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To Monitor or Mentor: A Review of Screenwise by Devorah Heitner

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Screenwise: Helping Kids Survive (and Thrive) in Their Digital World, by Devorah Heitner. This new book, officially out today, explores the intersection of childhood, parenting and all these devices that we are all carrying around all the time. As someone who is fairly lax about screen time with my two kids and who was successfully cajoled into buying a brand new top of the line smartphone for my then 11-year-old, I was prepared to learn that I am spoiling/ruining/neglecting my kids with our liberal family device policies. Happily, that is not the case. Heitner comes down very much on the side of making tech work for us – whatever our family philosophies about the digital world our kids (want to) inhabit.

Early in the book, Heitner notes that while virtually all parents struggle with balancing our individual family values with pressure from our kids to keep up with and purchase the latest and greatest technology, the reality is that most of us are somewhere in the middle. There are almost always parents who are more permissive, and there are almost always parents who are less permissive. The goal that this book helps us achieve – through stories from actual teens and tweens (Heitner talks about interviewing kids starting in about 5th grade) and through suggested questions that parents can work through themselves and with their kids in each chapter – is to find the balance that works for us as a family, and to help frame those conversations about different rules and values non-judgmentally with our kids.

Heitner herself has no agenda other than helping parents think about their choices and the ramifications. Thus, she has crafted a book that speaks to screen-liberal me, and also more tech-conservative parents. This Mayim Bialik post talks about how the book helped her feel more secure with her choice not to allow her kids smartphones and her concern going into the book that she would feel like she was being a fuddy duddy – the inverse of my personal concerns. Heitner manages to thread the needle of giving good helpful information without judgement for the extremes, as well as in the middle. She encourages thoughtfulness and awareness of why other families might make different choices without suggesting that there is a right or wrong way to navigate.

Actually, Heitner does have an agenda – advocating strongly for digital mentorship with emerging platforms like Together rather than tight control or total free-ranging. This sounds a bit like taking the moderate middle ground, but really, mentoring is a freestanding position of its own and the cornerstone of the book. While Heitner doesn’t completely reject the utility of key-word monitoring and content blockers for the youngest users, she makes an excellent case for the need to actually experience our kids’ digital world with them and to learn ourselves how they want to use these tools, rather than making assumptions based on our personal experiences and fear-mongering about the digital world. It is only by talking with our kids about the apps they use and why they use them that we can help them navigate this world effectively and (gradually) maturely. Along the way, she also encourages us to think about our own use of technology in order to create mindful family policies, not just laying down rules for our kids.

Heitner encourages parents to think about the digital world as experienced by our teens through analog comparisons that will be familiar to a lot of Gen-X parents. She also explains something I’ve thought for a while -that just because this technology is different from what we grew up with doesn’t make it bad, and sometimes not really that different. Take group texting, which, Heitner explains, essentially the modern version of three-way calling when I was a teen. A lot of the pitfalls are the same, principally, the ability to use the multi-user functionality to enforce exclusion. When we were kids, it manifested as the classic of getting two people on the phone without the others’ knowledge and then having a negative conversation about one of the participants. Now the same thing can be accomplished via group text call-outs or bcc-ing the excluded party on an email. Teens haven’t changed so much as the mechanisms through which they act like teenagers have evolved and now come with a permanent digital trail and a higher chance for escalation. The high stakes of cyberbullying are something that Heitner weaves throughout the book, tying it to her discussions of mentorship and the conversations we should be having continually with our kids about their lives on- and offline about digital citizenship.  She also reminds parents to remember that our kids might sometimes be the perpetrators of negative activity, not just the victims, and to keep an open mind.

Overall, Heitner talks about a full range of topics applicable to almost every family one way or another. She spends a lot of time discussing school 1:1 policies and their impact on school and home life, something which I know parents in my kids’ district are highly concerned about. Her advice about integrating these devices which are sometimes thrust into families which would prefer not to have them is solid, even if you are not in a district with an iPad in every backpack. She also covers digital ownership and how to effectively use digital assets in school projects while being respectful of copyright in a user friendly manner.

The only thing that I feel Heitner really missed was a more nuanced acknowledgement of the actual laws regarding internet use by kids under 18 (to be fair, this may just be my lawyer-side talking). She does note the 13 year age floor on a lot of social media sites, such as Facebook, but it reads as if that is something imposed by the provider based on their assessment of the service itself. In actuality, this is a floor imposed by US federal law – the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires parental permission for sites to collect personal information from kids under age 12. The effect on end users is the same – kids under 12 are violating user policies if they sign up for these services, with or without parental permission – but depending on a family’s values, this distinction could be an important one, even just as a footnote to the larger discussion.

Overall, though, this book is a fabulous distillation of the dilemmas facing current parents of teens and tweens when it comes to the ever-present digital and social media. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants another tool for discussing these issues with their kids and help and guidance mentoring them into their digital adulthood.  

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Brad Flickinger.

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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