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Our kids are growing up in public
An interview with Devorah Heitner, PhD
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13 min read
Hi there, sapiens! We’ve got a very special post today. We’re talking to Devorah Heitner, author of two excellent books all about parenting and technology: Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in their Digital World, and a new book, Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World, which comes out tomorrow (September 12).
Devorah has her PhD in Media/Technology and Society from Northwestern University, is the parent of a teenager, and writes an excellent newsletter right here on Substack called Mentoring Kids in a Connected World with Devorah Heitner.
In this conversation, we cover a range of interesting topics—from the pressure for kids to create a “personal brand,” to whether to post pictures of our kids on social media, to the changing culture around mental health. So, as you can imagine, it was (in technical terms) my jam.
I hope you find it as fascinating as I did! And for more on helping kids navigate privacy, identity, and life online, check out Growing Up in Public.
I'm so excited to have a chance to chat with you today, Devorah. I read your first book [Screenwise] when it came out in 2016, and I just remember being so impressed by it, and how you were able to accurately capture the research and also offer parents practical and realistic guidance, which I don’t think we always see out there. So, I was excited when I learned you were working on this new book, Growing Up in Public—and now after reading it, I can confirm it exceeds expectations again.
What inspired you to write this book? What made you want to tackle this topic?
When I would speak about my first book Screenwise, especially in school communities, a lot of parents would be like “Okay, I feel a little bit better about screen time, but what about this reputation stuff? What about my kid’s ‘digital footprint’? What am I going to do about every dumb thing they say or think being so searchable?” And a lot of parents would say “I’m glad that every dumb idea I ever had, every thought that crossed my brain, every hairdo I tried, isn’t just in the public record, forever, and searchable under my name. How am I supposed to help my kids with that?”
Then, as I started diving into that question, I realized there was this question that parents weren’t asking, which is, “How am I surveilling my own kids?” We’re saying kids are too scrutinized or too surveilled by their peers and by colleges, but parents aren’t necessarily even aware of the way they’ve also been both exposing their kids through their own sharing, and also surveilling them, through school apps and location-tracking apps.
So, the big picture is: our kids are really surveilled, but are they seen? Are they known? Are they understood? How can we see and understand them, and support them? How can we help them see and understand themselves as opposed to seeing themselves from the outside in—whether that’s Instagram or Naviance.
Definitely, it’s so interesting. It’s a whole new world in terms of the things that our kids need to know how to do and how we can support them as parents.
So, when I was reading Growing Up in Public, I’m pretty sure I highlighted about three-quarters of the book…but I do want to dig into a few of the points that stood out to me.
First, I want to talk about a statement that you made that, for me, really encapsulated some of the take home message of the book:
“We need to build in more respect for kids’ privacy, help them focus on grappling with their identities away from the public eye, and allow them to be comfortable with complexity in their reputations. After all, they are not brands, they are our children, and they are human beings.”
Could you say a little bit more about that?
I really dislike the whole “personal brand” approach to talking about reputation. It’s very reductive and problematic. I’m very frustrated when someone tells your kid, or my kid, or anyone that they should have a “personal brand,” or that they should try to have consistent messaging. It’s like, well, I’m a human being. What if I’m really into D&D [Dungeons & Dragons], but I’m also a jock, and I’m really into being on the tennis team. I shouldn’t have to choose—I should be able to be all these things. And I think it’s very reductive to try to force kids into these categories, or try to keep them on message.
How do you think that comes up for kids? What kind of messages are they getting that are telling them they need to be that way?
I think the reputation messages in school are especially around things like college admissions, and in general, a lot of existing digital citizenship teaching focuses on these cautionary tales, like someone who shared the wrong thing and blew up their life.
I think we should be presenting the world with less peril. We should also be working toward a world where there legitimately is less peril–something like the EU’s Right to be Forgotten [Editor’s note: law allowing individuals to request organizations (including search engines) delete their data].
