“The Psychology of Technology: Understanding the Always-On Generation”

Holiday time is a busy time — full of family fun and often long car rides.  School is out, and long days of vacation beckon, with plenty of time for play, both outside and in.  More than ever, inside time is now spent online, and it’s a good time to remind ourselves about how best to keep kids safe when navigating the internet. Earlier this Fall, Wharton Computing partnered with Penn to host Penn Wharton Internet Safety for Kids. Erica Pelavin, of My Digital TAT2, gave a talk about how kids and teens use technology, and a panel discussion followed.  Thanks to Heather Luna and Donna St. Louis from Wharton Computing for their contributions to the success of the program, and to Gabriella Harris for writing up this synopsis.  The conference video is in Penn Box.

On October 21st, an audience gathered in Huntsman Hall to learn about parenting in the age of technology. Keynote speaker Erica Pelavin opened her talk by asking the audience if they could guess the origin of her non-profit’s name—My Digital TAT2. One audience member offered “because tattoos are forever,” which Erica affirmed, likening this permanent mark on a person’s body to their everlasting internet presence. Like tattoos, Erica clarified, she’s not for nor against a child’s use of technology, but she believes it’s important to have conversations about what kind of engagement is most appropriate. These days, technology is ubiquitous for many adults, and most children, too, wear their technology like tattoos. Erica and a panel of experts, which included the Annenberg School’s Dr. Amy Bleakley and Penn’s Privacy Officer Scott Schafer, agreed that today’s teens are “always on”—always messaging, always logging, always reading, always playing, always exploring.

Erica warned the audience not to live in fear of children’s dependence on technology—when used appropriately, technology can open up a child’s world, rather than close it. Parents should be “curious, not furious” when it comes to their child’s device-dependence. Until Erica asked pointed questions about her son’s online gaming, for example, she would get one-word answers to questions about his day. His gaming has since become something over which they can connect as a family. These conversations need not be one-sided. In fact, she suggests that parents “lean in” to their children’s technology habits, even if these habits can seem at first to be all-consuming, unproductive, or anti-social. Parents can learn from their children as much as children can learn from their parents in these conversations, which are important reciprocal exchanges that have the potential to bring families together.

Technology is not a bad thing, but at times it can be a scary and powerful thing. Because children are not necessarily intuitive about what is acceptable online behavior, appropriate use needs to be taught. Children as young as third graders are creating online profiles, which means not only are they creating lasting online reputations for themselves, they can impact the online profiles of their peers. Children are creating their own consumable content, such as videos, blogs, and social media profiles, in a way that differs from previous generations. It probably comes as no surprise that technology is often used for exclusion, retaliation, and bullying. This, Erica emphasized, is a cue for important conversations about empathy and responsibility.

Somewhere between third grade and high school, a parent’s role becomes that of a consultant rather than a manager for their children’s online presence. Erica used another metaphor here: teaching your children about technology is akin to teaching them to swim. Even if your children are not risk-takers, they may end up in over their heads once in a while. At first, parents need to be in the pool, guarding their children from the deep-end, but eventually parents can retreat to the bleachers. The internet, like the deep-end, may beckon children, as content can be pushed on them even though they many not consciously seek it.

Unlike adults, many children do not have a sense of distinct on- and off-line lives—to them, it’s just life. There is often a seamless transition from social networking sites to the schoolyard. Teens may feel a social imperative to be available online, and may think that shutting down for dinner is analogous to quitting in the middle of a soccer match. But, as Erica reminded us, technology can enhance children’s daily life, giving them unique opportunities that “real life” does not, such as anonymity. While parents may see this as initially threatening, anonymity allows students to explore and experiment, open up to others, and seek support without fear of stigmatization.

Be sure to know, Erica cautioned, that parents, too, can stand to improve their use of technology. Children report that their parents are unhappy or distracted when on a device. Children say they are often unhappy with their intimate childhood photos being shared on their parents’ social media profiles. Erica offered many concrete suggestions about when and how to limit device-usage for the whole family. She encourages families to partake in a monthly “digital disconnect”, to go on vacations and have meals that aren’t “Instagram-ready”. Ban technology after 11pm, when Erica believes devices should be charged outside the bedroom. She thinks car rides are a good time to encourage conversation rather than to retreat into our devices.