The very best part of the work I do at Risk Within Reason is the direct contact with parents, teachers, students and readers. I learn something new every time I do a presentation , and the questions I get from audiences and my blog readers help keep me focused on the current issues for schools and families. Which I then pass on to my readers and workshop participants.
Like the explosive growth of Twitter use among teens, partly (they say) because their parents are watching them too closely on Facebook. Or the ways they use video chat to communicate things with friends without leaving a trail. Or the truly creative use of blogging, animation and gaming sites to produce things (from photos to animation to game design and coding) that teens couldn’t have imagined doing even 10 years ago.
It isn’t all bad stuff. It isn’t all scary. Our teens are bright and earnest and curious. But we do need to watch them very carefully. And I like to think that by helping keep my readers informed about these complex and ever-changing issues, I make it easier for them to know what to watch.
When I do workshops on digital safety in schools, I always send out quick surveys beforehand — one for the students and one for the parents. That way I can integrate data from that school into my talk; they like to know what their students and parents believe.
The results are fascinating. They’ve shown me an interesting disconnect between the fears and concerns of both groups, as well as not too surprising differences between the household Internet and cellphone rules as understood by the kids and their parents. It’s a topic I plan to write about soon.
But before I do, I need your help. I’m trying to collect more information about parents’ concerns. What are you worried about when it comes to your kids and technology? How do you deal with those worries? What do you wish your kids knew?
If you have children under the age of 18, please take 5 minutes from your busy schedule to complete this simple 10-question survey. If you have more than one child, pick one between 10 and 16 when you consider your responses. It’s anonymous and confidential. And I promise to write all about it here on Rise Within Reason.
Teenage girls do it; teenage boys don’t. It’s the phenomenon called “dumbing down” — the one that transforms your bright, curious, thoughtful daughter into the flaky teenager wearing too short shorts and obsessing over her hair.
You worry about the oversexualized way she dresses, the self-conscious misspellings on her Facebook page (from a kid who may have aced every spelling test she ever took) and the flaky way she’s begun to express herself around her friends. The word “like” becomes omnipresent in her speech (qualifying her every statement as tentative and unsure) and she may trade in her novels and chemistry set for nail polish and see-through blouses.
According to an Oxygen Media survey famously quoted by author Lisa Bloom: “Twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty-three percent would rather lose their ability to read than their figures.”
It drives me crazy, as a parent, a woman and an educator. And yet I well remember girls my age doing this when I was a teenager. Though I may have occasionally tried it out myself once in a while back in the day, I also remember being annoyed by girls who tried to stupid their way through conversations and into social acceptance. It’s a performance of a certain kind of femininity that costs us all.
People have been quick to point fingers at the over-simplified “causes” of this well-documented adolescent trend: It’s because of Facebook. Or texting. Or cutbacks in education. Or drugs. Or television. Or rock and roll.
The truth is more complicated (isn’t it always?). Yes, celebrity culture celebrates air-brushed beauty and stupidity (like these infamous Diesel ads). But most male celebrities are not known for their eloquence and intelligence either. And the classic image of submissive female beauty, the side-turned head and downcast eyes, has been tacitly modelling femininity over the past 500 years of classic Western art (see this YouTube video for a brilliant overview).
We know that girls who dumb down are more at risk for binge drinking, illegal drug use, smoking and unhealthy sexual activity. Ironically, some of these activities (especially the drugs and alcohol) really can impact brain function. It won’t be just a pretense anymore – they really will be less smart.
The truth is that girls score higher than boys across the board throughout primary schools. They enter the school system with a developmental edge when it comes to sitting and learning, focusing on the teacher, language acquisition, handwriting and reading. And this female advantage persists until puberty, when girls’ math, science and computing scores begin to fall unless they are in single sex schooling (see for example, this research piece by Gillibrand, E. or this one by Logan, K.).
According to psychologist JoAnn Deak, there are a whole host of reasons why girls are likely to do better in single sex schooling (for a detailed explanation, see this post) and boys to thrive in co-ed schooling. The presence of boys during the tumultuous years of puberty pits hormones and emotion against the longer term, frankly more boring goals of intellectual achievement. Our culture nudges them quite clearly towards the former.
But even in girls’ only schools, girls tend to dumb down in their self-presentation. It’s easy to dismiss this as a harmless stage they are going through, or a normal part of development. I don’t believe it’s harmless or normal. I think that when we ignore our daughters’ efforts to hide their intelligence behind their looks, we are tacitly telling them it’s OK. And our culture is full of too many examples of girls who made poor choices for themselves from this position of insecurity and low self-esteem. Poor choices that could affect the people they date, the friends they choose, the schooling and career choices they make for themselves. Choices that can have long-term consequences.
So what can parents do, short of open conflict? There are plenty of options.
Love your daughter for who she is, underneath all that hair product and lip gloss. Save your most effusive compliments and encouragement for the things she does with her mind and her good nature, not for her beauty. The little girls who grow up being told they were pretty princesses quickly learn what society appreciates. It’s not too late to change the kind of feedback you give her every day.
