Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise and the forthcoming book Growing up in Public: Coming Of Age In A Digital World, shares her thoughts on supporting parents, educators, and mentoring our students in the digital age. 

Why is the digital well-being of our children and students important to you?

Our students will need their digital social skills for everything: getting a job, applying to college, dating, making plans with friends and colleagues, and so forth. We are all part of multiple communities, and we want to help kids get this right so they can reap the benefits and minimize the risks of participation.

What is your definition of digital well-being?

You are running your devices; they are not running you.

What does digital well-being look like in a 14-year-old? 

For kids that age, their phone is more often a source of joy and connection than a source of stress. They are able to:

  • disconnect from social media and gaming to get some sleep;
  • do homework and hang out with family and friends;
  • have an adult in their life they can talk to if a text, social media post, or other digital situation is uncomfortable, coercive, harassing, or dangerous; and
  • assert boundaries with peers when they cross the line, when they don’t want their picture taken, or when they don’t like the way people are talking in a group text.

You write about moving from a fear-based approach to an empathy-based approach to technology. Can you tell us more?

We need to start by understanding kids’ experiences rather than assuming the worst. They are often trying to be a good responsive friend when texting in class, for example. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, but it is good to understand where they are coming from! Today, parents can track kids’ every move with apps, see their grades within minutes of being posted or fixate on their digital footprint, anxious that a misstep could cause them to be “canceled.” But how can kids figure out who they really are when they have zero privacy and constant judgment? That’s where educators, parents, and other mentors can help.

What are the positive and negative connections between student wellness and social media? Are there different concerns for 12–15-year-olds vs. 16–18-year-olds?

Absolutely. 12–15-year-olds are still very new at interacting in digital spaces, and we should expect more mistakes and focus on how to move forward. Event 16-18-year-olds are still in a major growth period, but the stakes are a bit higher with reputation, and it is fair to be clear with them, without trying to scare them! Also, by 16, if not sooner, many teens are using texting and social media with more discretion, forethought, and intention. They are curating their algorithms to be more empowering and supportive and taking breaks from apps when they need to accomplish an important goal. They are starting to be more self-aware of how they feel when using certain apps.

Are we seeing effects of the digital world on younger, lower school-age students, 5–10-year-olds, as well?

For sure. Even if these kids aren’t on TikTok, memes have permeated the culture of the playground. They are interacting in Roblox and other gaming spaces. I’ve spoken with fourth graders who are in conflict about group texts and need support navigating and knowing when to step away.

How can schools better educate both students and families in understanding and creating a healthy balance in their digital lives?

It is a great idea to bring in speakers and do community reads with parents to get them up to speed as well as having older students talk with and mentor younger students. Digital wellness should be integrated into advisory and the curriculum as a whole.

Do you see a pendulum shift in tech use by teens on the horizon, or will their digital lives continue to consume more of their day?

Schools really vary in their policies, and we’re seeing some pushback about phone use during the day after a steep increase in use these last few years.

Lastly, what’s the question around technology and wellness that nobody’s asking right now? 

How are kids shifting the norms on what we share about ourselves, especially related to mental health, neurodiversity, and LGBTQIA+ identities? Rather than encouraging kids to keep more of themselves private or to censor what they want to say about themselves online or trying to catch them in the act of “oversharing,” we need to do a better job of mentoring young people on how to be intentional about how much they share about themselves in digital spaces.

Devorah will present the Tuesday keynote session, “Growing Up in Public: Helping Kids Figure Out Who They Are When Everyone Is Watching,” during the 2023 SAIS Summer Conference. Make plans to join your colleagues in Sarasota this June to learn more about how school leaders can prepare all students (and staff) for the realities of having a searchable digital reputation and what can be done when explicit or hateful images and videos circulate in school communities.

Devorah Heitner, PhD is an author and speaker. She speaks to students, parents, and educators on mentoring kids in the digital age and modeling mindful uses of technology. Her new book, Growing up in Public: Coming Of Age In A Digital World, out in September, offers practical advice for parents and educators. Heitner’s work and her first book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, have been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN Opinion. She has a PhD in Media/Technology & Society from Northwestern University and has taught at DePaul University and Northwestern University. She is delighted to be raising her own teenager. You can follow her on Instagram @devorahheitnerphd and subscribe to her newsletter here.