Skip to main content

Is Your Child Screenwise?

Digital citizenship expert Devorah Heitner shares how to raise digital natives

Published on: October 27, 2016

girls texting

About the series: The work/family juggle is one of the biggest challenges parents face. In our 2016 special series, Making It Work, we go beyond tired-out debates about “having it all” to explore big issues, real stories and inspiring solutions. Making It Work is sponsored in part by carefully selected partner organizations that are committed to supporting parents and familes. All editorial is developed and directed by ParentMap’s journalists. This wellness package is supported by Coordinated Care, a Tacoma-based health insurance plan that treats the whole person.

I’m unable to figure out our TV and yet, here I am, raising two digital natives. But instead of proclaiming myself a Luddite, I read Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner. A former media studies professor at DePaul University and Lake Forest College, Heitner founded the website Raising Digital Natives in 2012. She’s been talking with kids, parents and schools about how to grow a culture of positive digital citizenship ever since.

I found it comforting to read an entire book on this subject, as opposed to online articles. I underlined words like “slacktivism” and dog-eared crucial pages. I learned parents fall into one of three main groups when it comes to leading their children through the digital landscape. The first are limiters, who use a restrictive screen time approach without meaningful interaction. The second, enablers, take on a laissez-faire mind-set, with kids left to their own devices (literally). The third, and the one Heitner recommends: mentors, who engage with their children and technology, from playing Minecraft alongside them to discussing plagiarism by looking through QuestionCopyright together.

Inspired and trying to be a mentor, I asked my teenager why she’s not on Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. I learned she thinks social media is one way to become better acquainted with new friends, but right now, she prefers talking in person or by text. Insisting on those answers taught me something about my teen that I’ve wondered about for years.

Wanting to learn more about becoming a digital mentor, I spoke with Heitner. Here’s what she had to say. 

There are so many great tips in your book, but boil it down for me: What’s a simple, smart way for parents to make changes when it comes to their children and technology?

Pick one area of focus that is stressing you out or one thing you’d like to change about your family’s media usage. For example, I ask my son what’s one media habit he’d like me to change, I pick one for him and we work on them for a few weeks.

Why is it important for parents to help their children navigate the digital landscape?

Everyone wants someone else to mentor their children, but nobody is going to care about your kids as much as you. Kids have buy-in if parents co-create solutions with them. . . . If you tell them every solution, they won’t learn about self and emotional regulation.

We also should talk openly about our mistakes. I told my son about a conflict that occurred over email, how I called my friend to apologize and I’m working to repair this relationship now. This example shows him why it’s good to walk away from your phone [when you’re] upset. I’ve told my son that even raised voices by phone are better than a bad email.


In Screenwise, I loved reading about the pretend empathy app a group of your students created. Tell our readers about this.

I often have the kids in my workshops design apps to solve everyday stresses and challenges of living in a digital world. This group of kids designed a pretend app called Sparkle Chat that asks the sender, ‘Are you really sure you want to send that text?’

This app they created made me realize that empathy is the app [and] that we all need to remember another human is on the other end of that text or email or app. When kids don’t hear back from a text immediately, sometimes they fire off many texts and become distraught. They’re forgetting that person might be doing homework or eating dinner.

Parents are responsible for teaching kids we live in a tricky world. Sometimes I send texts I wish I could take back. We’re creating problems if we’re super reactive to someone who’s made a mistake. Let’s teach them to move on after explanations and apologies have been issued. 

Should parents be freaking out when their kids, who are typically tweens, add social media to their lives?

Some freaking out is merited. Age 12 is vulnerable and hard. Often kids at this age judge themselves harshly and think they are being judged by everyone, [and] here’s this additional place to have hurt feelings about and mess up in. We don’t want our tweens to crowdsource their identities from what the social media crowd likes and doesn’t like, or quantify their popularity with their numbers of likes [as kids may feel,] ‘If I receive less than 200 likes, I’m a loser!’ but who knows 200 people? It’s our job [as parents] to help our kids have a sense of humor about social media. Make sure kids know turning down a follow request or not following back isn’t rude. Help them create criteria and boundaries for being connected.

How does mentoring change as your kids get older?

Mentoring your older child is about making sure they’re living a balanced life. Are they playing an instrument, on a team, hanging out with friends, attending a church or synagogue, riding their bike for fun? If they are doing many different things beyond living on their device, parents don’t need to worry so much about limiting device time. But if your daughter quits her volleyball team and now she’s spending a huge portion of her waking hours on Instagram, limit her time!  

We’re always setting an example for our kids, too. When my own device usage gets out of hand, I apologize to my son and decide how to be more present and unplugged. If I don’t want my son to be on his phone during dinner, I better not show up for a meal with my smartphone. 

Top online picks for parents

Many of the dog-eared pages in my copy of new book Screenwise link to items author Devorah Heitner recommends checking out. Here are some of her favorite online resources for parents.

“Status Update” on This American Life: Three young women in ninth grade break down the high school social scene and Instagram etiquette for host Ira Glass.

Scarleteen: Want your kids to find honest and positive info about sex? Share Scarleteen’s website with them.

Heitner’s “How Screenwise Are You?” quiz: This could be a great conversation starter with other parents in your community.

Common Sense Media: See reviews on video games, movies and apps written by both adults and kids.

“Personal Technology and the Autistic Child: What One Family Has Learned”: This Wall Street Journal article presents writer Alexandra Samuel’s personal story along with plenty of advice for all parents.

Heitner’s Minecraft Resource Roundup: A must if you’re desperate to keep up with your little Minecrafter.

Get the best of ParentMap delivered right to your inbox.

Share this resource with your friends!