Common Sense Education encourages educators across the country to talk with their students about the perils and possibilities of being online. But before you delve into the discussion, it’s important to shed any misconceptions you may have about what’s going on in kids’ digital lives.
Here are the top five common myths about kids’ experiences with technology and social media that I’ve encountered while researching these issues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and working with Common Sense Education.
Kids are addicted to technology. This is probably the most pervasive misconception that I’ve heard during my conversations with adults. Yes, it is true that nearly a quarter of teens go online “almost constantly,” according to the latest research from the Pew Research Center. But it’s not the technology that teens are addicted to — it’s their friends. Their use of technology, especially mobile phones, allows them to easily connect with peers and receive validation for who they are and who they are trying to become, which is developmentally and socially normative behavior.
Technology out of sight is out of mind. Encouraging students to take a break from technology is vital, but forcibly removing kids’ devices — whether at home or in the classroom — may not be the best approach. Kids regard their devices as lifelines to their friends. Taking away that connection can cause more harm than good. For example, if they haven’t been able to communicate with friends to let them know their device has been taken away, they may fear that their friends will think they’re ignoring them. This can exacerbate their anxiety and stress, which may leave them less able to focus on whatever prompted you to take away the device in the first place.
Cyberbullying is the biggest digital challenge kids face. Cyberbullying is a serious issue, and I don’t mean to diminish it. But there are nuances to this issue that we need to understand. For example, receiving mean texts is different than having someone hack your account and humiliate you in front of a wide internet audience.
Focusing only on cyberbullying can draw attention away from other issues that teens may need help with, like being pressured to share passwords (or naked selfies!) or receiving hundreds of texts a day from a boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend. Most teens, especially those in the throes of their first romantic relationships, are trying to determine what “normal" communication looks and feels like. If we talk only about cyberbullying at the expense of these more subtle issues, we might miss the opportunity to provide our students much-needed support and guidance.
Technology is just fun and games. If you’re an ISTE member, I’m betting you don’t believe this particular myth. But many adults – especially parents – do. It’s essential to help parents and other educators understand that not all technology and screen time is created equal and that technology can enhance learning when used safely, responsibly, and with the right content and pedagogy.
I can’t teach about something I’m not an expert on. We’ve all heard that kids are the “digital natives” and adults are the “digital immigrants.” In fact, our students often do know more about the technologies and tools than we do. So embrace it. Ask your students to teach you and demonstrate that you’re willing to learn from them. Then maybe they’ll be more willing to listen to your advice about navigating difficult online terrain.
So go ahead and #HaveTheTalk with your students. Look beyond the devices and consider why your students are doing what they’re doing with technology. Use digital citizenship resources from Common Sense Education to open the door for ongoing dialogue with your students.
Emily Weinstein is a Common Sense Education consultant and advanced doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
This is an updated version of a post that originally published on Oct. 22, 2015.