The other week, Glennon Doyle Melton – who I love – tweeted that she doesn’t let her kids use social media. I know that she’s not alone in this. Lots of parents – rightly – fear the effects of social media on their children. Hell, we fear the effects of social media on ourselves. How many times have you told yourself that you’re going to remove Facebook from your phone? How often have you thought that maybe, just maybe, your psyche would be a little healthier if you didn’t check Twitter everyday?
We all worry about social media, and rightly so. There’s a ton of research out there that says that social platforms cause us a tremendous amount of anxiety, but we don’t need studies to tell us what we already know. Out there in the digital commons, we face tremendous pressure. To look good, to sound smart, to be popular. We compare our lives to others; we worry about missing out. We grapple with fake news and bad news and the toxic conversations that seem to bring out the worst in everybody. It’s a complicated space, to say the least; why wouldn’t we want to protect our children from it? Shouldn’t we keep our kids away from that space as long as we possibly can?
But here’s my answer: no.
Obviously, it’s a personal decision, and I totally understand why many parents would lean in the opposite direction. But I believe very firmly that it’s not just okay, but good – important, even – to guide our children into that space. And not because, as is frequently argued, kids want to go where they’re told they shouldn’t and will just seek it out themselves. Of course, that which is forbidden is always more tempting – but we shouldn’t invite kids into digital social spaces just because they’ll find their way there anyway. Many will, of course, but that’s not a good reason. There are lots of things I don’t let me kids do just because they persisting in wanting to.
Here’s why I think we need to bring our children (mindfully, purposefully) into digital social spaces as soon as we think they’re ready: because that’s where and how they’re going to learn how to navigate and make the most of those spaces. We should invite kids into those spaces – or rather, nurture and guide them in those spaces – because that’s where they learn how to become good citizens – and good people – in a digital world. The digital commons is THE commons now – it’s where we gather and connect, meet and debate, act and activate – for better or for worse. It’s where so much of public life takes place, like or not. It’s where politics takes place, like it or not. It’s our public sphere.
And to the extent that we want our children to be fluent and literate in the languages and norms and conventions of the public sphere, we need them to get comfortable there. We need them to learn good habits there. In the same way that we wouldn’t – most of us – shield our children from public life in real spaces, we shouldn’t shield them entirely from public life in digital spaces.
This is all the more true for those of us who want our children to be meaningfully empowered in the public sphere. If we want our children to be good citizens and good people – if we want them to do good things in that sphere – we need them to be familiar with it and to be comfortable with its platforms and its tools. We need them to know what good actions (and bad actions) look like. We need them to know, at a very basic level, what decent digital social behavior looks like – but more than that, we need them to know what good, positive, constructive digital action looks like, and what it involves. Maybe they’re not going to fight injustice right now – but maybe they are. Maybe they can. In any case, we need to make it possible for them to learn how to recognize and understand just action and good citizenship in the spaces where that manifests most frequently.
(There’s a broader conversation to be had, of course, about how early and to what degree we expose them to politics and injustice, and your point of view in that conversation will almost certainly inform your position on how early and to what degree you let your children even see into social spaces. Emilia is politically aware and active and so I’m more comfortable with her social activity – supervised, of course. Jasper is less so, for a variety of reasons, and so we’ve shielded him more. That has not, however, stopped him from speaking out on women’s rights, about which he has strong feelings. WE ARE ALL HUMAN.)
Of course, we need to keep them safe. Of course, we need to guide and protect them, in the same way we do in real public spaces. We don’t want to leave them on their own in those spaces, without support and direction. We do need to hold their hands, for a while at least. We need to teach them digital literacy the same way we teach social literacy and media literacy and every other kind of literacy.
Part of our original rationale for Maverick was rooted in exactly this need and this question: how do we make it possible for kids – girls especially – to be meaningfully empowered in the lived public spaces of our culture and our world? It’s simply not enough to tell them that they just need to be confident and strong, that they can do anything if they set their minds to it. That wasn’t true in a world without the Internet and it is, arguably, even less true in a world with the Internet, where all the hostilities and inequalities and unfairness of that world are on full 24-7 display. But what is true, I think (I believe, I KNOW), is that we can push beyond the talk and the messaging in this particular world: the Internet, for all of its awfulness, also holds tools and connections and opportunities and spaces in which we can make it possible for girls, and kids and young people generally, to come together and to act. To exercise the powers that they already have, and to use these spaces and the resources within them in ways that we can’t even imagine.
That’s what the students of Parkwood did. They did what they did because they knew how to use the tools of these spaces. That’s what other kids are doing every day, join different ways: speaking truth to political power or simply making their own media, which is another kind of speaking truth to power. What’s more powerful than seizing the means of your own media production? I said this of mom blogging almost a decade ago (and many times since), and it holds for what kids can do and are doing with new media tools now: this moment in human history is epochal – culture-changing – because for the first time in our history we have [more or less] democratic access to tools and platforms of public storytelling. We get to tell our own stories.
Our kids need to know how to do that, how to use those tools and platforms to tell their own stories. WE need them to know how to use those, because they’re the ones who are going to evolve those tools and platforms. They’re the ones who are going to figure out to use them to really change the world. To make their own futures. To make our futures.
That doesn’t mean tossing them into the wilds of Twitter to fend for themselves. As I said, we do need to guide and protect them and stand beside them in these spaces. We need to make spaces for them, spaces that are carved into the public sphere, but a little safer and more brightly lit, spaces that they can begin shaping for themselves. We did this quite literally with Maverick, which we created for this very purpose – in the absence of a bright safe garden in the commons, we built one ourselves. I’m not saying it’s the perfect solution – there is no perfect solution – but it’s a start. And like all good gardens or parks or well-used town squares, it will become what its community makes of it – and the core of this particular community is, and needs to be, young people. The ones who can and should feel empowered to make and shape and use that space – our shifting public sphere – for themselves. For the better.
For our better. For our better future, the one that needs to begin now.
(Obviously, I think that if you have young people and agree with me, you should check out Maverick. Or jump to what Common Sense Media said about Maverick. Or stick with this [I actually need this for myself.])