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Friday, February 6th, 2015
This is a topic that’s top-of-mind for me right now, as my 9-year-old daughter becomes increasingly persistent about wanting to have more and more of an online presence. She’s on Pinterest, which feels pretty harmless to me–when she even remembers to go on it, she pins pictures of desserts and puppies and bunnies. Over Christmas break I caved and let her join Instagram, on several conditions (such as no pics of herself, and no accepting followers without checking with me first). So far it’s working out okay, though there have been a few bumps. For one thing, she was startled and downright confused when a stranger commented on her comment, “Are you retarted?” (I pointed out the irony of the misspelling.) This gave us the chance to discuss what I’d warned her could happen by being on social media, which is that she could get her feelings hurt. Last week she came to me, terrified, after looking up a story about a dead girl who came back to life as a ghost that she’d seen posts about on Instagram. I was able to show her the stories she missed, the ones explaining that it’s a total urban legend, and used the opportunity to talk about how real and convincing things can seem online. (“But there’s a picture of her and everything!”)
Because I feel only barely prepared for everything that’s ahead of us, I was so glad to attend a symposium last night called “How Social Media Influences Our Children’s Development,” organized by The Meeting House, an impressive NYC nonprofit that provides innovative programs for children with social and developmental challenges. (Full disclosure: My sister, a pediatric occupational therapist, works for The Meeting House.) What I found interesting, and somewhat refreshing, about the event is that while the panelists covered the downsides to having children on social media, they spent as much–if not more–time on the benefits and values. I left with these key takeaways:
1. Children need a social-media mentor, someone in the know who can help them navigate the right way to behave online. Ideally, that would be a teacher or a librarian. But as keynote speaker Mega M. Subramaniam, Ph.D., explained, teachers and librarians rarely have the opportunity to guide our kids in that way, because school and public computers automatically filter out all social media sites. Of course, there’s a good reason for that. But I hadn’t thought of the downside until Dr. Subramaniam pointed it out. She’s the associate director of Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland, and runs several social media literacy programs for tweens, and she suggests that in place of a trusted adult, find an older teen your child looks up to–a cousin, a babysitter, a camp counselor–who’s demonstrated responsibility online, and have that person help show him the ropes.
2. There’s a value to texting, even among younger kids. Julia is dying to text with her friends. I’m not allowing it. I feel it’s pointless–what on earth is there to text about when you’re in fourth grade?–and I fear it’ll erode her writing and spelling skills. But more than that, I worry that texting merely provides her with another avenue to see (or do) something inappropriate or rude. The panelists agreed that 9 is a little young, but they gave me ideas on how to allow it in a controlled way when I eventually do let her text. Stay away from group texts, suggested Orit Goldhamer, Psy.D., a middle-school psychologist at The Churchill School in NYC. Otherwise Julia will get sucked into a thread of neverending emojis and “Hey”s. And let her start out by texting only to plan get-togethers (I almost called them playdates!), as opposed to aimless chitchat that could more easily go awry.
3. Have your child ask herself one simple question before posting anything. And the question is this: “Would you show this to your grandmother?” Oooh. Good one. Or maybe this would work better for you: “Would you be proud to have your teacher see this?” I’ll be suggesting that Julia consider both of these.
4. Sign a digital media contract with your child. This will cover everything from time restrictions, to passwords, to where devices need to be kept at bedtime, to the importance of kind behavior, and more. The best one I’ve seen is from Common Sense Media, but a quick search will give you lots of options. And more importantly than signing the contract is revisiting it, points out Scott Gaynor, Ed.D., head of school at The Stephen Gaynor School in NYC. It’s tempting to go over the rules once and shove the paper in a drawer, but just like any important topic we want our children to understand, we need to talk about it often.
5. Fun fact: There’s an unspoken rule among kids that you post to Instagram no more than once a day. It’s clear that my daughter, who only gets to use her phone on weekends and goes to town on Instagram for those two days and nights, has no idea about this one.
Image: Surprised children on mobile phone via Shutterstock.
Kara Corridan is the health director at Parents. Her two daughters, ages 6 and 9, will tell you they have cell phones “with NO SERVICE.”
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Thursday, January 29th, 2015
Are people getting ruder? Um, yeah. (To use a rude retort.)
People can be so rude, in fact, that we decided to publish a whole story in Parents on this topic: “Rude Nation,” by Nicole Zeman, in our February issue. Rude behavior was one of those subjects that really got our staff going when it came up in meetings. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to share. Blown-off birthday parties. Outbursts on Facebook. Parents who seemed more than happy to go AWOL at the playground while their kids wreaked havoc.
