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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Digital Lives of Teens: Turning "Do As I Say" into "Do As I Do"

The old saying "Do as I say, not as I do" could not apply more to adults when dealing with kids and technology. Modeling is so important, and when it comes to digital life, adults set the bar pretty low for their kids.

Do As I Say

In a Time Magazine article titled "Parents are Digital Hypocrites," Ruth Davis Konigsberg writes: "As recent research shows, nothing determines a child’s media use more than the media use of his or her parents."

And parents are struggling to balance the demands of work with being present and available -- device-free -- at home. Whether it's at the breakfast or dinner table, or in front of the TV while watching a family movie, being on one device at a time is challenging enough for adults, who are also modeling for kids. I know in my own home, my wife and I struggle with this, and our kids are the first to call us on it when we are checking our phones during a family movie. "Remember, one device at a time!" my youngest child will freely call out.

Konigsberg quotes Northwestern University researcher Vicky Rideout: "It's the parents who determine the environment and set an example. The parents are the primary drivers of children’s media use."

The irony is that, while parents have a difficult time unplugging in front of their kids, these same parents are at a loss as to how to guide their children in living a healthy digital life, given the breakneck speed with which kids migrate to new digital spaces.

Ruby Karp, a 13-year-old, writes a refreshingly honest perspective on Mashable: "Part of the reason Facebook is losing my generation's attention is the fact that there are other networks now [. . .] Now, when we are old enough to get Facebook, we don't want it. By the time we could have Facebooks, we were already obsessed with Instagram."

Facebook's fight for teens' attention has been going on for some time. But then along comes SnapChat or Ask.fm, on top of Instagram or another new network. For parents, it can be exhausting to keep up with the explosion of digital spaces.

Harvard researcher Catherine Steiner-Adair highlights the challenges for parents in a recent Salon article: "Parents feel hard-pressed to get up to speed in new ways as gatekeepers, screen monitors, tech support and cyberlife referees, in addition to the just plain human side of parenting."

Do As I Do

Managing digital life as adults and then figuring out how to handle digital life with kids is a big challenge, but it's not insurmountable. What can parents do to handle digital dualism – managing their own use and their child's use?

  • Pull the plug. The first and most obvious, albeit difficult, step can be to shut it all down and take a break. Summer and holidays are great times for adults and kids to try this. If you have some time off, take time off from devices.
  • Park the device. The minute you walk in the door, coming home from work, park your devices. This is your living space. Leave the devices parked until your kids are asleep. Be fully present for the evening.
  • On the weekends, take a digital break. Leave your phone at home while you go out for a hike, a walk, or a movie. You won't miss the phone for two or three hours.
  • Create designated digital time as a family. It might be on the weekends or in the evenings, but it's for a set period of time -- as little as 15 minutes or as much as an hour. That way, everyone gets it out of their system together, and then at the end of the time period, the devices turn off.
  • Make something together. Create a kooky, silly film or a photo collage after a family adventure. Turn the conversation to creation instead of consumption.
  • Acknowledge the difficulty of turning off devices. In some ways, coming clean for everyone brings a sense of relief. It's OK for parents to admit to their kids that, given the ease and availability of technology, it's hard to pull away.

The most important thing to remember is that your kids are always watching what you do. You might not think they're looking at how often you're on a device, but they know -- and if you ask your kids, they will be brutally honest with you.

A good goal for the school year for parents is to try turning the phrase "Do as I say, not as I do" into "Do as I do."

What strategies do you have for modeling technology use for kids?

The Digital Lives of Teens: Part 2 (Fall 2013)
More about the impact of social media and instant data access on teen life

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