Can Kids Grow Up If They’re Constantly Tracked and Monitored?

Students these days can feel like they’re constantly trailed by a kind of digital-era paparazzi. Parents and friends post their images on Instagram and Snapchat. Learning management systems send alerts to parents about missed assignments and grades. And GPS systems in smartphones and watches let families pinpoint their locations at all times.

And that can make it hard for students to get used to solving their own problems and learning from the small failures that are meant to happen in school, says Devorah Heitner, an author who advises schools on social media issues.

She’s talked to hundreds of kids, parents and educators at schools across the country about the pros and cons of this changing media and tech landscape. And those conversations inform her latest book, “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.”

“I’m really a techno optimist, I would say, so I’m not here saying this is all terrible for kids,” she says. “On the other hand, kids have had very stressful experiences with things like remote school or social media at times. And so I wanted to capture the full breadth of the mixed experience of growing up online, which is neither sort of net positive or net negative for a lot of kids, but kind of mixed.”

EdSurge connected with Heitner to talk about what she’s learned and what advice she gives educators at all levels, from elementary school through college.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript, edited for clarity, below.

EdSurge: You argue that kids today live in a very different media and tech landscape than any of their teachers or parents grew up with. You compare the level of privacy now that kids have today to what a child celebrity had a generation ago. And that didn’t go well for many child celebrities.

Devorah Heitner: Well, kids are much more searchable. People outside of their own immediate family — their own community — know about them because parents are sharing about them on social media. And then add facial recognition and other things to that, and it’s a lot of data that’s out there about our kids.

You point out that some well-intentioned tools can have unintended consequences for kids, even online gradebooks that notify parents of grades and missed assignments. How do you mean?

My son’s high school is obsessed with getting us to check Canvas, which is [the learning management system] they use, and it’s where all the assignments are. So it’s more than an online grading portal.

I’m not here to say LMSes are only bad, but I think turning off the access to the grading portion some of the time, which Challenge Success recommends out of Stanford and other people have recommended for mental health reasons. Kids shouldn’t be able to check their grades in the middle of the night. Kids shouldn’t be able to during the school day, if you’re sitting in one class and you can get your grades in another class.

I just saw a really interesting tweet from a young person in college [complaining about being] at a party and an exam grade comes in. And I just think nobody ever really thought about that with online grading. Maybe you should just be at AP U.S. History and not be getting your calculus grade right now. And I frankly think maybe you should just be at the party on Saturday night and not be getting your grade going now just because your professor entered the grade on Saturday night, maybe that’s not the ideal time for you to get your grade.

So you worry that it’s constantly emphasizing where you stand in the point system?

Yes, and it leads parents to feel like they’re supposed to monitor kids, which allows kids to kind of outsource their executive function to their nagging parents. And frankly, I’m an anxious parent myself of a new ninth grader who has a tremendous hill to climb as all new high school students do, of learning how to be in nine classes and taking charge of extracurriculars and just a lot of complexity. And no one ever said starting high school was easy. In fact, famously we know starting middle school and starting high school are big transitions for almost all students. Even strong students will often struggle. And we know that in the wake of this pandemic, a lot of kids are having various school-related struggles around things like executive function, but outsourcing it to parents doesn’t set them up for success.

The role of a parent should not be to sort of hound a kid about every single quiz, every single homework assignment, every project, because it turns parents into the police at an age in adolescence when kids should be developmentally separating more, figuring this stuff out for themselves, experiencing some of the consequences of more, like, as I would say, minor failures — not graduating from high school level failure, which in our society is probably too dangerous to allow.

We’ve all heard complaints about helicopter parents who are too involved, but it seems like tools today take this to a whole new level. How would you describe it?

Yeah, I think parents can be reading the group texts. They can be very involved in their kids’ social lives in a way that may or may not be healthy for their own mental health. Do you really want to relive middle school? It was bad enough when you went, probably.

So I think it’s really tough because parents have so much access to tracking our kids’ location, seeing their grades all the time, reading their texts potentially. And then it becomes a question of, ‘Is that what a good parent does?’ ‘Do I need to know everything about where my kid is and who they’re talking to all the time?’

And I recognize that there are real dangers, or your kid could be on Discord or social media and meet someone really problematic. So I get that worry. But at the same time, I really lean into … telling parents that we should mentor more than we monitor. And part of mentoring could be working with your middle schooler who has a new phone user about who they’re allowed to be in contact with or deciding what apps are a Yes or a No. It’s not just handing over the phone and saying, ‘Good luck.’ But it’s also not just putting an app on the phone to track them and kind of hoping that that will do the parenting for us. Mentoring is actually teaching our kids how to communicate.

How do you email the teacher? How do you deal with a friend in a group text when things are tense? How do you deal with maybe getting out of a group text where it’s become toxic or inappropriate, or someone is asking you for an inappropriate picture or making a really cruel joke, or saying something racist or homophobic on social media? What do you do? What to do if your friend puts you on YouTube and didn’t ask for permission first? There’s so many situations that our kids need help dealing with things, and so many parents I think throw up our hands, say, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this, good luck.’

We kind of over-worry and we want to use software to monitor them, but we don’t try just talking to them. And part of the challenge is that [when we were kids,] we got a lot of information from listening to our parents on the phone, a lot of information about how to communicate with empathy and set boundaries and deal with conflict. And our kids are watching us thumb out our lives and we’re not doing enough to talk them through some of the common communication dilemmas that are likely to come up.

So I think modeling is incredibly important, and schools can be places where kids learn about how to write an appropriate email, or what to do if you have to check in with a teacher. We need to mentor kids more on communication. Kids are kind of deer in the headlights sometimes when they get a phone call offering them an internship or a job. They don’t always know how to deal with those communications.

Listen to the full interview on the EdSurge Podcast.

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