Of course, rude behavior is nothing new. But parents seem to feel we’ve reached a new high, or, well, low. These were some of the findings from research referenced in our article, the fall 2014 Civility in America survey:
93 percent of 1,000 Americans agree incivility is a problem in our culture.
70 percent believe rudeness is worse compared with just a few years ago.
70 percent think the Internet encourages impolite behavior.
That last statistic hits upon something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I wonder how it’s possible to raise a generation of thoughtful, kind, think-before-you-speak kids, when we have so many adults spewing hateful, derogatory comments online. Healthy, spirited, civil debate is one thing. And then there’s some “in-between” rudeness that’s in the so-bad-it’s-good category (ever see Jimmy Kimmel’s “celebrities read mean tweets about themselves?”). But then, there’s just the downright despicable, with some of the worst behavior happening on parenting message boards or blog posts (of all places!). Sure, if someone’s posting a provocative point of view on a touchy parenting topic, they may be picking for a fight, or at least shouldn’t be surprised if a brouhaha ensues. However, I suspect some always-the-contrarian commenters are just hungry for attention—you know the type—and are best ignored so they can be free to move along to their next target. For proof of how insane our world has become, though, that absolutely anything can inspire Internet vitriol, check out the downward spiral in the comments section on this post about a…rainbow cake recipe. Finally, if you really want to hurt your eyes, go to YouTube—that’s where one study found the meanest commentary on the web thrives.
What’s going on with people? “The Internet gives us distance; people act as if it’s just a virtual space where everyone has multiple lives and there are no real consequences,” says Angel Kalafatis, an Evans, Georgia mom of three quoted in our story.
But according to a study from the Journal of Consumer Research cited in our article, how much and what we share on Facebook—even positive updates about our lives—affects how we treat people offline, too, and not always in the best way. It appears having a close network of friends with whom you share updates regularly can create something called a “licensing” effect, according to the study author, Andrew T. Stephen, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “The positive feedback you get from a tight-knit group on Facebook boosts your ego and leaves you feeling good about yourself and your life. And the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to ‘cut yourself some slack’ and devote fewer resources to self-monitoring and regulation.” That made me pause: Is it possible that Facebook and Instagram, where I see only the “likes” and love in comments on my (mostly) positive posts, has made me sort of clueless and less respectful toward others in “real” life? Yikes.
Social-media-fueled bravado might also help explain how two people I know, friends, got into a heated political debate on Facebook that got ugly, really ugly. What started as a disagreement about our POTUS turned into a grenade-fest of deeply personal insults. Would these two friends have ever sharpened their knives for the kill if they were having a political discussion around a table? I’m sure you, too, see things all the time on Facebook that you could never imagine saying to someone in person.
Just thinking here: Maybe that’s a guideline we could all heed more in our lives, both online and off?
If you wouldn’t say it to her face, don’t say it at all.
It’s a start.
Gail O’Connor is a senior editor at Parents and mom of three. You can follow her on Twitter @gailwrites.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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Thursday, July 31st, 2014
Whenever I need a quick, mindless break from life and work, I like to scroll through Instagram. Among pictures of majestic London cityscapes and my friends’ adorable
cats and new apartment decor, I happened upon a picture of a newborn baby , who had tubes connected to him in every place imaginable. My heart broke as I read the photo’s caption.
The baby’s mother, Amelia Barnes, recounted the tragic highlights of her son’s birth. On July 8, Amelia was due to give birth to a healthy baby boy. But the baby’s heart rate monitor start going off after eight hours of labor. Amelia had an emergency C-section. Seven minutes later, Landon was born, but his heart still wasn’t beating. Medical personnel resuscitated him after 15 minutes, but his brain and kidneys began to fail along with his heart.
After two days, Landon was removed from life support and shocked his parents by living for 17 more hours. In those magical hours, Amelia and her husband, Justin, were able to have a photo shoot with their son, and Amelia shared many on her Instagram and blog called Landon’s Legacy. Looking through the beautiful family photos, you almost forget the baby has never cried, will never meet the family dog or leave the hospital in a car seat.
Amelia isn’t the only person who has experienced such a loss. With the power of Instagram, she was able to connect with other people in similar situations and create a virtual support system.
In addition to helping others heal with her, Amelia is creating a dialogue on postpartum bodies with the help of social media channels like Instagram. In a world where celebrities grace covers with instantly thin post-baby bodies, Amelia’s photos of her still-swollen belly are refreshing and honest. Even as a woman who has never given birth myself, I’m inspired by her body confidence — even during the hardest time of her life.
Instagram can be more than a way to pass time. Filtered photos and hashtags can reach across the world to tell her story to people she will never meet. To read more about Landon’s Legacy, visit http://ameliakyoga.tumblr.com/.
