Is Your Kid “Digitally Resilient”? It’s a Big Deal.

Preparing children for the world means preparing them for the online one, too

A young child holding an iPad in a dark bedroom.
Most from Generation Alpha are familiar with phones and tablets before they even start pre-school.
Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty

In the song “Welcome to the Internet,” probably the most chilling entry in Bo Burnham’s quarantine-filmed, dark comedy special Inside, the 32-year-old comic sings:

Could I interest you in everything?
All of the time
A bit of everything
All of the time
Apathy’s a tragedy
And boredom is a crime
Anything and everything
All of the time

By the final time he launches into that chorus, the song takes on the schizophrenic cadence of a malfunctioning merry-go-round. It’s as deeply uncomfortable to listen to as it is presently resonant. We now live in constant access to everything, all of the time, and that access isn’t just available to adults — it’s there for children, too. In another line, Burnham sings:

Mommy let you use her iPad
You were barely two
And it did all the things
We designed it to do

Any pediatric expert worth their salt is going to discourage the use of electronics by toddlers. The Mayo Clinic, for instance, writes in no uncertain terms: “If you introduce digital media to children ages 18 to 24 months, make sure it’s high quality and avoid solo media use. For children ages 2 to 5, limit screen time to one hour a day of high-quality programming.”

But there’s a reason young children glom onto these devices. Little ones see the amount of time that parents spend on their phones and tablets, and are A) understandably eager to see what all the fuss is about, and B) easily enthralled by all those games, pictures and videos with different lights and shapes.

Eventually, as they age and get electronics of their own, that relationship to digital media morphs from distractive to addictive. Hyper-connectivity is a generational inevitability among young people today: 97% of kids between the ages of 13 and 17 use social media platforms, and 45% are “almost constantly” online.

It might’ve been easier, 15 years ago, to rue or discourage young people’s susceptibility to a life spent online, but we’re all doing it these days. Consider: The parents of children aged 8 to 18 also consume “screen media” for an average of nine hours a day, according to a report published before the pandemic. That figure has likely held steady (if not increased), as work life becomes ever-digitized and more children of Millennials reach middle-school age.

Instead of yelling at kids for staring at screens, researchers are advocating for a concept dubbed “digital resiliency,” in which guardians, teachers and psychologists help children “learn how to recognize, manage and recover from online risks.” The thinking being: if they’re going to be online, they should be prepared for what they’re going to find. Which is…everything.

With major depressive episodes on the rise among adolescents, psychologists are intent on developing standardized practices that give equal weight and consideration to unsettling “digital experiences,” such as bullying on social media, or exposure to inappropriate images, videos or language. Obviously, this creates a more complex mandate for youth workers, who can no longer solely wonder “Maybe something’s going on at home?” to figure out why a child seems unsettled. “What’s going on online?” needs to enter the equation, as well.

But as argued in a study published last week in Education and Information Technologies, led by the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia, that brand of all-inclusive support is now critical. It recognizes that today’s kids, for better or worse, come of age in the physical and online worlds.

As the study’s lead author, Dr. Simon P. Hammond, said, “There is also the idea here that just as with the offline world, we need to understand that learning by doing, which involves risky play, is a lifelong process. Mistakes will happen and children need support to learn from those.”

While this study is more of a conversation-starter than a blueprint for creating digitally-resilient citizens, it includes calls for “validated psychometric measures,” which parents and educators can lean on to help pre-teens make sense of their online lives. The overarching theme here is that 8- to 12-year-olds shouldn’t have to be wading through the internet on their own, and they shouldn’t be expected to avoid interaction with strangers, scams or scandals. All are unavoidable, but if families and schools adopt frameworks to acknowledge and address these perils before they happen, children will be far better prepared.

Ultimately, this will require a deft touch. As the authors wrote: “Children are the internet’s most vulnerable users and simultaneously its pioneers.” They will push the medium forward, into an infinite unknown, because that’s just what happens when your digital literacy starts with an iPad at the age of two. But it’s important to remember that they didn’t ask for any of this — the very least we can do is prepare them for this life of a little bit of everything, all of the time.

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