Dismayed at the next generation’s relationship to the digital world? Janell Burley Hofmann recently enlightened a room full of parents and caregivers at the West Tisbury library about raising healthy, savvy “generation tech” kids today. The Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force has engaged Hofmann, who lives on Cape Cod, to collaborate with them on the Island. She speaks from experience, having five kids of her own, ages 11 to 19.
Hofmann started with her “no nostalgia” clause: The tech and digital world is simply part of their lives, and there is no undoing it. “It can be kept in check in a healthy way, but there is no life without screens for any real length of time,” Hofmann said. Even if the latest technology isn’t available in our own homes, it exists at schools, friends’ houses, and libraries. The point is to have open and consistent conversations, rules, and boundaries surrounding use of technology, and Hofmann said she believes in including children in defining those boundaries.
“It’s the relationship you develop with your child that is the thing that matters most,” Hofmann stressed. “The comfort and trust that’s built around talking about those things. We as the leaders of our families don’t surrender our hard-earned wisdom just because our kids may seem really sophisticated with technology. They are still beginners at life. Nothing will be more important in the digital world or away from the screens than you and your role. Nothing replaces that human relationship, the consistent, trusted, ‘askable’ adult who helps take care of them.”
Key to tech parenting is integrating it into the family’s current mission and values. It’s parenting the screens with the same expectations you would away from the screens. Hofmann advises that before having conversations about at what age to give a kid a smartphone, access to an Instagram account, or how much time is OK to spend online, “we take a giant step back and think about the foundations of our families. What’s important to us? What character traits do I want to develop in my kids?”
“Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know what to do, I imagine my children as adults; how do I want them to be in the world?” Hofmann asked. She said respect is one of her family’s values: respect for others, self-respect, respect for property, and respect for being a citizen, and her family’s digital rules reflect this.
“What do we want to protect?” Hofmann asked. “For me, I have had five kids in eight years, so we’re protecting sleep. We have a tech curfew at the end of our day. You might want to protect play, imagination, or exercise, so set up boundaries around them.”
Another major point Hofmann shared is to build conversations around the age and development of your children. “The way we talk to a 4-year-old is different than when we talk to an 8-year-old, 12-year-old, 16-year-old, and so forth. But it’s an ongoing conversation that grows and changes with our kids and with the technology. Just like with sex education, it’s not the one-time ‘the talk.’ It’s something we come back to and meet the needs of the child, based on the circumstances and age and child development.”
Hofmann said she says yes to social media around middle school, so that’s when she begins that conversation. She begins by co-using an account because, as she says, “It’s my job to teach them how to use social media. From there we go to the people she can ‘friend’ and ‘follow,’ such as her aunties and the girls in the neighborhood she’s known since she was a toddler, before I just let her go to 500 followers to every kid that ever attended her school, or she played soccer against. That’s too much. We want to scaffold her up to that, because I want to set her up for success.”
One very specific tool Hofmann talked about is a tech agreement that is based on and has boundaries built on each family’s values. “The strategy I used with my middle school daughter was I had her author the i-rules she thought were fair, and I authored some, and we came together with those. What she came up with was really fair and reasonable,” Hofmann said. She acknowledged that some rules required flexibility on her part. Her daughter may be occupied with soccer until 8:30 pm, and she still has to shower and do other things before her 9 pm tech curfew, so those days she’ll only have a few extra minutes online. There may need to be room for negotiation.
In addition to her sage experienced advice, Hofmann shared two primary resources for our own digital literacy, including Common Sense Media, which is her first stop before she says yes to something, and Connect Safely. By the end of the night, Hofmann left everyone both with a lot to think about, and a sense of adventure in trying out what they learned.