Image: Red heart with cross sign in female hand, close-up, on light background via Shutterstock
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Thursday, July 24th, 2014
Have you ever taken a break from Facebook? I’m in the middle of a weeks-long one now, and I’ve got good company: A surprising 61 percent of Facebook users take a hiatus from the site for a few weeks or more, according to the Pew Research Center. Their reported reasons probably sound familiar: “I was tired of stupid comments.” “Too much drama.” “People were posting what they had for dinner.” If you’ve been feeling that checking your feed has been a timesuck, it probably is: Americans spend an average of 40 minutes per day on Facebook.
Stop liking everything!
Facebook’s been good to me—reacquainting me with old friends and keeping me connected to others I might’ve lost touch with. I especially love seeing pictures of my friends and their children. (But not a picture of their glowing report cards. Seriously? What happened to sharing them with grandparents?) I’ve gotten actual, paying work because of Facebook. I helped set up a couple, through Facebook, who later got married.
So why turn my back on Facebook? I had my reasons:
Lazy friendships. I felt like I’d allowed too many of my real-life relationships get downgraded to lazily clicking the “like” button on one another’s posts, or making only the “safe” kind of comments you can when you know your respective 200-plus friends are listening. But that’s no substitute for thoughtful, intimate conversation, so I vowed to make more of an effort to see people, or at least call them.
Attention vampires. If I’d gotten lax about keeping in touch with people I’m close to, I had the opposite problem with other friends: people I don’t know well, but who post and comment a lot. Sometimes I’d feel guilty if I didn’t acknowledge their latest post about whatever they were facing in their lives—from the mundane (the laundromat ruined their duvet cover) to the potentially serious (like tests to rule out or detect a medical problem). But then I realized all my friends have such ups and downs, and they’re not posting everything. The ones who do, though, start to feel like attention vampires, and being their Facebook friend is work. Facebook creates an artificial alternate reality that way, where you’re attuned to the lives of people who post the most. Sure, that’s what the “unfollow” button is for. But it doesn’t make the friends I want to hear more from post any more. I needed to get in touch.
Family-time interference. I’m a mom, to three, and it bothered me when my oldest recently asked me if I was looking at my phone “again.” Part of that phone time was spent checking Facebook, minutes I could be spending with my real-life loves. To make it less easy to log on, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone, for now.
Feeling left out. You ever see a picture on Facebook of friends with arms draped over one another, oversized wine glasses in hand, or of a big party to which you or perhaps your kid, um, didn’t receive the invite? Yeah, that. It doesn’t matter that you’re often in group pictures having fun—like an elephant, you remember the times you’ve missed out. Related…
Old-fashioned jealousy. Facebook exposes me to the privilege of those around me; and yes, to the hardships of others too—but really, mostly the privilege. Yes, yes: Count one’s blessings and all that. But during summer especially, when I’m working, and my news feed overflows with pictures of awesome vacations, or friends taking their kids to the beach, or blueberry picking, or setting up the slip n’ slide in the backyard…. Oh, I know it’s irrational (I do those things, too, on my time off) and even they’re not having that much fun every day. But there’s something about seeing all those pictures collectively, day after day for weeks, that can make one feel like everybody else is on an extended summer vacation, ‘cept you. Not healthy. A dad acquaintance admitted to me the other day, “Sometimes when I look at Facebook I think, Come on. Your life can’t be that great.”
Seeing double. I originally liked looking at Facebook for the pictures. Then as more friends joined Instagram, I would see their photos posted in both places. Checking one account once per day does the job fine.
The fighting! Politics, especially. A fight breaks out, friends of the friends pick sides and pile on, then someone gets unfriended. But I haven’t seen anyone change their stance yet because of something someone wrote on Facebook, which makes reading all that “discussion” seem like a waste of energy.
At first I deactivated my account (different from deleting it)—you can safely do this and reactivate by simply logging in again, with everything left exactly the way it was. But I wanted to check the Facebook page of a friend whose child is battling a long-term disease, and deactivated/reactivated a few times to do just that. The first few days without Facebook were weird—what a part of my daily (er, bihourly?) routine it had become! But now, I’ve weaned myself off Facebook just enough to leave it active, without feeling the urge to look at it. And I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would.
The downside: I do hate to think about missing friends’ major life events and news, and in between all the clutter, Facebook really is the place where people announce the important highlights of their lives. (My youngest was a Facebook baby. A friend of a friend posted the news of her birth before I could!) But mostly, now I’m blissfully not spending time weeding through inspirational quotes and “LOLs” and third-party videos and plenty of other things that don’t interest me. What I’m most surprised about, though, is how much news I’ve missed—I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to depend on Facebook for what’s “trending:” major headlines, juicy celebrity gossip, and news analyses. But I don’t mind being a little bit out of it (or checking Twitter more frequently now, ha) while some of the things in my world I’d been neglecting during time I spent on Facebook, or talking about what I saw/liked/didn’t like on Facebook, shift back into focus.
