Welcome to Relay’s reading list for parents. We’ll give you the TL;DR of the book—short enough to be convenient, and long enough to let you know why we love it. This is Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology by Diana Graber.
Before we start, here’s a quick rundown on Ms. Graber.
- 1. She is a fellow mom.
- 2. She has received awards for her work in media literacy education.
- 3. She co-founded a program called Cyber Civics, which teaches
- 4. digital citizenship in middle schools in many nations across the world.
- 5. She is the real deal.
What you’ll get if you read this book:
1. Scientific facts about how digital media affects kids from experts in the field
2. Realistic plans and activities that you can do at home
3. The “why” behind every recommendation and piece of advice
4. Heartwarming, powerful anecdotes about real kids navigating this path
5. Multiple points of view from the screen time argument—how tech hurts and how it helps
Top 5 takeaways for parents
Raising Humans in a Digital World is organized into three sections: A Solid Foundation, A Sturdy Structure, and A Vibrant Community. It won’t surprise you that the metaphor here compares preparing your child for the digital world with building a house. Through the book, Graber guides you through each phase of building your child’s tech skills and responsibilities with facts, anecdotes, fun activities, and sound advice.
Instead of breaking down the book section-by-section (Diana Graber does that beautifully,) here are the top 5 lessons I learned while reading.
1. Fear is not our friend—media literacy is
Many parents have heard horror stories about kids and the internet. And it seems easy to keep kids safe online by scaring them away from social media, YouTube, and gaming altogether. But easy doesn’t always mean effective. And in this case, using scare tactics with kids usually backfires.
Not only will fear tactics stop kids from learning the media literacy skills to help them avoid scary experiences, it also fails to stop them from using the internet—instead, they learn to be sneakier online. They may hide their activity from you or lie about what they do at friends’ houses. When parents (and teachers, and any adult mentors) use fear as a way to control behavior, kids won’t be afraid to keep using digital media—they’ll just be afraid to ask for help when they need it, which can compromise their online safety.
Rules about digital media aren’t that different from any other rule at home—we ask our kids not to talk to strangers in real life. Asking them not to give out personal information online isn’t much different. We don’t have to treat digital media like the boogeyman, but we can’t let kids run wild with it any more than we would let them with any other non-digital behavior.
2. You are your child’s primary role model and teacher
But you knew that already. The lessons you teach can be intentional, but many times they’re not. From infancy, the amount of time parents spend looking at screens (and not at their kids) has a real and measurable impact on children. And as kids get older, your technology habits are an example of what normal internet and screen use look like. So healthy screen habits, like screen-free meals and binge-free weekends rub off—and so do their opposites.
In addition to your own habits, you can help your kid navigate the digital world in age-appropriate ways. Diana Graber calls this creating “digital on-ramps,” where you can co-view media, learn how to use the internet for research, and build a strong foundation of knowledge for your child and trust within the parent-child relationship.
When you’re a digital mentor, your child knows that you won’t get mad if they come to you with questions, admit that they made a mistake, or encountered something disturbing online. Cultivating that trust is special and if maintained, can help your child avoid some of the more negative online experiences kids can encounter.
3. Keep in mind your child’s developmental stage
The human brain doesn’t finish developing until we’re 25 years old, and screens can shape the way kids’ brains develop from an early age. From ADHD to anxiety and depression, screen time and internet use can be impactful in all the wrong ways if used too early, too often, and without proper training and supervision. For young children, the ADA had written guidelines to guide parents. But for tweens and teens, the rules are muddy.
Teens (and kids, too) aren’t fully able to think through consequences before making decisions—their frontal cortex, the part of the brain that would usually help them think about that stuff, is still a construction zone. They aren’t able to fully understand how their actions could make other people feel, and that means they are likely to post something on a social network that makes another person feel bad or something that could impact the online reputation important to college admissions and job opportunities for the rest of their lives.
Diana Graber describes it this way: teens are able to understand and respect right and wrong as rules to follow, but don’t necessarily have the empathy necessary to comprehend the morality behind those rules—so it’s important to make sure kids have strong media literacy skills before you ease off the parental controls (and ideally before they own their own smartphone.)
4. Balance quality media with offline fun
When you look online, you often see a couple of parental camps when it comes to technology. There are the screen free parents and the techie parents. One tries to keep kids away from screens almost entirely, while the other has no issue with TV, tablets, phones, etc.
You often see parents in each camp disagreeing with each other. Most of us actually fall somewhere in the middle, and that’s a good thing. As a middle school Cyber Civics teacher, Diana Graber has seen a lot of parenting styles and is able to point out the merits and flaws in both screen time extremes.
Like most absolutist rules in parenting, denying kids screen time altogether often leads to rebellion, sneaking around, and secret-keeping. On the other hand, giving your child a device and letting them “go nuts” is a risky move. Both extreme ends of the spectrum actually lead to similar results: unsupervised screen time with no room for parents to teach kids about safety, privacy, and online etiquette.
Graber recommends taking a balanced approach: you can’t pretend that your kid will be willing or able to avoid the internet until their teen years, and even if they do, they’ll be walking into their digital lives completely unprepared. Introducing technology and online platforms gradually and with supervision is key. That way your child feels included socially—or included enough not to go behind your back—and has a digital mentor to teach them how to stay safe.
On the other side of the equation, offline activities are valuable for their own sake. Unstructured play and outdoor activities help kids’ brains develop in ways that digital media can’t. If your child gets a healthy mix of both, you’re generally on the right track.
5. Technology can be a good thing
It’s easy to mistake books like this for “screens are bad” books, or “you’re parenting wrong” books. Well, this one is different. Yes, some of the anecdotes and statistics you’ll find in this book are sad and a little scary. But for every scary stat, there is a solution your family can enact. For every kid thrown into the spin cycle of social media, there is a considerate and kind young person creating media to make life better for their community and peers. You may walk away from this book shocked, but you won’t walk away sad or hopeless. It’s full of positive content that’s actionable and versatile enough to enact for your unique family.
Diana Graber is not afraid to say that technology itself isn’t a bad thing, that it can be useful and fun and helpful. That it can even be healthy if use is balanced with other healthy offline activities. This isn’t just another scary warning book. It’s not a book that shames parents who are just doing their best. It’s a guide to empower parents, informed by science and realistic about the fact that technology and the internet are unavoidable and are pretty important for functioning adults to understand.
That’s why we love this book. We hope you love it too.