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Put the Tools to Work: Parents Teaching Parents

Last week, I wrote that the ultimate goal of Born Digital and the Digital Natives Project is to facilitate better conversations between students and the adults who care about them. This is true. But what if the conversations are not forthcoming? What can adults then do to inform themselves; to better fortify the safety of the Digital Natives in their lives?

The answer is simple: put the tools to work. Talk to each other.

Tripping through links this week, I encountered a 2007 article about schoolyard harassment moving online. The article was good, but the comments were the real highlight of the article. Parents used the article’s comment section as an ad-hoc forum, sharing strategies and revealing concerns. One parent outlined her own efforts, writing:

I am a mom and a middle school teacher. I struggle at home to teach my own boys to be kind and also try to be a role model for my kids at school. Personal responsibility is a difficult thing to teach. It’s a constant struggle, but one that will be well worth it in the long run. I am always looking for new information to take to school and will definitely be ordering some new books before the start of the new school year!

The reasoning is clear; the intentions are boundlessly good. I particularly admired this parent’s resolution to “order some new books before the start of the school year,” since parenting Digital Natives is a challenge to be approached like any other: through investigation, contemplation, and conversation. Another parent drew parallels between cyberbullying and more familiar bullying scenarios, writing that:

My daughter, now 29, was the victim of bullying behavior and it still brings tears to her eyes when we discuss this issue. She was very small in early elementary and that’s when the bullying started by a girl from an emotionally abusive home. This is not a new issue, but tremendously facilitated by technology. Parents MUST be educated about the effect of cyberbullying, and must monitor use. We hope to start programs on Internet Safety at our PTO’s this year.

Her observation that “this is not a new issue, but tremendously facilitated by technology” is one of the core arguments of Born Digital: the problems aren’t new, they’ve just accelerated. The intention to “start programs on Internet Safety at our PTOs this year” reveals the beginnings of more persistent conversations among parents about the challenges facing Digital Natives. Though these programs will prove to be echo chambers without some sense from the Digital Natives themselves on “what’s really going on,” parents can only bolster their knowledge and arsenal of strategies by sharing information with one another. This can occur in forums, in comment threads, on email lists, or even in “real life,” in forums such as PTOs.

There’s another advantage to all of this. When parents and educators use digital tools to communicate about something deeply salient to all of them—the safety of the young people in their lives—something happens in the background. They learn about the tools themselves, almost without trying. This is the world that Digital Natives live in: the tools are secondary to the message. The tools are what you use to have the conversation. When you have a reason to use a message board, or a commenting system, all of a sudden these tools aren’t impenetrable intergenerational obstacles. They’re just simple, elegant, lightning-fast ways to share information. Whether that information is about cyberbullying or Hannah Montana, media literacy or Club Penguin, doesn’t matter so much in the end. What matters is that, by sharing it, you all of a sudden know more than you ever did before.

What tools do you use? What forums do you learn from? We would love to hear about your strategies in the comments!

And, a quick and exciting reminder: next week, on September 23 and 24, Harvard Law School will be hosting just such an information-sharing forum: the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) Open Meeting. We hope to meet many of you there, and look forward to continuing the conversation!