Having to take a Facebook break—and announcing it, and assuming people care—is slightly embarrassing. (I did question whether I was being a little too dramatic. Um, attention vampire?!) My friends Erin and Suzanne, who have never joined Facebook, don’t have this problem. In the early days of Facebook, I thought they were crazy. What? But why?! How do you know anything that’s going on? Now, I envy their just-don’t-wanna-deal, who’s-got-the-time coolness. I also admire the restraint of the friends in my feed who rarely log on, when 63 percent of users look at Facebook at least once per day, while 40 percent cop to checking it multiple times a day. The fact that I even had to think about tearing myself away—something that had been in the back of my mind for weeks—was surely a sign I needed a breather.
How long will I stay away from the conversation? I could be at the beginning or nearing the end—I haven’t really put an exact expiration date on this little hiatus.
But I already feel freer, almost as if I’d spent every day this past week at the beach, blueberry picking, or slip-sliding under sunny skies.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014
Joe DeProspero has two sons and a wife, and he is complimentary birth control for anyone who sits near him in a restaurant. His writing has been described as “outrageous,” “painfully real,” and “downright humiliating.” Author of the dark comedy fiction novel “The Boy in the Wrinkled Shirt,” Joe is also writing a parenting humor book. He will be posting twice monthly and his previous posts can be found here. He currently lives in New Jersey and can be found on Facebook and on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.
“When I was a kid…”
The very phrase evokes an eye roll before the sentence is even completed. It’s undeniably preachy, and above all else, it’s what your father said when you were eight and what you promised yourself you’d never say. But we do say it, don’t we?
“When I was a kid, the Internet didn’t even exist!”
“When I was a kid, we could only talk to people on this foreign concept called a land line.”
The list, as they say, goes on. But clearly, as time marches forward, the forthcoming generation simply won’t be able to grasp how much easier they have it now than those who came before them. And if you’re anything like me, you not only want your children to appreciate their current amenities, but you don’t want them to get so engulfed in those amenities that they lose appreciation for the natural highs in life that have existed far longer than Wi-Fi.
My father hosted a party last weekend for the family. The weather was impossibly perfect, especially for swimming. I was marveling at my 5-year-old’s rapidly expanding ability to hold his breath underwater for increased periods of time. After the pool, my brother-in-law and I sanctioned a wiffle ball game for our 5 and 6-year-old sons, while our younger children held hands and babbled incoherently to each other, skipping mindlessly through the grass. We played with towels wrapped around our waists, intermittently taking a timeout for a bite of whatever was coming off the grill. As the sun began to set, a cake was brought out with candles lit to commemorate the birthdays of me and my sister. With the buttercream still stuffed into their cheeks, all four of the children grabbed empty tomato sauce jars and began gleefully hustling around the backyard, in hopes of capturing the highest number of fireflies. And it was at this moment when I saw my nephew poking holes in the lid — so his illuminating prisoner could breathe — that I realized something important…
No one was on their phones.
I’ll be the first to admit that I often feel an unhealthy, obsessive connection with my iPhone. After all, it has a great deal to offer. It helps me connect instantly with practically anyone I know. It contains a calculator, a camera, a flashlight, a compass, maps, games, music, email, and of course, access to an Internet that has the answer to practically any question I could conceivably ask. But it can’t stand behind you to help adjust your swing. No kid ever pleaded with his mother to let him swim in an online swimming pool. And I’m pretty sure catching virtual fireflies would be pretty boring. In other words, I won’t pretend that smartphones and tablets aren’t a part of my children’s landscape, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t put them in situations where they could thrive, or merely eat a burger without having to post a selfie of him eating said burger on Instagram.
So, here’s hoping that when my children (and all of our children) are in their 30s and 40s and beyond, that they aren’t reminiscing about how many likes their Facebook post got, but instead sharing memories marked with human connection, social interaction, and time spent with arms wrapped around the ones they love.
Perhaps I’m falling right into the “when I was a kid” trap I vowed I wouldn’t. Or perhaps I’m subconsciously trying to have my sons experience childhood the same way I did. Maybe it’s both. But regardless, I feel that it’s every parent’s duty to “referee” their child’s relationship with technology. At a certain point, it will be out of our hands, of course. But if we don’t show our children the beauty of the natural world, can we trust an iPhone app to do it for us?
Thanks for reading, and feel free to join the conversation below or tweet me here.
Image: Family playing on green grass in spring park via Shutterstock.com
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