We all want our kids to have a healthy relationship with technology. But sometimes our most well-intentioned efforts, like limiting screen time, don’t work. So what are the most effective ways to put our kids on the right digital path? Richard Culatta has plenty of ideas. Richard is the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), a nonprofit that serves education leaders in more than 100 countries across the globe, and was appointed by President Obama as the Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education. “Technology is like a hammer,” he says. “You can use it to build great things or to smash things apart.” Richard joins us to share ideas from his new book, Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World, on how to encourage kids to unleash their creativity, learn new skills, and use tech for good. He shares actionable steps parents and children can take to create healthy digital cultures in our families, practice good digital citizenship, and make our online – and physical – world a better place.
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For more information, visit innovativelearning.com.
Teaching kids to use technology for good
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, but policing your kids' internet use, social media feeds, and screentime, well, that can feel like a full-time job all on its own. What if there was a better way, a way that we could teach our kids to be responsible digital citizens and use technology for good? That's Richard Culatta's lifelong mission. He's a father of four and was appointed by President Obama as the Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education.
Today, Richard is the CEO of the International Society for Technology and Education, a nonprofit that serves education leaders in more than 100 countries across the globe. Richard joins me to talk about his new book, Digital For Good: Raising Kids To Thrive In An Online World. He shares a framework for parents on how to help and encourage our children to become healthy and responsible digital citizens and use technology for good, all while avoiding the bad, have a listen.
Before you do, I have a show update to share. Equal Parts will be taking a little summer vacation, and I'm stepping down as hosts of the show, but don't worry, we'll be back in the fall with amazing new episodes and some very special guests that I know you'll love. It's truly been an honor and a pleasure to go on this journey with you. I've personally learned so much, and I hope you have too. Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Richard, thank you so much for being here today, and thanks for joining Equal Parts.
Richard Culatta: It's such an honor to be part of your show. I'm glad to be here.
Emily Paisner: I can't speak for all parents, but I know that with my 10 and 11-year-old, technology and screen time are ongoing battles that we're having in my house. In your book, you talk about a thesis that our problem isn't the technology, it's that we haven't established the right expectations for participation in the digital world. Can you share what you mean by that?
Richard Culatta: Yes. It's such an important nuance to make here. By the way, I'm dealing with this, too. I have four kids, all in this age, and it's a constant adjustment and repositioning to try to find the right balance. The thing that I want to make clear and that I try to make clear in the book is that it's not about technology itself, technology is neutral, technology it's like a hammer, you can use it to build great things, you can use it to smash things apart.
What we need to do is we need to be changing our narrative around the technology culture that we're creating in our families, and have it be less about using technology or not and more about how are we using technology, what are we doing with technology, who are we using it with. That's the shift that we have to start to make if we want to create a healthy culture for tech use in our lives.
Emily Paisner: You call out for digital dysfunctions that really are detrimental to our kids and society. Can you talk through some of those and what some of the dangers are that they pose?
Richard Culatta: One of them is the fact that we have become very complacent with living in a digital world and allowing our kids to live in a digital world that is primarily funded by ads. These aren't like the old-school Crystal Pepsi ads that we watched on TV, these are ads that are using data to target selling to our kids. It's a problem if we don't understand what's happening. If we know what it is and we know what's going on and we teach what's going on, it can work, but when we don't understand that we are basically selling our kids, giving our kids' data to make some money for somebody else. That's a dysfunction that we need to deal with.
Another is you hear we have this ongoing issue of what I call digital exploitation, sometimes we call it cyberbullying. It's just being mean to people in virtual spaces. Then another one that I talk about is that if we are not using technology effectively, it can skew our perception of reality. We have this very personalized digital world that we live in, and what it means is it can reinforce our own beliefs to a point that we feel like everybody around us believes what we believe. That's very dangerous because it makes it seem like somehow we're always right. It fuels this perpetual rightness.
Emily Paisner: That can particularly be hard on young girls, right?
Richard Culatta: I would say young girls and young boys, it just manifests itself in different ways. Again, it's this idea that whatever we think and believe is the right thing. Then when we encounter somebody in a virtual space or a physical space that doesn't believe what we believe, which of course is most of the world on any given issue, it feels so foreign because we don't know how to even connect. It's like we can't even sync up to have the conversation because we have no practice being exposed to ideas that are different than ours if we just allow this dysfunction of only listening to the things that social media and algorithm-based sites provide us.
