Playgrounds are often the highlight of the day for a young child. A playground offers the opportunity to play, try new things, meet new people, and escape the routine, for just a little while. Young kids enter playgrounds differently. Some enter with trepidation and find the one thing they are willing to play with—the swing, the sandbox, the slide. Others take off as soon as they are out of their car seat, running with delight as they decide where to go first.
As parents, one of the reasons we used to take our young children to the playground was because we knew that the playground had rules, some written and some dictated by social etiquette. The playground was the place where many social lessons were learned. Youngsters needed to learn how to coexist in a shared place with strangers. As the adults, we helped our children manage this playground coexistence. We taught them patience and safety when waiting for the swings, how to notice if others were waiting, and when it was appropriate to share. We taught them to wait their turn for the slide while helping them be sure that they did, in fact, get their turn. We helped them understand that other kids may not want to share their sand toys, even though they shared theirs. We showed them how to advocate for themselves as well as to apologize when they made a mistake. Ultimately, we helped them navigate the nuance of this shared community filled with both strangers and potential friends.
While jungle gyms, slides, and swings may no longer be part of your routine, your children are engaging and participating in another playground today—the digital playground, and in this new playground, teenagers are the new toddlers. Some approach it with caution and others with fervor. As we did when they were younger, adults need to help their children navigate this digital playground. Just as we did with the playground of old, we need to know the rules, both stated and implied, before we allow our children to jump in. We need to make sure teenagers are safe and taking care of themselves while exploring and learning. We need to help them navigate the nuances of this shared community filled with both strangers and potential friends.
The challenge as loving adults is that the digital playground is not as visible to us, and kids can enter the playground without our knowledge. Here are some tips and resources to help your teenage “toddler” have a successful playground experience.
Tip #1: Learn the Playground
When we took our child to the playground, we excitedly placed them on the swings. Since we had a history of swings and used them ourselves as children, we inherently understood the risks and pitfalls due to our firsthand experiences. We anticipated what could happen, provided salient advice, started slowly, and paid close attention. Now imagine you have never seen a swing before. You may not be willing to place your child on a pendulum with no seatbelt or back support, and only metal chains to hang onto with the goal of launching it through the air in order to fall to earth at a speed of 32 ft. per second; so too with the digital playground. You must know what your teenager is playing on and with. Resources like Common Sense Media provide a guide to help you understand the digital playground. It stays on top of current trends and apps (the “toys” of this new playground) and can help you be an informed parent for your teen.
Tip #2: Learn the Rules: Written and Implied
Unfortunately, the rules of the digital playground are not as obvious as the posted rules at the park. Each app that your teenager downloads or account they create have terms and conditions that they agree to, usually without even reading, let alone understanding. The minimum age to open an account on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Kik, and Snapchat is 13. For Vine, Tinder, and Yik Yak it's 17. YouTube requires account holders to be 18, but a 13-year-old can sign up with a parent's permission. These rules exist so the companies that run these sites and apps can comply with COPPA, a federal law designed to protect children’s privacy online. (Schools and libraries that provide internet access are additionally bound by another federal law, CIPA, regarding what content children can access.) According to The Social Age Study by knowthenet.org.uk, approximately 59% of children have already used a social network by the time they are 10. Additionally, within the apps, there are ways to limit their exposure to content or have their posts viewed. However, do not be fooled, anything that is put online is permanent and public. There are also laws that govern how we can interact online. As an adult, it is important that you know the state and federal laws regarding online harassment and bullying. As the legal guardians of minor children, we can be held responsible for the actions our teens undertake online. In addition to your knowing the rules, as adults we need to share this information with our teens, so they know the rules and understand that the rules will be enforced through your supervision.
Tip #3: Supervise the Playground
While I have not been to every park or playground, from my experience, the first rule is— Children Must Be Supervised at All Times. You would never have dropped off your 3-year-old at the playground unsupervised while you went grocery shopping; this would have been irresponsible. Similarly, you should not simply allow your children to roam the digital playground without supervision and trust or hope that they will not get into trouble or get hurt. So what does it mean to supervise the digital playground? One recommendation from technology experts is to follow or “friend” all accounts your teenager has. This forces you, as the parent, to be part of your child’s social networks, thus providing you firsthand experience on the playground toys, just as when you first put your child on a swing. The second part of this advice is that it is not enough to simply play on the toy once, you must check on the social network, and in particular your child, on a regular basis daily, or at least several times a week.
Another recommendation from experts is to have teens turn their phones in to you at night. This house rule does two things; one, it helps teens have some screen free time prior to going to bed, which improves their sleep cycles. Two, it allows you to look at their pictures, texts, contacts, and apps. Many adults ask if this is a violation of privacy and the experts say no. If your child is under the age of 18, and thus legally a minor, as their guardian, you are legally entitled to all of their personal information, from medical and school records, to access to their cell phones and computers. Your teen is learning how to interact online and, as a minor, it is the parent’s responsibility to monitor their behavior, just like when they were little and playing in the sandbox.
Tip #4: Find and Use Teachable Moments
Your child, or someone else’s, will make a mistake while playing in the playground. It happened when they were younger; someone cut lines, didn’t share, pushed, threw sand, or a variety of other infractions. In the physical playground, we removed our child from the situation and took the action needed based on the situation. Sometimes a simple apology was enough. Other times, we left the playground altogether. This is no different online. Remember, we are helping students navigate social interactions without the availability of biofeedback. When someone cut in line, it was clear what happened, which made the processing of the situation much easier. You could explain that it was rude and help them to develop empathy by having them understand how it feels to be cut in line; that is why they should not do that to someone else. Online, this is not always as straightforward and can involve comments from everyone else at the playground. Helping students distinguish between behavior that is rude or mean and the impact it has on others is critical. Also, monitoring their accounts will help you to identify when rude or mean behavior has moved into cyber-bullying. For a great explanation of the difference between rude, mean, or bullying behavior, I highly recommend this article by Signe Whitson.
The digital playground, like a physical playground, can inspire and excite our children. They can learn to take amazing photos, write inspiring blogs, understand new cultures, and be part of social movements in a way that is unprecedented. The goal is not necessarily to eliminate the playground, but to know your family’s values, and your teenager, so everyone can have a wonderful time playing together.
We are excited to announce that we will be partnering with BPA and Sandia Prep to host a screening of the film, Screenagers–Growing up in the Digital Age on October 27 at 6:00 p.m. with light refreshments at 5:30 p.m. in Budagher Hall. Screenagers “probes the vulnerable corners of family life, including the director's life, and depicts messy struggles over social media, video games, academics, and internet addiction. Through surprising insights from authors and brain scientists, solutions emerge on how we can empower kids to best navigate the digital world.” After the movie, there will be a panel of experts—including representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, Internet Crimes Against Children Office, an IT Security Specialist, our Director of Diversity, Scott Melton, and two students—who will discuss digital citizenship and answer your questions. We hope to see you there.