I think we do want our kids to be accountable. We don't want them to cause harm with what they post. So, I'm not suggesting that kids should just have a free pass to post whatever, including things that are harmful, but I do think that trying to threaten young people about their future in ways that are just so developmentally inappropriate is not helpful. It's not good education.
You also talk a lot in the book about parents' own digital behavior, which I love. I think it is so important and often gets overlooked in these conversations about kids’ online lives. You talk about how parents should think about “sharenting” or posting about kids online, and also about how they can think about tracking their kids or monitoring them digitally.
Could you say more about how you think about parents’ own digital behavior? What should parents be keeping in mind?
Parents’ digital behavior is very influential on kids. I think it’s one of the reasons parents sometimes have such a perilous vision of what’s going on online, because their own experience has been so hard for their mental health. So, sometimes it's really just empathy—if I find social media stressful, I worry that my kid will find it that much more stressful, especially because we know that teenagers are wired to care much more about their peers and what other people think.
The flip side is that parents can be very unaware of their own dependence on their phones. I mean, you just wrote about this recently—we're all just so, so into it, and it's very hard to literally see past the screen. I certainly have moments of very mindless behavior with my own tech.
I think teenagers are in a really good place to call that out and just observe: my mom can't stop scrolling, so why should I put my device away? I think kids are very aware of when it becomes a bit hypocritical. Another example would be when we post on social media and make the family look great. The kids know, they were there on that vacation, and they remember that we were fighting the whole time, and then it rained, and then they see Mom or Dad, posting this one “perfect moment” picture, and they recognize that it is a performance.
It’s good insight to recognize that every good thing on social media is a performance, but I still think that’s actually a message we should give them more explicitly.
Do you have any rules of thumb for parents around sharing and thinking about what they should or should not post?
I think we need to err on the side of asking kids, or if in doubt, don’t share it out.
It's worth constantly keeping in mind: How will my child feel about this at the stage of their development when they're the most self-conscious? What will it do to our relationship? And if I have any doubt that it could harm our relationship, that it could harm their trust in me, that it could make them feel more inhibited at home, or be teased by classmates, then don’t share it.
We have to recognize the threshold is lower than we think it could be. I'm not talking about an underwear picture or something like that, which most people recognize would be crossing a line or embarrassing for their child. I'm talking about something like a picture of your fourth grader in his Star Wars PJ’s. Maybe he’ll get teased, or his “street credit” will be undermined by that. If I don’t take and post a picture of that, he’ll be fine to wear them for another year or two, but if I expose that on Facebook to all my friends who are the parents of his friends, that's not cool, right?
I know. I think so many parents are aware of the obvious examples of oversharing of our kids, but there are so many things that we wouldn’t even think about that could end up being problematic, or even just, as you said, make them feel more inhibited at home.
Home should be a safe place to be 9 years old and wear your Star Wars PJs—and if your friends come to sleep over, maybe you switch to your other ones. By 8 or 9, you’re already thinking about how you self-present, and you probably self-present differently at school than you do at home, even in third and fourth grade, let alone middle or high school.
And that's a really important piece of this: respecting these different contexts and respecting that you have a shared context. It’s likely that as a parent, some of your friends are connected to your child in some way, and you want to give your child space to have their own narrative.
And what about for kids whose public identity shifts? With trans kids, for example, this past online record becomes very tricky to navigate, because you might have dead names, or you might have other images or videos that feel problematic.
Or another issue with sharing online about our kids is body image. We might think we would never put pressure on our kids related to body image, and most of us would do anything to prevent them from having challenges in that area, and yet just having a ton of pictures posted online of your body at a certain age isn't great for some kids.
It's so interesting because I think so many parents, myself included, are very aware of the privacy issues around sharing—I think a lot about whether I want my child's face shown online publicly, and those kinds of things. But we think less about some of these aspects of sharing which, in some cases, may actually be more immediately harmful for them.
Okay, so another thing I want to ask you about is the section of the book where you talk about “rules of engagement.” These are the invisible rules for how kids are supposed to engage with each other on social media, and you call them “a kind of complex social labor that can be exhausting and produce anxiety for many kids.” What are some of those rules that you learned about, and how can parents help kids manage them?
