How to Keep Kids From Being Mean Online

EdSurge Podcast

How to Keep Kids From Being Mean Online

By Sydney Johnson     Jan 8, 2019

How to Keep Kids From Being Mean Online

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

There are endless distractions for kids these days—from games to music and social media. Some are serious and hurtful, too, like bullying. And all of this is amplified online.

Ana Homayoun, an author, speaker and school consultant, works with teenagers on organization, time management and overall wellness. And as technology platforms have accelerated over the years, her job has increasingly involved keeping up with the ways young people use social media, and advising parents, teachers and even tech companies about what they need to know.

Homayoun’s latest book is about what she’s learned over the years on this topic, and it’s called “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.”

EdSurge sat down with her to learn more about what’s happening in this space, and how parents and educators can make sense of the digital and social media world that’s happening all around us.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen. The highlights below have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity (the best experience is the audio, so subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast wherever you listen).

EdSurge: Tell us a little bit about your background, and what got you into this work.

Homayoun: My office is located in the heart the Silicon Valley, and I grew up in Los Altos, California. I started working with teens in 2001 on organization and time management, and when they first came into my office, they would tell me their biggest distractions were food, sleep, their pets, and daydreaming, and about a decade ago, that really shifted.

At the same time, I had written two books, “That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week,” all about helping disorganized and distracted boys, and then “Myth of The Perfect Girl,” about the culture of perfectionism. The research for those two books led me to understand that, one, students are being distracted in different ways than ever before and, two, we were having the wrong conversations with kids around technology and social media use.

I realized that a lot of adults didn’t understand the language of social media, so I spent about five years doing research that came up with a book, “Social Media Wellness,” because I knew it was really important.

My own background is really unusual because I actually grew up in the Silicon Valley. Most people that do this work didn’t grow up around computers the way I did. My mom got a Ph.D in computer science in the early ’80s, and so I really have been around computers and technology all of my life. I knew that, for many adults, when you don’t understand the language of technology and social media, it creates a barrier from talking with kids about things that they need to know.

A recent report from Common Sense Media showed that the percentage of teens with smartphones in the U.S. went from 41 percent in 2012 to 89 percent in 2018. What is the significance of that for students and teenagers today?

It’s really become ubiquitous. Particularly in certain communities that I visit, many teenagers have smartphones. In the last year, I’ve been to 35 different cities, visiting schools and talking to parents and educators and students around social media use, and what I find more and more is that there’s a default that kids have 24/7 access to the smartphone. The shift that I think [needs to happen] is that parents really need to actively create daily and weekly digital detox times for their kids, because even if they have a smartphone, that doesn’t mean they should have 24/7 access to everything. There’s information overload.

You worked with Instagram around creating parent guidelines. Can tell us a little bit about that process and working with the company?

When “Social Media Wellness” came out [in 2017], I was hoping to do an event with somebody in the social media world. Instagram was incredibly gracious, and one of the members on the policy team did an event with me at Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, got to know my work and then the company’s policy team read the book. They reached out to me in the spring and said, “We’re doing a parent guide because we think it’s really important that parents understand how to use Instagram safely.”

What I helped with was [coming up with] the parent discussion questions because what I found is, oftentimes, parents want to talk to their kids about social media, but they don’t know where to start. They often start by, “I don’t understand why you’re using this app so much.”

My focus is really on helping parents start from a place of positivity and curiosity. “So, why are you using this app? What do you like about it?” And then having kids narrate what they enjoy about using different social media apps and having them also identify what’s energizing for them and what’s draining for them online and in real life, because my work is all about helping parents help kids start to make good choices online and in real life.

What are some of the most common questions that you get from schools?

There are different buckets of questions. One is around socialization: How do we keep kids from being mean online? The term “bullying” is often used, but I like to think that what happens online is more intertwined into our real-life experiences than we’ve been led to believe.

I say that because in the first wave of social-media education, schools often would say, “Well, that didn’t happen on school grounds, so we can’t do anything about it.” Now, more and more schools are saying, “No, we have a policy. If you want to be part of this community, there are standards that you have to follow to create an environment of inclusivity and belonging.”.

The second is distraction. So much of my work for the last 17 years has been around executive functioning. I was working on issues around organization, time management, and long-term planning long before executive functioning became a term. Now for many students, the tool that they need to use in order to complete their work is also their biggest distraction from getting work done. So schools really want to talk with me about building curriculum that gets kids’ buy-in to manage their distractions. A lot of my work has been getting kids to be motivated to compartmentalize their time, to manage their distractions.

And then finally, I think one of the things is safety: social, emotional and physical safety of students when you’re bringing technology into the classroom, Again, you’re bringing apps into the classroom for learning’s sake, but you may not know [what’s happening in] the background, especially as so many different apps change over time so quickly.

How has social media education changed over the years?

A lot of things have shifted over the years. The first generation of social media education really focused on fear, like, “Don’t do this ’cause you won’t get into college,” or, “You won’t get that job.” That did scare kids into not doing some things, but it also scared them to going underground.

Now what we find is that a lot of the education is really focused on digital citizenship and being a good digital citizen. What I think we actually need to create is an opportunity to get students’ buy-in by motivating through the idea that they have autonomy, that they have choices in how they spend their time online, that they are competent, and that we know that they can make good choices. We have high expectations of them and when students feel a sense of belong and inclusivity within their school community, they are less likely to do things that deviate or create a negative outcome. So part of social media education is really around socialization. It’s not just about, “What do you do online?” It’s about the fact that what you do online and in real life are intertwined in ways we haven’t told you before, and that you need to understand that you can make choices about opting in or out to things, and filtering things in and out.

I’ll give you an example. I believe it was in South Carolina where a student took a photo of another student on the toilet and then shared it on social media, and that student is being charged in family court. Parents and educators can use this as a conversation starter around not only, “What would you do if you saw that online,” but also the idea of sending, sharing storing photos, and being a positive member of your community. How do you stop these things from going further? What do you do to provide a sense of belonging and inclusivity within your community so those things are less likely to happen?

How should teachers or parents navigate monitoring students’ social media use while still honoring a sense of privacy and giving a bit of space and freedom?

It’s one of the top questions I get asked at schools. A lot of times, parents don’t fully realize the incremental use that we should be giving kids. So, you don’t just give a smartphone to a 5th grader and give them 24/7 access. I often encourage [parents to] get [their kids] a flip phone first, give it to them at certain times and take it away the rest of the time. But before you give them any sort of phone, have a conversation about how you have full access to everything. When you come from a framework of, “I can casually pick up your phone at any time,” it creates a filter for kids. It also allows kids to say to their friends, who might be sending them inappropriate things, “Hey, my mom and dad monitor this.” They need to shift the blame, especially at a time when their relationships and socialization is so important to them.

And then as they get older, you should always have, even when your child is a senior in high school, a sealed envelope with their passwords in it as a rule of access to their phone. Because in case something happens, you want to make sure that you have the access to their phone if needed.

One of the things to think about is how can we encourage kids to use healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall safety as a framework of thinking about how they can make behavioral changes—whether or not we’re watching—to create a more positive community online and in real life.

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