Parental disconnect: Good, bad & increasingly nonexistent?

By Anne Collier

In “What Parents Don’t Know,” MediaPost blogger Jack Loechner echoes Common Sense Media’s own conclusion from its recent survey: that there’s “a continuing disconnect between parents and kids when it comes to kids’ digital lives.” [Pew/Internet reported a “digital disconnect” in 2002, but between students and their schools, which I plan to write about next week.]

But how different are kids’ “digital lives” from their real ones? As far back as the beginning of 2007, Pew/Internet reported that 91% of teens were socializing online with people they see a lot in real life. They’re not “social networking”; they’re just socializing – online, offline, at school, on phones, on Xbox Live, in virtual worlds, on computers, wherever. And there always has been a developmentally normal disconnect between parents and teens, where the latter’s social lives are concerned. We can’t and shouldn’t know every detail of what they’re up to when socializing with peers. They need some privacy, psychologists say – growing degrees of it, as they mature – because it’s their job to disconnect from us as they become adults. To mix metaphors horribly, I hope that survey conclusion won’t stoke the fires of helicopter parenting.

Teen social lives more visible than ever. Because so much of their socializing is visible on the social Web, parents actually have an historically unprecedented opportunity to know what’s going on in their children’s social lives (does the appeal of cellphone texting as kids’ counter-measure surprise anyone?). Common Sense says that, “as our kids increasingly communicate through social networks, parents are cut out of the process of hearing how and what they say to each other.” I’m sure that’s true, but it’s not the advent of social networking that’s cutting them out; it’s more because parents aren’t engaging with their kids about how they’re using social sites and technologies (though this has to be changing, now that research shows half of all Americans now use social network sites – see this USATODAY blog post). The need for parental engagement is probably what Common Sense (an organization I think highly of) is trying to get across, but I suspect many readers “hear” more of a blame-the-technology message.

The two points in Common Sense’s conclusion that I think deserve much more attention are these:

1. “Social networks and mobile communication connect our kids to their friends 24/7.” We really need to think about the implications of this for our kids. My younger child, my first one “texting-enabled” as he entered middle school (my older one “just” had instant messaging in middle school, which isn’t entirely different, but it required a less-mobile computer). I’m observing that, for kids with texting, there just are no breaks from the drama. They’re literally inundated with gossip or running commentary on their peers’ inner and outer lives. Much more easily than their parents, who only had 2-3 phones in the house and often had to ask to use one, our children can be caught up in and sometimes emotionally carried away by this collective drama, their own school community’s on-campus, off-campus, 24-7, highly personalized “reality-TV show.” At the very least it can be distracting, and sometimes emotionally overwhelming. It can have tragic consequences it involves bullying. I’d love to have a parent summit where parents, psychologists, educators, school counselors, social workers, and teens who’ve been there can together think through the implications of 24×7 drama.

2. “When teens communicate either anonymously or through a disguised identity, the doors are left wide open for them not to be held accountable.” Yup. We’re talking about the impact of online anonymity and the “disinhibition” to which it gives rise (borne out in the “skank blogger” story I blogged about earlier this week, and these were grownups). Our “social intelligence” – ability to see, hear, or intuit the impact of our behavior – is impaired somewhat when we’re online and on phones (see “Social intelligence & youth”). What happens when social intelligence goes down while social information goes up (or floods one’s mental scene!)? We all need to be talking more about what mitigates disinhibition, which what’s behind so much online harassment and bullying: training students in empathy and citizenship; showing them that they’re not really anonymous online; helping them (and us) “get” that those are human beings with feelings behind those profile comments, text messages, and avatars; maybe all of the above? [See also “Digital risk, digital citizenship”.]

Then there’s the media literacy piece to parenting the digitally literate. Right from the start of their exposure to media online and offline, we can show our children how to take what they read with a grain of salt , think about who the source is and what his, her, or its goal or intention might be, etc. YPulse’s Anastasia Goodstein models this traditional media literacy in her commentary on the Common Sense study. When you turn the figures upside down, as she did, you get quite a different takeaway from the survey:

* “63% of teens said they DO NOT USE social networks to make fun of other students [emphasis Anastasia’s]
* “87% of teens said they HAVE NOT posted naked or semi-naked photos or videos of themselves.
* “76% of teens said they HAVE NOT signed on to someone else’s account without permission
* “72% of teens HAVE NOT posted personal information that they normally would not have revealed in public.”

New media literacy‘s an ever more important part of parenting (and education) too – the kind that uses and models critical thinking about what we say, produce, and upload as much as what we see, read, and download. That, too, is protective and mitigates disinhibition.

Readers, I would love your input on all this. Please comment here or in the forum – or send an email to anne(at)

Related link

“They’re Old Enough to Text. Now What?” in which the New York Times’s John Biggs looks at what type of texting device is appropriate for what age level – about LeapFrog’s Text and Learn, Kajeet, Peek Pronto, and T-Mobile’s Sidekick (not the very popular iPhone, interestingly)

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