies are dangerous? Instead of focusing on undifferentiated danger, isn’t it “safer” to work with our children and students to develop strategies for using the media and technologies they love to their own and everybody’s advantage? That takes inquiry, open-minded discussion. So in addition to Price-Mitchell’s suggestions for modeling healthy skepticism, here are some other talking points: “Family strategizing about multitasking,” “Helping kids who encounter porn,” and ” Why kids love video games & what parents can do about it” (see also this research evidence from Europe: “Engage, don’t restrict“).

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