Carrie Rogers-Whitehead
A mother and her daughter use a cell phone

The average public school student in the U.S. spends about 6.5 hours in school a day, 180 days a year. That may seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to time spent outside of school. In fact, over the course of a year, students are in school only 15% of their time.

As teachers can attest, it’s hard to teach important skills and impart content knowledge in such a small amount of time. That’s why teachers need the support of parents and caregivers. If lessons are not repeated and reinforced outside the classroom, students cannot internalize them and truly learn.

This is not only true about traditional subjects like math, reading and science, but it also applied to digital citizenship education, which needs to be reinforced, taught and demonstrated outside the classroom.

But what to do? And where to start? It can be difficult for parents to talk to their children about technology. Parents may be afraid of technology and that fear may permeate their conversations.

Annabel Sheinberg spends a lot of time talking to parents. In her role as vice president of learning and partnerships at Planned Parenthood of Utah, she is used to discussing sensitive and difficult topics with parents, and some of those conversations could be applied to talking about technology.

“Remember that when your child asks a question, that is a big compliment and a chance to connect,” Sheinberg says.  “Always affirm the asker with a statement such as, ‘That's a great question’ or ‘I'm glad you asked’  or ‘I'm sure lots of people wonder about that.’” 

But you can’t always depend on the child asking the questions, parents need to prompt and start conversations themselves. Here are some specific conversation prompts for different ages:

Children 8 and under

  • Show me how do you do that on (name of the device).
  • What is your favorite thing to do on (name of the device).
  • What do you think will happen next in the (movie/show/game)?
  • How did it make you feel when you saw that on (movie/show/game)?
  • When I’m on my phone, how does it make you feel?
  • Can I have permission to share this (picture/video/quote) of yours?

Children ages 8-13

  • How would you feel if someone shared something private about you online without your permission? What if I shared it?
  • What things are private to you? What things are public?
  • Will you be able to finish your homework on time to (play game/watch show)?
  • Who are your friends online?
  • Do your friends ever do things that make you feel uncomfortable online? If so, what are they?
  • Do you feel (name of caregiver) is on devices too much? If so, how could we be better?

“Use open ended questions whenever possible," Steinberg suggests.  “These start with what, how and why, rather than do or when.”

Teens ages 13-17

  • What do you think that (show/movie/meme) is trying to say? Why do you think it’s saying that?
  • What would you tell a friend who shared something online that probably should have been kept private?
  • If a friend told you that you shared something that should have been private or made them feel uncomfortable, how would you feel?
  • How does technology affect dating relationships?
  • What’s something positive you can do online today?
  • Who do you want to be online?

You can help students understand the benefits and responsibilities of being online by sharing the video below: 

Teens may have difficult questions. They are experiencing a time of transition and figuring out who they are in the world. “It's OK if you don't know the answers," Steinberg says. "Just discuss the question and model how to find the answer online using safe and trustworthy websites.”

Show your vulnerability to your teen in order to develop that trust. Treat them like the intelligent, growing humans they are. 

“Try to be collaborative and empathetic in your approach,” Steinberg says. “Engage in mutual problem solving when possible rather than using the ‘parent voice.’  This will deepen your relationship and connection so that future conversations happen.”

Want more resources for talking to parents about tech? Get the free guide!

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is the founder of Digital Respons-Ability and the author of Digital Citizenship: Teaching Strategies and Practice from the Field and the upcoming title from publisher Taylor & Francis, Becoming a Digital Parent.