There's definitely a sense that you have to be responsive and available and “like” people's photos. But also, if you like too many photos, or you go back too far back, that's creepy. Kids seem to really assimilate and know the rules.
The rules are also different in different cases and in different communities. I actually wrote about this in The New York Times. Kids were talking about bragging, like what’s okay to share about a vacation—and that’s going to vary depending on your community and what the norms are. Kids are very sensitive even about sharing where they got into college. I think some of that is really positive because they’re thinking about one another’s feelings. They’re very mindful about something like, “Oh, my best friend also applied early to Amherst, so I’m not going to say I got in early until I check with her.” I think they’re actually more aware sometimes of who can see a post than adults.
Of course, sometimes they forget the audience—I think kids sometimes are surprised by, “Oh, I forgot that grandma could see that. Maybe that wasn’t a great thing to post and for grandma to see.”
But more often, I think kids are actually really aware of who’s following them. That’s why they’ll go to a “spam” account [Editor’s note: a secondary, private account] or another social account to have a smaller following and be in touch with a small group that is not their big, main list. I really encourage parents to see that as a positive privacy hack and not a negative secret. A lot of parents worry that these secondary accounts mean “my kid is on drugs.” It might not mean that! It might just mean your kid recognizes that their goofy humor is going to work better with their three besties than with the world, right?
Definitely. Some of those behaviors that may seem secretive, I think, can actually be very adaptive in terms of recognizing the social context of what is appropriate and not appropriate.
In terms of other “rules of engagement,” it's hard for kids to set boundaries about when they're available, even to be in the group chat or on social media, especially for tweens and younger teens. I think parents can be more involved in helping kids have language to set the boundaries, and even volunteering themselves, for example, “Well, you can always use me. You can say ‘my parents make me unplug at 9’ or ‘my parents say I can’t be on Roblox until this time.’”
As kids get older, they'll need to set their own boundaries, and they won't want to use adults as an excuse, but letting your kids know they can always use you as an excuse is really useful up through at least seventh grade. You need an excuse, because if you have a device that is with you at all times, everyone knows you can always see the text that comes through. You need something to say for why you’re not responding right away because “I didn’t feel like it” is not okay.
Right, you need to have an excuse ready!
So, we are just about out of time, but what did I not ask you about that I should have?
Well, you and I talked about whether kids should disclose about their mental health on social media [Editor’s note: Devorah and I spoke about my research when she was writing the book, so I’m quoted in it a few times]. I was really grateful to have that conversation with you, because I see a lot of kids doing this.
Since the pandemic, we've just, in some ways, normalized a conversation about mental health—around kids taking mental health days from school, or using supports like therapy and medication. I know many kids are still very private about these things, and that's their right. I would never say that you must disclose. I think it's a very personal decision, and there is still very real stigma. But I was ultimately inspired by the stories, and the posts I saw, where it seems like young people are changing the culture and making connections. I understand why that makes parents nervous, but I think we also have to recognize that our kids are on the front lines of something.
Definitely. I think kids are growing up in a in a different world than many of their parents did, especially in terms of the mental health conversation, and I think there's so much good in that in terms of reducing stigma, feeling less alone, connecting with others who may be struggling in the same ways that they are—especially since the pandemic. Having those opportunities is so important. And at the same time, there are obviously some challenges that come up with this.
Yes, I think self-diagnosing from the Internet is an issue, and there’s a lot of bad information out there that’s adjacent to good information. Just like you might see diet culture content adjacent to fitness content, you see a lot of problematic mental health advice that's adjacent to some pretty good advice. For sure, I would say any kid who needs mental health support should ideally be getting that in-person, or maybe one-to-one from a qualified provider online, not just from TikTok, because that's a one way street, right? That's not someone who knows your kid. That's not a collaborative relationship.
It’s important that kids get access to professional support, but the fact that kids might learn that they need access to that, or that therapy even exists, from a Discord community, I think, is ultimately a good thing.
I totally agree.
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