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Character over Consequences, Mentoring over Monitoring: Dr. Devorah Heitner Highlights Best Practices for Raising Kids in the Social Media Age
By Dylan Howlett

A week before she drove herself to college, alone and untethered in the world for the first time, Dr. Devorah Heitner saw in her father’s eyes a flash of terror. What other physiological reaction is there, really, when you’re sending your 17-year-old kid off into an ocean of unknowns, and without the protection of proximity that living at home provides? Her dad needed more assurances. He jumped in the passenger’s seat of the 20-year-old Plymouth that Heitner’s grandfather had bequeathed to her. She slid behind the wheel. Let’s drive, her father said. Let’s drive to college. And so they did, wending their way up Route 7 from Stamford, Connecticut, to Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the old Plymouth rumbling along roads suburban and rural. Four hours later, Heitner and her father reached a campus amid a thicket of maple and walnut trees. Then they turned around, and they drove home.

From her current home in Chicago, Heitner laughed as she recounted this story March 20 via Zoom to an audience of 50 family members, caregivers, faculty members and staff at Durham Academy. The crowd had assembled in Horton Hall as part of the latest installment of the “Family Matters” speaker series, which featured Heitner at the behest of the DA community. In DA’s June 2023 family survey, 60% of DA parents and caregivers identified social media and screen time as the most pressing area in which they wanted additional support. Few experts are better equipped to speak to the issue than Heitner, whose latest book, Growing Up In Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World, examines the toll of perpetual connectedness on children. “I really think that there’s so much value in parents connecting on this topic,” Heitner said as part of her introductory remarks. “It’s a topic where it’s really easy to be isolated.”

 

 

The evening at Horton Hall was a salve for that very feeling. After Heitner spoke for 45 minutes and answered questions for about 15 minutes afterward, she departed as attendees broke into small groups and discussed questions related to phone usage, and screen time, and the anxieties of shepherding children through an era of profound digital intensity. One parent asked Heitner how it was possible to know, for certain, that their child was exercising sound judgment across their social media platforms. That prompted Heitner to recall how baffled she was when her dad asked that she drive six hours to and from college, only to do it again seven days later. “Now that I’m a parent, I completely understand,” Heitner said. “He really wanted to see that I could do it.”

That is, Heitner emphasized throughout her discussion, the key to a more nuanced approach to social media and phone usage. A child’s choices on digital platforms represent an opportunity for conversations around compassion, integrity and trust, all of which require the occasional test drive to find out where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Read below for more highlights from Heitner’s presentation — the entirety of which you can watch above — in service of helping families raise children, preteens and teens in a time of omnipresent screens.

Eager to continue the conversation about Growing Up In Public? DA families can register now for a Family Matters Book Club event to discuss the book in greater detail. RSVP today!

Middle School & Upper School Parent/Caregiver Book Club
Monday, April 22, 8:20 a.m.
Founders Room in the Middle School Gateway Center

Preschool & Lower School Parent/Caregiver Book Club
Monday, April 29, 8:20 a.m.
Preschool Great Room

 

Character over Consequences, Mentoring over Monitoring

Much of the messaging around social media usage, Heitner said, is backward. The most looming threat for any teenager — lobbed at them by parents, teachers and administrators — is the risk of posting something untoward on social media that disqualifies them from attending their dream college. Heitner worked in admissions at Northwestern University when she was a graduate student. She says this is patently untrue. “We’re not doing an NSA-style deep drive on students,” she said.

But the backwardness comes more in the approach rather than the outcome. When parents say an ill-advised post might jeopardize a college acceptance, they’re implicitly telling their children, Don’t get caught. The imperative, Heitner said, should be more selfless: Don’t cause harm.

Empowering kids to make more prudent decisions on social media requires parents to resist the most 21st century of temptations: incessantly monitoring their kids. An extensive menu of apps now allows parents to track the precise location of their kids at all times — which, Heitner said, is more likely to foment distrust between parents and children and compel kids to conceal their choices. A child under surveillance will default to the same instinct as the child who doesn’t want to dash their collegiate dreams: Don’t get caught.