Be clear about your values — and then stick to them. In our house, I don’t believe in tight, super short shorts, lots of makeup or see-through shirts on tweens and young teens. I know it’s fun for them to dress up like women, but I have two main concerns: on the one hand, they are not capable of handling the response they may get from others when they dress in overtly sexual ways; on the other, I believe that when parents let it slide, they are communicating tacit approval, which encourages and perpetuates this dumbing down. They can still enjoy dressing up to look good — who doesn’t enjoy that? — but not at the expense of their self-esteem.
Gently encourage non-traditional activities. Take your daughter cycling. Let her help you fix the dishwasher. Watch a TV show about something scientific or historical or cultural. Challenge her to learn something new and different. Girls. Inc and Spark Summit have got some excellent ideas. This is a really nice way for girls to spend time with their dads (which we also know is strongly correlated with higher self-esteem in girls). Moms should be careful to balance time with their daughters to include things other than shopping or manicures. Talk about what you do at work. Keep exposing them to new ideas and activities, even when the eyes roll. They will appreciate this.
Seek out opportunities for her to be with other girls (or girls and boys) in communities and activities where she can do what she likes. There are lots of teams, clubs, community service initiatives and spaces where she can reinvent herself with a different social group.
Keep talking to each other. Discuss gender stereotypes on her favourite TV show. Start a conversation (not a rant) about the lyrics of a song on the radio. these should be dialogues, not lectures, but they should open the door to critical thinking about the ways women and girls are represented. The goal isn’t to teach a lesson or come to an agreement every time, but to open the door to other ways of seeing things.
Challenge her to reclaim her brain. Don’t giggle or smile indulgently at her flakiness. Don’t let her get away with saying “I don’t know” or ignoring her homework or choosing the easier math class because it fits into her schedule better. Don’t cancel that National Geographic subscription in favour of People Magazine. In order to raise an intelligent critical thinker, you must never let her think it’s charming or attractive to pretend to be otherwise. There’s a middle ground of course – you don’t need to turn your house into the Smithsonian and pretend you aren’t watching Grey’s Anatomy — but you should be vigilant not to let the smart stuff drift away.
Remember when you first joined Facebook? Was it in the early days, as a university student? After 2006, when anyone was allowed to join? Or maybe last year, when your 12-year-old decided to get online and you figured you’d better learn about it so you can know what he’s doing?
If you’ve been a regular user of Facebook, you’ve probably uploaded lots of information over time: photos, status updates, links to interesting or funny websites, check-ins at different places. Perhaps you’ve liked certain brands or become a fan of different pages. Have you ever poked anyone? Played Words with Friends or Farmville or ticked off places you’ve visited in the Top 100 Places to See Before you Die? Did you ever list 25 random things about yourself, or write a mysterious one-word update about the colour of your bra to “raise awareness about breast cancer?”
Yeah, I’ve done some most of those things too.
A lot of it I’ve forgotten over the few years I’ve been on Facebook. But now my kids are online as well, and although I monitor their newsfeeds with them and set their privacy controls, I also know how easy it is to lose track of what you’ve shared. And I figure other parents and educators might be interested in this as well. As the Facebook information page explains, having a copy of your information is an important part of controlling what you share. Sort of like Googling yourself every once in a while, this kind of second self monitoring exercise is part of the new normal in a digital age.
Downloading your information is useful not just for monitoring some of the naughty stuff our kids may have been up to, but is particularly useful as an exercise to see just how much of ourselves we put online. What’s included? All your status updates, posts and photos. Your friend list. RSVP’s to posted event. Comments others have made on your wall and your postings. Notes you created. Your sent and received messages. Your contact information, interests, groups, pages you’ve liked.
What isn’t included are comments you made on others’ walls and posts.
How do you know others can’t download your information? Facebook requires you to enter your account password during the request (even though you are already logged in) and then sends an email to you to confirm the request a second time.
Be aware that there can be a long lag between the request, the confirmation email and receiving the actual file. In my case, it took about 45 minutes for me to receive the confirmation email and then immediately download the files (which comes compressed, so you will need WinZip or an equivalent program to unzip it). But I’ve seen complaints from those online who said it took several days or never arrived.
So how do you do it? It’s pretty easy actually, though Facebook continues to change what information you will get and how long it will take for the file to be sent to you.
Start by going to your Account Settings. You can access this from the upper right hand corner of your page, by clicking on the arrow.
Next, scroll down to the bottom of the screen where it has a hyperlink that says “Download your information.”
You have the choice of downloading an expanded archive (which includes IP login addresses, password changes, who you’ve “poked,” etc.). I figure once you are downloading an archive, why not get all the information Facebook has on you? No disadvantage to choosing this option, but be aware it comes as a separate zipped file that doesn’t include the status updates, photos, etc. So if you are interested in everything, you have to do both. If you want to know more, click on the above link for a full list of what additional information you can get.
Try it out. You might find it’s a pleasant walk through your activities of the time you’ve been on Facebook. And you might find some photos, status updates or comments you want to scrub from your profile. It’s an exercise we all need to do every once in a while.
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
"Alissa is the consummate professional and speaks with great authority. We hope she will be one of our feature speakers at many future workshops." Kelly Wilton, editor and co-publisher of Montreal Families Magazine
RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en