What parents can learn about the internet from Kim Kardashian

Posted at 2:51 PM, Dec 23, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-23 16:53:26-05

By: Jodi Gold, MD, the author of the new book “Screen Smart Parenting: How to Find Balance and Benefit from your Child’s Use of Social Media, Apps & Digital Devices.” The opinions expressed are solely those of Jodi Gold.

Kim Kardashian has 22 million followers on Instagram. In fact, she has more followers than the entire population of Scandinavia. In November, she tried to “break the Internet” with her provocative nude pictures.

As a child psychiatrist and mother of three, I am not shocked by the exhibitionism or desire for publicity at all costs. I am struck by the disconnect between what educators and policy makers are saying about growing up in the digital world and the reality of popular culture.

I am also reminded that parents are far too ambivalent about so-called “privacy” online. We tell our kids not to share personal information or sext, yet our tweens and teens roll their eyes at us because sexting and over-sharing (a la Kim Kardashian) is ubiquitous.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a strong stance on no screen time before the age of 2 and less than 2 hours of screen for older kids. This is a far cry from the reality in which tweens and teenagers can average over 8 hours a day.

Most parents are inundated with the message that they should limit screen time at all costs and take away the phone if their teens and tweens misbehave. But removing devices from the equation temporarily does little to address the issue.

The Atlantic magazine reported on a high school sexting scandal so rampant that the police had to stop interviewing teenagers due to concern that they would end up confiscating the majority cell phones belonging to teens in the county.

We either “respect” our children’s privacy and have no clue about what they are doing online or we act cowardly by “spying” on them, which only creates a foundation of mistrust to build upon.

Up until now, digital immigrants (that is all of us born before the Internet explosion) have espoused a dialogue of fear. We worry that the Internet is rotting our children’s brains and destroying any chance of developing empathy or relationships.

Rule 101 of child psychiatry, is that children can smell fear and ambivalence. Children take their cues from their parents’ behavior and reactions. Parents’ fear of too much screen time is valid but outdated and not useful in carving out a thoughtful road map.

I recently attended a talk with Sherry Turkle, author of “Together Alone” and an insightful MIT researcher on how technology is pulling us apart. She spoke about research indicating that empathy must be developed with face-to-face interactions, not with devices. This is undeniably true, but I feel that we should give parents more credit. We get that empathy is best cultivated with face-to-face interactions and experiences. However, kids spend more time on their devices than sleeping, eating or going to school.

Isn’t a more useful research question, “How can we help kids to use their devices to cultivate empathy?” In truth, kids can use their devices to be kind, creative, closer and even more empathetic. We need to stop taking away the phone so much and start teaching tweens and teens how to responsibly use and thoughtfully live with their phones.

Parents, researchers and educators are beginning to get the message about flexibility and fear but we have a way to go in understanding identity and privacy. Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization, published a guide titled “Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight.” It stresses that human interaction and play are critical to development but screen time that is interactive and cooperative also has its benefits.

Leaders in the field are urging the American Academy of Pediatrics to make the distinction between passive TV and interactive apps and games. Educators are publishing guides on how to make technology a tool for teaching and learning. We are finally catching up with our toddlers. There will be screen time and hopefully it will be limited, thoughtfully chosen, interactive and collaborative.

So how can Kim Kardashian help guide parents of older children?

Kim is an adult who has charted a purposeful — and arguably successful — course online. A child’s digital footprint starts at birth and parents are now responsible for their children’s growth and development offline and online. There needs to be a dialogue at home and at school about online celebrity. Being famous carries a lot of weight and parents need to discuss online overexposure. What is the cost of 5 minutes of “Facebook Fame”? The goal should be to earn fame for a worthy accomplishment, not fame for fame’s sake.

Children as young as 8 need to understand what and how to share and that they will be judged by their choices both offline and online. Secondly, parents will have to monitor their tween or teen’s growth online just like they would offline with full transparency.

That means no spying!! The goal of “monitoring” is not simply to manage our children’s online portfolio, but to cultivate online resilience. We all agree that resilience, more popularly called “grit,” is a key component to success and happiness in adult life. Our children must metaphorically “skin their knees” online.

We must be there to apply a Band-Aid and guide them to safety next time. We don’t take away a 5-year-old’s bike when they fall off of it. Instead, we encourage them to get right back on, face their fears and develop the balance and coordination needed for success.

When parenting online, we must monitor our kids so we can identify when they make small mistakes. We need to tell them when they post a mean comment or send a slightly inappropriate picture. Kids’ online identity is a window into their real identity. Understanding how your daughter chooses a selfie may give you valuable information into her body image issues. By reading your son’s blog, you may better understand his frustrations and anxieties.

Don’t send your teens off alone into their rooms to play games, develop avatars and create new personas. Parents must be present so they can provide alternatives to how Kim Kardashian presents herself online. Teenagers must learn to reveal their true but “best self” online without being too revealing.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Jodi Gold.