How to parent in a digital world

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Self-awareness: Finding yourself online

The Dalai Lama Centre identifies one of the key competencies as “the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety.”

While it might seem like it should be easier to recognize and manage one’s own emotions online — where our social media profiles hold up a virtual mirror to our emotional states — in practice the Internet often serves to trigger difficult emotions.

Teaching kids how to manage these triggers, and even deepen their emotional resources online, is part of today’s social and emotional work.

That includes teaching kids how to get past FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), even when they see their friends posting about parties or experiences they aren’t part of. It also means teaching kids how to resist the tendency to disconnect from our bodies online, in ways that can produce anxiety.

Happily, an ever-growing range of websites, games and apps offer resources for learning and practicing emotional regulation and mindfulness, so we need to teach our kids how to use technology as an ally in supporting their own mental health. Last but not least, we need to teach them when and how to unplug!

 Self-management: Staying calm online

According to CASEL, self-management encompasses “managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.”

While the online world often feels like it’s specifically designed to circumvent impulse control by placing every conceivable temptation just one click away, digital tools can also support executive function with an every-growing range of task and time management tools.

But choosing the right to-do list app isn’t the key challenge here: our work as parents and educators is to help kids learn how to build the muscles of self-control and focus when they are online.

That means teaching kids how to choose what and when to share, by mastering the impulse to snap, tweet or share every moment. Since the online world often feels like it’s perfectly engineered to maximize distraction, kids need to learn how to bring the same qualities of intention and attention that we recruit during our best moments offline.

And since our online lives offer an endless set of choices between junk and substance, kids need to develop conscious awareness of where they spend their time and attention online.

Foundational skills: Technical literacies for social and emotional growth

In addition to the digital literacies that help kids translate core social and emotional competencies into the online world, kids and adults require some fundamental skills — skills that will shape their ability to develop the online emotional competencies described above.

From tech troubleshooting to (basic) coding, kids will only grow into empowered digital citizens if they can manage their own applications, accounts and devices. That means teaching kids the technical skills that will provide them with the ability to manipulate their digital environments, keep themselves and their information secure, and ensure they can confidently acquire new technical skills when they need to.
Where to start

Helping kids develop the social and emotional skills to thrive online — as well as the foundational digital skills that will allow them to grow into effective Internet users — is now an essential part of our work as parents and educators. But it’s not easy work, because we’re the first generation that’s had to do it.

Much of the work involved in preparing kids for adulthood is work that was modelled for us by our own parents, educators and adult role models.

Learning to participate in an offline conversation; to offer empathy to someone who’s crying; to control our urge to snatch that marshmallow off the table: these are all skills that build on generations of experience and knowledge. We know what to expect of our kids because it’s the same thing that was expected of us.

But our children are going to live in a world that we can only begin to see. While we have moved to a partially digital world, we migrated from a strong base of interpersonal experiences and traditions.

Our kids are growing up in that digital world, and for many of them, the offline world is no more real or natural than the digital spaces in which they spend more and more of their waking hours.

We have the opportunity to help them live meaningful lives in those online spaces, but only if we equip them with the skills and capacities that we alone — as the last pre-digital generation — are able to recognize.

That’s now part of our core responsibility to the next generation…and you can begin that work today by picking just one skill that you and your child are going to work on together.

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