Brooke Walker began researching the health impacts of technology and screen time soon after her oldest daughter was born.
Eleven years later, technology has only become more prevalent in her family’s life, as it has for everyone living in today’s digital world.
Walker’s research on the dangers presented by smartphones and social media use among today’s youth has continued, and after recent discussions with other parents she sought out a way to expand that conversation in this community.
“We know this is a pressing issue, especially for our oldest,” said Walker, who has three children — ages 11, 7 and 4 — with her husband Jim. “We deeply understand the potential implications involved with kids and technology use, including mental health and depression, addiction, distractions, child predators, etc., and want to be as prepared and educated as possible.”
Many parents feel overwhelmed by the constant struggle of making sure their children are using technology in a safe and responsible manner, said Chris McKenna, founder and CEO of the organization Protect Young Eyes, which aims to help families, schools and churches create safer digital environments by providing resources, research and other tools.
The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, McKenna said, as virtual learning and digital environments have become an even larger part of the lives of youth.
“(Screens) are just more prevalent in the lives of kids today, if that was even possible, because of COVID,” McKenna said. “I think parents, the ones that I talk to, feel that pinch.”
Protect Young Eyes works to demystify complicated topics by breaking information down into bite-sized portions for all age groups.
“Chris and his organization provide practical tools to help us navigate technology for our children if and when we choose to introduce certain aspects of it,” Walker said.
She partnered with another family at Frederica Academy to contact McKenna and ask him to share his message with students and parents in Glynn County.
McKenna met with students and parents at Frederica Academy on St. Simons Island and St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Brunswick during a recent trip to the Golden Isles.
“He covered a lot of ground, from smartphones to Gabb phones, YouTube landmines, Instagram and Snapchat pros and cons and how to handle, TikTok child predators, plus pornography that is prevalent in all of these online spaces for unwitting children to bump into,” Walker said. “I think the idea of partnering with your children to devise a plan together to build trust so they come to you when things are questionable is important. Additionally, we are aiming to use technology in a positive, healthy way.”
McKenna’s presentations to students aim to convey the realities that these technologies can be manipulative and may not add much productive value to their lives. He also offers tools for how to handle challenging situations youth may face.
And with parents, he encourages as much delay in first social media use and smartphone ownership as possible. But for many, he said, that ship has sailed.
“If that’s true then we want to build what we call digital trust,” he said.
Protect Young Eyes created and promotes a framework around forming digital trust between parents and their children. The framework features five attributes of families whose children use technology well.
The five areas are “copy me,” “co-play,” “curiosity,” “conversation” and “coaching.”
“Copy me” focuses on modeling healthy use of technology. “Co-play” is about making technology use a group activity.
“Curiosity,” McKenna said, is about understanding youth’s experiences with technology, rather than necessarily condemning their behaviors.
“Kids don’t need anymore condemnation, so do we have an attitude of curiosity or condemnation with kids and tech?” he said. “And when we look at the balance, are our conversations mostly shame and punishment and what we hate about tech or are they curious and open and honest and understanding — because if they’re all negative, then what are the chances that when something horrible happens online that your son or daughter is going to come trust you?”
“Conversation” focuses on having open, honest discussions about technology. And “coaching,” rather than controlling, means playing an active role in helping youth rather than laying down rules and making the situation feel like “us versus them,” McKenna said.
“So those five things shape the parent conversation to say, delay as long as possible, we’re all about a delay — right kid, right tech, right time,” he said. “But when the ship sails or if the ship has already sailed, here are our attributes of families who tend to have kids who use technology in a God-honoring, positive way.”
While McKenna’s organization may not have the perfect answer to all concerns, he said that no matter what they encourage keeping the conversation open between parents and children.
“Whatever concerns you have, tell your kids these concerns,” he said.
The constant availability and presence of technology, for all ages, does not replace the human need for in-person connection. And it’s hard to downplay the effects that social media and other digital environments can have on mental health.
“What we’re also finding, whether you’re 14 or 40, is that even though we’ve had all this technology during the pandemic, we’re still lonely,” McKenna said. “… What it’s showing us is that it’s really just a short term surrogate, but it cannot replace the meaningfulness of in-person, physical relationships. It can’t. It is not a meaningful way to be in a meaningful relationship with other human beings.”
It’s challenging to be a parent in the digital age, McKenna said. But it’s even harder to be a child today.
“Through a lens of empathy, I think we have to constantly remember that we would not want to be a 13-year-old today,” he said. “And that, I think, maybe motivates us to suck it up and to do some of the hard work. But lean on organizations that are doing some of that hard work for them. That’s really what we want to do.”
McKenna said he hopes to continue having small group meetings with local parents to keep this conversation going and make these resources available.
“We want our visit to be the beginning of a conversation, not a one time presentation because that doesn’t help,” he said.
Walker also hopes to continue this important discussion and make resources available to parents and students in Glynn County.
“We are exploring ways to provide continuing education as technology rapidly evolves,” she said. “We want to create a venue for parents to get together regularly to discuss their concerns and questions. Chris has agreed to partner with us in this effort.”