Social Media: OMG! Do Parents Get It?

From tablets and iPhones to Twitter and Instagram, technology is changing the way children interact with the world. Host Michel Martin talks with a roundtable of parents about encouraging digital exploration, while keeping kids safe.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. We want to continue the conversation about children and technology that we've been having on the program this week. It's our miniseries we call Social Me. Now we want to talk about how parents can find their way in this new world.

Now, parents finding it hard to communicate with their children is as old as time itself, but this may be the first generation of parents who have to overcome a digital divide with their kids, and at a time when more kids text their friends than call them, many parents are still struggling to master the technology that their kids use every day. So today we're asking, how do you let your kids explore and learn from digital media while protecting them from some real world concerns?

Joining us to talk about this are Lynn Schofield Clark. She's the author of the new book "The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age." She's also a mom of two. Angelica Perez-Litwin is a blogger, clinical psychologist and mom of four. Christopher John Farley is the senior editor of the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog and he's the dad of two.

Welcome to you all and welcome back to some of you. Thank you for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY: Thanks for having me.

LYNN SCHOFIELD CLARK: Thanks for having me.

ANGELICA PEREZ-LITWIN: Thank you.

CLARK: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Professor Clark, your book is fascinating because it's one of those books that parents will pick up and go thank you, I was just thinking about this myself, I didn't know what to do. And you say, you know, I have no interest in contributing to the already healthy amount of anxiety that parents have about technologies. Well, thank you for that. But are there some common dilemmas that people constantly present you with?

CLARK: Yes. Actually, there are, first of all, common worries among parents, and I'm sure that we could all recite them. There are concerns about how young people might encounter people who may want to cause them danger, predators online. There are concerns about cyber-bullies, concerns about young people running into inappropriate content, like porn. And then more practical concerns like how do you help your teen to understand that it's important to not text while driving.

I think that one of the key things that has happened is that because, as you said, Michel, parents are less familiar with the technology than their children are in many cases. We've seen this kind of merging of trends between this fear about technology or concern about what technology might mean in the lives of young people and this intersecting with the trend toward helicopter parenting. And so I think that's a real concern that's happening, because I think basically what parents feel is this need to strike a balance between allowing young people to have increasing independence as they get older and a desire to help guide our young people through those key moments as they're growing up.

MARTIN: Well, I'm going to ask you to hold that thought for a minute because one of the things that I learned from your book, which I also found fascinating, is that parents have very different strategies for addressing this, which may be one reason why they're so anxious, because there is not a common set of norms about this. So hold that thought. I'm going to turn to some of our other guests.

Angelica Perez-Litwin, you have said that technology has actually been really great for your relationship, particularly with your oldest, who's in college. Talk a little bit about that.

PEREZ-LITWIN: Oh, absolutely. As a parent, communication is key for me between myself and my children, and I remember when my oldest daughter started high school, she would send me text messages, although of course they're not supposed to use the phone in school, and she would say, Mom, what do you think about this? This just happened. And it was just such a wonderful way to be connected to her. I knew she was - she needed me at that moment to just either send her a quick, you know, note to her, a thought, and we would continue that conversation when we she would come home. So I always say texting has been amazing for our relationship and we continue to do that now that she's in college.

MARTIN: Presumably, though, not while she's driving.

PEREZ-LITWIN: No. Not while she's driving.

MARTIN: Christopher John Farley, one of the things that you talked to us about was the fact that your 10-year-old recently spent a play date creating a website and his own comic book company, and I'm sure you were very proud, but I'm sure that also opened up some interesting questions for you too. So why don't you talk about that?

FARLEY: Yeah. It is interesting, the power of technology sort of on display like that. You know, my son is 10 years old now. This happened when he was nine. He invited a friend over for a play date and they were there for a couple of hours working on the computer, and by the time they were done, they'd set up their own computer company. They had found a site that allows you to set up your own Web page and all they needed was my credit card. And by the end of that play date they had pictures up. They had a story of their company and had even put a sign up outside my office, renaming it the Carnage Comics headquarters, so I'd been kicked out of my own office.

MARTIN: Did you let them do it? Did you let them - did you give them the credit card and let them go on the website and do all that, set it all up?

FARLEY: I did, because it's something that I do monitor. I do check to see what pictures they're putting up, how it's going. I don't think like he's sold anything yet. I don't know if they're allowed to sell anything, but they certainly have put up some interesting pictures and they're having fun with it and I think it's good to see kids having that kind of entrepreneurial spirit and using technology to sort of launch something that's interesting and different and it connect to the their interest. And I was actually shock to see that they were able to put it together so quickly and so effectively.

MARTIN: Is there anything you're worried about, Christopher?

FARLEY: I am worried in that because they have their own website they were then able to generate their own email address, because the website has an email address associated with it. And my son quickly used that to set up his own Instagram account, something he knows he's not allowed to do because I didn't want the kids on Instagram, partly because of their terms of service. I still, you know, need to assess what that means in terms of your ownership over the photos you put up there and the image you put up there. They seem to have sort of a moving target on what that's about, and I wanted to make sure that he was in control of whatever he put out there. And so he used to the email address to set up an Instagram account and it turns out a lot of kids in his class and at his school have their own Instagram accounts and they're communicating all the time and showing each other photos and this whole sort of world going on out there that I'm not certain a lot of parents are closely monitoring.