Emily Paisner: It still freaks me out when I am talking to my husband about something and then the next minute I see an ad pop up on Facebook about that topic. It just doesn't feel right somehow.
Richard Culatta: If that information that popped up about the topic were information that said, "Hey, here's some other ways that you could think about this." That actually could be very healthy. The dysfunctional part is when it comes back and says, "What you were talking about, you're right, and here's a bunch more things that reinforce your rightness." That's the part that's so dangerous because it actually erodes our ability to have conversations with people who think differently than us.
Emily Paisner: I know I try really hard to teach my kids how to use technology responsibly, but despite all of my most well-intentioned efforts, and I'm sure a lot of the listeners can relate to this, we're probably going about this in the wrong way. As the expert here, can you share some of the common mistakes that you've seen, and how can we make it better?
Richard Culatta: Yes. Absolutely. First of all, we all need to just breathe and just realize that this is a tough process and it takes time to get right. Nobody should beat themselves up over, we just need to relax a little bit. One of the things I love about what ended up coming out in the book is it's a very positive view on it. Now, I'm not avoiding these dysfunctions that we talk about. We're really clear about dangers that are there. There's no rose-colored glasses, but it turns out that this narrative that we've been using for a long time, this very negative narrative, actually in some ways is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I talked to parents and teachers and education leaders and policy-makers around the world and one of the things that I saw was these common threads of the conversation that are not helpful. I'm going to share them with you now. One of them is we tend to immediately present all of the things not to do with technology. It's the list of don'ts. Don't share your password, don't meet online, don't post an inappropriate picture, don't, don't, don't.
The problem is you can't practice not doing something and being an effective digital citizen takes practice. These are not easy skills. My kids play the piano and there's no way that they could become good pianists by just being told every week, "Here's all the notes not to play." At some point, you have to say, "Here are the notes to play. Here's what we want you to actually do." We have to flip that narrative away from the list of don'ts to what we actually want our kids to do and be when they are in a virtual space.
Emily Paisner: I love that concept of being a good digital citizen. I hadn't heard that before and I just think that's a fantastic way to look at it. Can you share some of the creative techniques that we as parents can use to reframe our thinking about screen time and teaching our kids to have this healthy digital balance?
Richard Culatta: Here are a couple of thoughts and many, many more that I include in the book, but here are a couple of thoughts. One of them is to be very cautious of the tools that we use to try to find balance. I have a whole chapter in the book about finding balance. One of the things that I hear a lot is this use of screen time limits as the way to find balance.
I know it comes from a good place; I know that it's wanting to not have our kids sitting in their room playing on a game for all of their whole life. I get that, but the problem is, first of all, the whole concept of screen time is problematic because it communicates to kids that all digital activities have the same value. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Every digital activity, there are some that are activities that we could do almost without limit, reading, and learning, and connecting with a family member, or learning a new language or a new skill. Those are all digital activities.
There are also digital activities that I think we could agree have very little value, playing Candy Crush for hours on end or whatever game is.
Emily Paisner: Guilty, guilty. [laughs]
Richard Culatta: You're right. Welcome to the club. We all are. This is something we all are, but this idea of screen time and saying, "Okay, you can use your device unlimited for the next hour before dinner." That is not a helpful way to prepare kids to thrive in a digital world because what they have to learn is that some activities, again, have more value than others. To give you a real practical way to think about this, I like to tell parents, think about this the same way you think about getting your kids to eat in a healthy way.
You don't have food time. It's not like, "Okay, it's five o'clock, you have an hour of food time. You can eat whatever you want. You can eat vegetables, or you could just eat Twinkies for the next hour, but then when food time is over, we're going to stop." No, of course not. We teach, there are some foods that you can eat all the time, fruits, vegetables, we can drink water all the time.
There are certain times of the day where it's appropriate to have a big meal. Then sometimes we eat some snacks and eat some Twinkies and some Doritos, but those happen interspersed throughout other moments of the day and they generally happen after we've eaten healthy foods. That sets in their minds this idea that all food is not created equal. When they leave our house, they've left understanding how to make those decisions for themselves. If we do screen time, we are taking away their ability to recognize the difference between valuable and not valuable activities in a virtual space.