The metric by which children judge their posts should be simple, Heitner said. Don’t amplify anything that could cause harm, could damage someone else’s reputation or damage their own. Heitner said it’s useful for kids to ask themselves a question before they post: Does this reflect the person or student I am? That simple framing could also help children to find ways to burnish their online reputation rather than sabotage it, all the while equipping parents with a conversation starter for a deeper conversation about thoughtful social media usage. Mentoring, not monitoring, should be the objective, Heitner said. And any hint of harm or ambiguity should be a surefire sign to avoid a post altogether.

“When in doubt,” Heitner said, “don’t share it out.”

 

Ask Your Child’s Consent before Posting

Multiple generations have felt few greater sources of skin-crawling embarrassment than having their parents share an unflattering photo. And now there’s data to support that most uncomfortable of sensations. Heitner conducted interviews with dozens of students as part of her research for Growing Up in Public and found the vast majority had three primary hopes for their parents. To stop checking their grades obsessively. To stop reading their text messages without permission. And to stop posting their photos without permission.

The profusion of smartphones has led to a phenomenon that Heitner has dubbed “Every Day is Picture Day” — the almost reflexive need to chronicle every last movement, utterance and moment of a child’s life. The endless documentation, Heitner said, can be an acute stressor for kids who perseverate over body image. And even those who don’t are seeing more images of themselves than any other generation experienced during childhood. At a recent presentation for another community, Heitner spoke with a mother who had just celebrated her daughter’s birthday. The mother watched as friends swarmed her daughter to shower her with praise. The most frequent compliment wasn’t about her intellect, or her kindness. “You’re so pretty,” her friends said over, and over, and over.

An overdeveloped digital footprint can also deprive kids of being kids, Heitner said. She cited multiple examples from parents who have observed their kids suppressing cute or benignly sophomoric behaviors at home out of fear of having a goofy expression appear across social media. Multiple students whom Heitner interviewed for her book also reported getting teased at school based on a family social media post they would have preferred to remain unposted.

The solution? Check with your kids before posting, Heitner said. If they’re cool with it, great — but don’t post a potentially fraught photo or video without your child’s approval.

 

Embrace Positivity and Connectedness

A peculiar trend has emerged, Heitner said, among children who appear far less socialized to basic conversation, or even human interaction. There is, of course, a cause — and one of nurture, not nature. “We’re thumbing out our lives in front of our kids,” Heitner told those assembled in Horton Hall. And they’re noticing. They know when you text and drive, or when you glance at your phone and appear detached during a face-to-face conversation, or when they can’t grab your attention while you scroll absentmindedly through a feed. Our kids need us to model healthy work-life balances, Heitner said, and healthy doses of screen time.

Kids also, according to Heitner’s interviews for her book, want their parents to stop obsessively checking their grades on apps. The conscientious students whom Heitner interviewed said they didn’t need reminders to study for an upcoming quiz or to improve their performance. Other students who struggled with their grades and in areas of executive functioning saw their relationship with their parents adopt a dynamic of inescapable nagging. “I didn’t meet anybody who was getting checked on a lot with their grades who found it to be a good thing,” Heitner said. “I didn’t meet a kid who was like, ‘Thank goodness my mom checks the grading app three times a day because I would have missed that one quiz, and my life is so much better with those reminders.’”

There is, too, abundant positivity in social media. DA Director of Strategic Initiatives Victoria Muradi, who emceed the March 20 Family Matters event, opened the Q&A by asking Heitner if she felt kids were prone to oversharing on social media. Heitner said she sees this vulnerability as far more transformative than a sign of indelicate restraint. “They are really rewriting the culture,” Heitner said. The messages and content that teens have shared around survivorship, around mental health and around gender identity are reshaping antiquated notions of what is, or isn’t, taboo to discuss in a public forum. “It might be something that we were taught not to disclose,” Heitner said, which may inform a perception of oversharing. But it’s building a welcoming, inclusive digital community that gives kids and teeneagers a greater sense of belonging, and of shared understanding.

Being curious, not judgmental, about your child’s social media usage is the secret, Heitner said. If they trust you, and if they feel like you can attack the problem together, then they’ll be more likely to see you as a “safe harbor” for discussing anything amiss on social media, or strategies for amplifying a message of positivity. “Talking to them,” Heitner said during her presentation, “is more helpful than just trying to monitor.”

It won’t be long, after all, until they’re behind the wheel of a large automobile, steering themselves toward the next phase of their life with — any parent would hope — the confidence of someone who has already driven the route.