MARTIN: Hmm. Lynn Schofield Clark, what about that?

CLARK: Yeah, I think that's really interesting. And Christopher, when you were talking about your 10-year-old creating a website and comic book, it reminded me of one of my own stories, that I'm a mother of a 14-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, and my 14-year-old is also very interested in entrepreneurial opportunities. He's trying to raise some money so that he can buy a backpack for himself. We live in Colorado and so he really loves the outdoors and so he'd been looking around at websites to try to find a way to make money. And he considers himself a pretty good writer so he found this website called Fiverr, which enables you to kind of sell your wares for five dollars and if you can do something, you advertise it on the site and then other people will hire you to do whatever it is that you say you're going to do for five dollars. So he said that he would write reviews about games and he wrote a review and submitted it, and the person then wrote back to him and said, well, this isn't quite up to speed so I'm not going to give you the five dollars.

And so he came and reported it to me. He said, well, you know, I don't know why they didn't want to give me the five dollars, but now I have to write another review. And so that kind of got me curious, like what is this site? And I realized that I was finding myself in this position that I found in a lot of parents that I had interviewed for my book "The Parent App," which was that my first instinct was to say, to have this feeling of shock and sort of shame like oh, my god, how can I be a parent and not know about this site that's online? But, of course, I mean parents can never know everything that's available online. And I think that's one of the things that we all have to figure out how to deal with, is that sense of fear that we have.

And I think one of the things that I found, both in my research with parents that are effectively dealing with these kinds of issues, and that also something that I'd apply to my own family setting, is that I think it's important for us to see ourselves as parents as learners along with our young people. And so I think that what we did in our family then was we kind of had a conversation, said, well, show us what Fiverr is, let's look at this website, let's look at what, you know, who is selling what. And I should say that before I even got to that point, I had said to my son, well, I hope you to rewrite this review so that you can get your five dollars. So I spent an hour, you know, helping him edit the review.

(LAUGHTER)

CLARK: And so part of our conversation was to then say, OK, so now, you know, between the two of us we've invested enough time so that we're getting about a dollar an hour for our work...

MARTIN: I know. You should go out there and mow the lawn.

CLARK: Maybe...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean you could...

CLARK: Yeah. Exactly. It became kind of a...

MARTIN: ...pick. Take in boarders.

CLARK: Right. Yeah. So it became kind of a good lesson, I think, in helping him to think about how to make decisions about where it's appropriate to spend your time. And then we also were able to look at what else people were doing online and to just kind of help and to think about, OK, is this a reasonable way to spend your time or are there other ways that you might, you know, do things. And so now he's now investigated some other opportunities. And, yes, mowing the lawn has come up higher on the list as an option since this seems to be not such a great way to earn money.

But I think that what's...

MARTIN: Let me jump in here, Lynn. In our parenting roundtable we're taking on digital dilemmas. And we are joined by the author of "The Parent App," that's Lynn Schofield Clark. That's who was speaking just now, Wall Street Journal Christopher John Farley, and psychologist Angelica Perez-Litwin.

Let me just turn to Angelica again. You, as a psychologist, you see children and teens as well. Do digital dilemmas come up there as well with parents in some of the work that you're doing? Obviously protecting people's, you know, privacy, which is important, but does this come up?

PEREZ-LITWIN: Absolutely. And it's pretty much what we've been discussing already here. Many parents come to me and say, you know, I don't know how to monitor her, I don't want to step on her toes, I don't want to invade her privacy. And it always amazes me, I always ask, well, who pays the Internet fees or, you know, it's your computer. I find that parents have a really hard time letting their children know that they are in control, that they are the parents when it comes to social media and engaging online. And I'm very - I mean, as a parent, I can easily tell my children you continue to text that way, you continue to engage online this way, you will not have a phone. And I can easily take that phone away.

So for some reason parents have sort of given up their rights and their control as parents because they feel that that's her computer. No, it's not her computer. It's your computer. And I try to empower parents to understand that it is their right and it is their responsibility to not necessarily be helicopter parents but really be in control of the situation; understand what their kids are doing, why they're doing it and how they're spending their time online. And that they also have a right to take it away or to, you know, reduce the amount of time that their children are online. So I always see the power issue for the parents coming up.

MARTIN: You know, this is interesting because this actually speaks to something that Professor Clark talked about in a section of the book, along with dilemmas. You noted in your research that there are wide variations, wide cultural differences in how parents...

CLARK: Yes.

MARTIN: ...address and handle the technology with their kids. And you're saying that in some families the families really encourage it to enhance education and kind of a sense of personal empowerment with the kids...

CLARK: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...but other families really believe more strongly in that they should use it to be family-connected, more family focused. Do you want to talk a little bit about that, Professor Clark? Obviously, wrote a whole book about it so you can't tell us the whole story. But tell us, tell us, give us a little bit.