Emily Paisner: Not all screen time is created equal is what you're saying?
Richard Culatta: That's right. That's the conversation we have to have, and so what we do is we talk, and I recommend that parents talk to their kids about, what apps, what activities are worth your time. Are you getting a good return on the investment [laughs] for this app? For young kids, you could talk about, if somebody comes up and says, "I'll give you a dollar for your bike," you'd say "No way." Of course not. Why? Because that dollar is not a good exchange for the value they're getting for your bike.
It's the same thing when you're talking about your use of technology is the activity that you're spending hours on worth your valuable time? If not, then let's talk about some other types of activities you can do in a digital space.
Emily Paisner: You have four kids, I think you said they were ranging from pre-teens to teens. What are some of the good digital activities that they've been leaning into lately?
Richard Culatta: We have a thing called device use agreements. We actually have an agreement contract that we sign with our kids when they are using a device in our internet. One of the things that we include in that is a request that the devices be used to capture family moments. We really encourage our kids to use tech that brings out the creative side in them. There are some great apps for making music and making videos. It's like you don't even have to be a great musician, there are these looping apps where they give you some music and you can loop them and remix them.
They're so much fun. They're creative, and they're helping reinforce that the technology that our kids have in their hands are tools that can be used to create and design and build, not just passively receive information.
Emily Paisner: At the end of the year, this year, my son shared with us one of those music lyrics that he had made in digital literacy this year. I was blown away by how the school leveraged technology in their favor this year. It was really impressive.
Richard Culatta: Oh, that's so cool. It's so good to hear, but that's the thing that you bring out, which is so important, is if we just wait and let our kids find the apps that they're going to use on their own, they're unlikely going to find these opportunities to use them in creative ways. They'll do some of that, but one question that I think all parents should ask is, "How often are we suggesting apps for our kids to try?" We do it with books all the time, at least I hope we do.
In our family we say, "Hey, here's this good book. Do you want to read this book?" Especially in those transition years where we're transitioning from reading picture books to reading more substantial books. We're always trying to suggest books. How often have we said, "Hey, here's an interesting app, you should try it"? Because if we're not doing that, then again we're allowing some other person or company to influence the choices that our kids are making about how they're using their devices.
Emily Paisner: Most of us can admit that we have a pretty bad addiction when it comes to technology. I know I feel guilty about it all the time. I know I'm doing it, I'm consciously doing it and I just can't stop. How can we try to be more aware of our own tech and model better behavior for our kids?
Richard Culatta: I'm going to push you on that because that was an example of this binary thinking about it. It's like just our use of tech. I would push you to say, "What is it that you're doing?" If you are answering emails all through dinner, that's a problem. That's a problem that you're out of balance. There are times where I'm a little bit late because I'm helping set up meals for somebody in our neighborhood who's very sick. That's a very different use of technology. The problem is we're not overt about that when we talk with our kids.
One simple thing that parents can do is just say, "Hey, I'll be right there. We have a blood drive at church this Sunday and I'm sending out invitations so that people can come. Do you want to come take a look at the invitation and see what you think?" It's just helping them see that this is a really useful, powerful way to use technology.
Again, if I'm sitting there playing MineSweeper for-- I don't know if anybody plays MineSweeper other than me anymore, but if I'm sitting there playing a game over and over again, then, yes, I may have a balance problem that I have to deal with, but it's that teasing out the different uses of technology and being transparent with our kids, that some of our own uses of technology are not really a good use of our time and others really are, but it's not all the same just because it shows up on a screen.
Emily Paisner: Is it too late for some families, if they've already dropped the ball a bit on the family's digital culture, is it too late for them to go back and say, "Okay, what can I change? How can we learn from this and what can we do differently"?
Richard Culatta: No, not at all. It's never too late. In fact, even families who start this right at the beginning constantly need to adapt and adjust as their kids get older as technology changes. It's not like if you're coming late to the party here you're suddenly out of luck, but there are some things and there are some tips that I provide in the book, specifically to families who maybe have been a little hands-off in creating this culture, not very intentional about the digital culture that they're creating in their families, to try to help make that transition.
