Another Digital Divide For our kids, online is real life

The tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has created nothing short of a revolution in its wake. Students have wielded extraordinary power, much of it exercised via social media. They have used various social media platforms to make their voices heard, even when it exposed them to harsh adult criticism. They have used those same platforms to share their stories, to connect with each other and to organize and mobilize for change.

As both an educator and a parent, I stand in awe of what these kids have been able to accomplish. I’m proud of them. I also know that there must be a cadre of concerned adults behind them, guiding and mentoring them. Their success is also a testament to their teachers and parents.

We’re often bombarded with stories about the downsides of social media, its perils and pitfalls. It’s reassuring to be reminded that kids can also use social media for good. But it’s important to remember that regardless of the goal, we always need to make sure kids are exercising caution in their online lives.

The internet is a tremendously powerful tool. It can give you access to millions of people in seconds. You wouldn’t just hand a tool that powerful to anyone, but somehow we often do exactly that with our kids, handing them devices without training or protection.

One crucial thing adults need to understand is that the digital lives of today’s young people are fully integrated with who they are. We didn’t grow up attached to these devices. To us, “going online” still feels separate from our “real” lives.

That’s not the case for today’s kids. Being online IS who they are. They’ve grown up with these devices, social media platforms, apps and the like. But just as scoring 35 points on NBA Y2K doesn’t make you a great basketball player in a real gym, similarly our kids’ familiarity and fluency with the digital world doesn’t automatically prepare them to use tech tools properly in the real world. Kids often lack the life experience that helps them make smart decisions online. That’s where we come in.

As with all discussions of technology usage, communication is key. You need to be able to talk to your kids. That can be perceived as incredibly uncool — “C’mon Dad!”— but the amount you talk with your kids is directly proportional to the ease with which they’ll be willing to talk with you.

You also need to have proximity to your kids’ lives. Be aware of the apps they’re using, the sites they’re visiting, the social media platforms they have accounts on. You should have experience going on those sites, too. If they’re playing video games, sit down yourself and play them. See what they’re all about.

I can’t help but think that this is an incredibly exciting time to be growing up in America. And while it’s true that there are dangers, there is also a sense that this generation has truly limitless potential. Armed with a solid core of traditional knowledge supplemented by the power of technology, there really is nothing they can’t do. It’s our job to guide them responsibly and watch them soar.

Joshua Wolf is the father of two 12-year-old boys and an 18-year-old daughter. He is also the Head of the Middle School at The Park School of Baltimore.

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