CLARK: Right. How long do you wanted to talk? No, I'm just, no I really wanted to echo what Angelica was saying, that I think there are parents that are very reluctant to be able to take charge and to be able to - because they're so interested in trying to provide their young people with an opportunity to have a childhood, that what I call in my book is full of expressive empowerment.

PEREZ-LITWIN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

CLARK: In other words, they encourage their children to use these media for purposes of education and self development, and so because they're doing that there are a lot of benefits to that, obviously. I mean as your first guest was talking about with the Rey Junco, I'm sure that he'll be talking later in the week about how much educators are now trying to connect with parents. And so I think that can be a really positive thing. But on the other hand, it also encourages families to do certain things that I found in my research that were, that could undermine parental goals, like family solidarity, for instance or would encourage parents to do things more surreptitiously, like involving themselves and using technology to monitor their kids which gives interpret it as spying and so that could become a problem, where it would have been much easier if they had just kind of set some very specific expectations for their young people and the young people would be clear about that.

On the other hand, there are some families that do set very clear expectations and tend to have a different approach to parenting, and I call that in my book an approach of respectful connectedness. And in those families they really want their children to use these media in ways that honor their parents and reinforce family and cultural ties. And I think that that can sound really nice but there also are extreme so that too, so that in some cases parents in those families were - they wanted to comfort their children in the frightening world, but it also could result in authoritarian policies; censorship, for instance, that could stifle exploration. Or even in some extreme cases, ways that parents use technologies to shame their children because they weren't behaving in a way that the parents deemed appropriate. And things like...

MARTIN: Well, we saw some, an example of that - remember there was a story that got a lot of attention where the dad shot up his daughter's laptop...

CLARK: Exactly. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...because - well, she was inappropriate. I think we all would agree on that. And what some people consider censorship - Angelica, I know you'll agree with me - some of us just consider parenting. But that's...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...a cultural difference, as we've discussed. Christopher John Farley, I think one of the things we haven't talked about, I think the elephant in the room is video games, isn't it?

FARLEY: Yeah. Because a lot of video games, of course, have a multiplayer component where kids can play with other kids and maybe adults online - becomes more and more difficult to see who they're interacting with. And something that parents really need to sort of monitor carefully, just to know what their kids are doing online. And that's why I think it's important, you know, in terms of control issues. Obviously, you know, the parents are in control, but I think that exerting yourself in a way that's really aggressive over the kids and sort of shutting them down when they're just trying to explore what's happening online can really stifle their creativity in a way that I think would be negative for those kids. The parents really have to sort of watch that.

I mean - and I find when kids are given a certain amount of freedom to explore and to see what's out there and they can do surprising things like starting their own websites and starting their own companies. And but just some parents to, you know, sit down with them and play the games with them sometimes, sort of know what's on the game and to listen to what they have to say about the game and also network with other parents to see what they think of a game and find out what their take is on it and how their kids are also interacting with that game as well. All those things can really sort of help to inform the parents and help them make the right decisions with their kids about social media and video games.

MARTIN: You know, it occurs to me that in a way we're almost like we're all immigrants here in a way because, you know, the traditional story where the kids translate for the parents in a way, that in this generation we're sort of digital immigrants where the kids are kind of translating the digital world, you know, for the parents who are visiting this world, but the kids live there, right?

CLARK: Michel...

MARTIN: So before, we have one more, we have time for one more thought. I think I'm going to give the last word to Professor Clark, so...

CLARK: Well, thank you. I'm going to try to just kind of wrap up some of the things that both Angelica and Christopher had said because I think they have so much wisdom in what they're talking about. I think that as a whole we probably are all trying to communicate similar things, and the importance about making parenting something that is both warm and has high expectations for our young people, and thinking about technology policies in relation to those goals that we have is parenting. And secondly, really what I want to bring out is the importance of modeling the behavior that we want. And I think that's something that Christopher had talked about in relation to trying to encourage our parents to play games with young people and to be involved with them. You know, and in my interviews with young people I heard young people talk about the frustrations they had, for instance, with fathers who checked their mobile phones while they were texting. Or about mothers who uploaded photos of their children to Facebook pages without asking permission. And so those kinds of things we want to watch as parents, that we model the behavior that we want to see with our children.

MARTIN: OK.

CLARK: And then finally...

MARTIN: We have to leave it there. We have...

CLARK: Let children take the lead. So...

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. I have to take the lead here because we are out of time.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And I hope we'll hear more from all of you in the future. Obviously, this is a conversation that's going to continue.

Lynn Schofield Clark is author of the new book "The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age." She's associate professor of media and journalism at the University of Denver and a mom of two. She was with us from Colorado Public Radio. Also with us, Angelica Perez-Litwin, a clinical psychologist and mom of four and a blogger. She was with us from member station WFUV in the Bronx. And Christopher John Farley is the senior editor of The Wall Street Journal Speakeasy blog. A dad of two, and he was with us from our NPR bureau in New York. Thank you all so much. To be continued.

CLARK: Thank you.

FARLEY: Thank you.

PEREZ-LITWIN: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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