One of the big tips is involve your kids, just involve them in the process. Have a conversation with them and say, "What are some really good uses of technology that we should care about? What are some things that maybe as a family we don't want to do? Are there places in times where technology doesn't make sense?" We have a rule in our family, we've decided with our kids that any time we feel like we have to close a door for privacy, technology probably doesn't belong there.
If I have to do something private, we all teach our kids about privacy, when you go change your clothes you do it behind a closed door. We teach that from young ages. If I'm in a place where I feel like I need that privacy, my device probably should not be there and shouldn't be on because it helps reinforce that idea that nothing that happens on that device is truly private. That's one of the pieces of culture that we built into our family with the input from our kids.
Emily Paisner: Let's talk about privacy and digital privacy for a second. It's a major concern for parents. What do we need to be aware of when it comes to personal data that platforms are gathering about our kids, and what can we do to help them stay alert to make sure that they understand the implications of those?
Richard Culatta: It's a great question. I think one of the things that we need to do, again, is it's not a negative, it's not a, "Don't ever go to any site and don't ever share any information." It's having a conversation about when is something that you are going to receive in a digital space worth it enough to provide some of your personal information, and that's going to be different depending on what the information is. If it's an email address, maybe free access to a website that I think is going to be really valuable is worth providing an email address. If it's more information than that, then probably not, but that's the conversation.
Something that we can talk to our kids about is, and it's a good question to ask, which is, "How is that site being paid for?" Good question to ask, or an app. If your kids are coming and asking for an app to be installed on their device, how is the app paid for, do we pay for it? Is it a subscription? Okay. Is there advertising and viewing those ads is what pays for it? Is it some other information that they're getting from us and then selling to a third party? When we have those conversations with our kids, they become much more aware and alert when they go to a new site, about how it is being monetized and therefore know when to have their Spidey senses up a little bit higher.
Emily Paisner: As our work worlds have become more digital and we think about the future of work, is digital citizenship something that we should be taking well into adulthood?
Richard Culatta: Oh, 100%. That's the reason why it matters so much. If we don't get this right, if we can't reset some of these conversations, I really fear for the future of democracy. I really truly fear that we will be able to maintain a healthy, safe, free society if we don't understand how to uphold these principles of living together in a healthy way when we're in a virtual space. We need to help raise children who can thrive as leaders in a world where most of the most important life interactions that they're going to have are actually going to be happening in digital environments.
Emily Paisner: If you had to make a prediction about our digital future and what it's going to look like in 10 or 20 years, what do you think it will look like? What are you most optimistic about and what keeps you up at night?
Richard Culatta: Wow. First of all, I will say, I am optimistic about the future. I look at the creative, amazing young people that are growing up in this virtual space and I just think, "Man, if we can just get them the right scaffolding, just set up the context right for them," they will do amazing things that we just have not been able to do, but it really does depend on how we set them up for success. So much of that is early on coaching and showing the way technology can be used to enrich our lives, to connect with other people, to find solutions to the world's toughest problems.
If we can just help create that understanding, then I think we will be in really, really great shape down the road. If we can't though, I do want to be clear about this, if we can't, we will continue to see this disintegration of civil society. We will continue to see an erosion of democracy and an inability to work with people who have different views and different beliefs, and because of that, we'll not be able to solve the world's tough problems that'll be coming our way,
Emily Paisner: Richard, this advice has been so fantastic. I am absolutely going to be drafting up a digital agreement for our family because it's just so, so important. I'm sure that a lot of people listening to this learned just as much as I did. Can you share with them where they can learn more about you and your book and all of the incredible work that you do?
Richard Culatta: Absolutely. My site is innovativelearning.com and you can find more information about me and the work that we do. I run an organization called the International Society for Technology and Education. There are links to it. You can get a whole bunch more information there, but also you can find links to the book, or you can go to Amazon or any of your favorite bookstores and search for it. Digital for Good is the name of the book, Raising Kids to Thrive in An Online World. It's just a really practical set of guidelines to help create a healthy digital culture in our families. I think if we can leverage these ideas, we'll find balance and just a healthier digital environment for our kids to grow up in.
Emily Paisner: Richard, thank you so much for being here and for helping us to raise good digital citizens.
Richard Culatta: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
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