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Balancing Online Safety and Self-Regulation

Friday, May 4, 2018

For the most part there probably are only two types of parents right now: those who already are worrying about their kids’ online lives and those who will be. Technology is creating positive innovation, intellectual collaboration, and personal connectivity, too, and adults are as captivated as kids. Yet much of what is engaging our children can be opaque to us, even as we see technology becoming a hub for an increasing number of our kids’ lives. And how we’re going to manage this intense engagement is not totally clear!

For adolescents the apps and games often are how they socialize and relate to peers and the world. We observe and wonder about the balance of ‘direct vs. device’ social interaction they experience, and we fear the impact of exposure to the worst of humanity within a click, not to mention the reckless courage and perceived immunity of anonymous and indirect communication, and the vulnerabilities of developing brains. There is a lot that can and should raise concern. And it’s no wonder that fear, loss of focus, depression, anxiety, exclusion, fear of exclusion or fitting in are becoming prominent ailments among children. Meantime, students seemingly can not breathe without thinking about their phones — and they fully realize that neither can most adults!

So who’s going to be responsible for children’s safety, and how?

Led by parents Dori Acevedo-Gonzales, Jane Hanson, and BPA Chair Amy Heist, Burgundy parents this year have provided themselves a forum for exchanging ideas and knowledge on parenting in a digital age. This parent-to-parent connecting, many of us are realizing, must be a vital piece of the collaboration needed to establish effective parenting around technology. The final meeting of this school year, where attendees will plan next steps, is coming up next week.

For its part, the school recognizes that we not only will have to provide ongoing education for digital citizenship for students but also share lessons and intelligence with parents. To be clear, that education and sharing both must be mutual: school to children and school to parents but also parents to school, and students to school. A valuable part of what the school also can provide is "no judgment zone" opportunities for parents (and sometimes students) to rapport with the school on the latest trends and worries and, perhaps more important, to consider what sorts of shared values and limits (for lack of a better work) we may consider between home, school, or community. I hope that two parent coffees we offered in the past two weeks for 5th-8th grade parents provided some of that “no judgment” sharing.

The key operating goals of any parent-school collaboration around technology, in my estimation, are three: one, teach students how to use technology to support their learning; two, help them learn to use technology safely, both academically and socially, and as good citizens (not merely digital); and three, keep one another informed. That’s the sharing piece.

Why is sharing so important? Because children are learning and growing and testing all kinds of boundaries, and they will not always make good decisions about how they use technology. We must supervise tech use at school.  Although we care deeply about our students’ lives away from school, we can’t officiate there. Parents will need the schools’ and (most of all) one another’s help. And kids will find ways to refuse or dodge schools’ and parents’ efforts to keep them safe, because ... well, that is what kids are wired to do.

We must balance the concerns we share and the desire to control our children’s phone and online lives with their needs to develop autonomy. The growing sense among colleges and employers is that one of the most valuable but underdeveloped skills, and indeed a best predictor of success, is self-regulation. Independence, practice making decisions, and evaluating risk all are important parts of learning self-regulation and developing competence and confidence. Over-sheltered children struggle to make their own decisions and manage themselves when they’re sent off to college. Our school policy of ‘away during the day’ is the most common phone policy among peer schools (and we are ramping up enforcement). But we must maintain an environment where children can make mistakes and grow from them, including mistakes with technology. If we educate our students and ourselves in a timely way, sharing information and trying to keep mutually engaged and alert to the latest ‘stuff,’ we can support one another.

The other morning as I began to speak to Middle School students, I explained we are in uncharted waters and learning how to navigate them as we go. What I did not say is that the waters are changing all the time! Because that is so true, we adults better be in this together, communicating openly, bravely, directly among ourselves, as well as with our kids.