EdTech Blog

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Keeping Kids Connected

Human beings are social creatures, so many of us are feeling the effects of having to remain apart. Kids are feeling it, too.

Between Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype, we're able to see our loved one's faces and share stories. But what else can connect us? Little kids can read with someone they love via an app that helps focus them. For older kids, there are games you can play together and apps to use to watch videos together (with supervision). So, get creative and find connection where you can!

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Skullbreaker: Another Day, Another Online Challenge

You may have heard about the latest online challenge: The Skullbreaker. It involves three people standing in a line who jump at the same time. While the middle person is in the air, the other two people knock their feet out from under them, resulting in an epic fall. It was a trending hashtag on TikTok, got some press, and then was replaced by backlash hashtags about how stupid it was.

That's the typical life cycle of online challenges like these, most frequently seen onTikTok and YouTube : They pop up and go viral, but as soon as they rise to the attention of adults, they fade away. Usually in their wake is a lot of commentary about the danger of online challenges. So, given that parents are hardly ever in on the trend before it's on its way out, the best defense is to talk to your kid about challenges in general. If a challenge could result in injury to people or harm to property, like the recent Penny Challenge that caused some fires, it's off limits, no matter how popular. If your kid feels compelled to participate, encourage them to be the first one to call out the danger or ridiculousness, as rebuke usually trends, too. Ultimately, it's important to talk to kids about how the lure of likes can make us do stupid things, and that pausing to stop and think is one of the most important online challenge there is.

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Anonymous Apps: Why They're Popular and What to Do

Post comments about people anonymously? What could go wrong? So much can, and yet kids love anonymous apps enough to encourage developers to keep making more of them. But what are the risks, and how do we talk to our kids about them?

A couple of years ago, it was Sarahah, and now it's Yolo: Q&A, Lipsi, Tellonym, and LMK: Anonymous Polls. And it's almost certain that there'll be another one soon. It's not rocket science to see why these are trouble: Kids post really cruel stuff and don't have to answer to it. Why do kids want to use them? Because alongside the bullying , kids can reveal crushes and read the complimentary things their friends say about them. The risk and freedom of expression are part of the fun. Unfortunately, that fun can go south fast if crushes stir up drama or someone gets lots of mean comments. Even younger kids get a taste of this in games with chat like Roblox and Animal Jam; it's easy to hide behind an avatar and say things they might not otherwise. So, as soon as your kids are online, it's a good idea to talk about the double-edged power of anonymity. And while we don't recommend teens use anonymous apps because of the consistent trouble they can stir up, if your kid uses one, make sure they're using it to spread positivity and are ready for whatever comments come their way.

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Tik Tok Nonstop: Should You Say Yes or No?

There are plenty of flash-in-the-pan apps, but it turns out TikTok is decidedly not one of them. If your kid isn't already using it, they're probably asking to. But should you say yes? What are the pros and cons?

When you first open the app to the For You page, you'll see a constant scroll of mostly tame, usually funny videos. The hashtags (videos that use the same music or follow the same theme) will likely inspire your kid's creativity. Some kids even make videos that involve political and historical commentary. On the flip side, a lot of the music that kids lip-synch to contains profanity and sexual references. Since older teens are sometimes scantily clad and dancing provocatively, younger kids often want to do the same. The comments on those videos can be cruel  or even predatory. And like all social media, while there's an innocent, fun side, there's also a darker underbelly for those who look for it. So with all these mixed messages, it's important to keep a few things in mind. First, talk to your kid about their reasons for wanting to use it. Do they want to post videos? Just scroll? Get famous? Their answer will lead to a conversation. Then, check out the parent controls  and settings in the app. You can set a passcode to control how much time your kid can use it and limit the amount of explicit music they hear (though that system's not perfect). You can also go through the settings together to make the account private and control comments, messages, and other features. There's also an under-13 app experience for those who sign up with a birth date showing they're 12 or under that doesn't allow them to post, comment, or search. So, since you know your child best, weigh the pros and cons, have a conversation, and set limits—both in and out of the app—if you decide to say yes.

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Books, Movies, and TV Shows Highlighting Black Heroes and History

Though kids study history in school, they don't always hear every important story or learn about all the people who changed the course of history. And when it comes to books and movies, we still have room to grow when it comes to surfacing media that reflects the lives of African Americans.

To deepen your kid's understanding of history, you can check out books for little kids,tweens, and teens. And to introduce a critical conversation about racism, you can watch these movies together to get the discussion started. This list has a movie for all ages about a wide variety of African American experiences. But don't stop there: Finding media that represents all kinds of people matters both to kids whose lives that media reflects and those who need a window into a world other than their own. So, take a little time to consciously diversify your family's media diet, and keep your conversations going.

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Help Your Kids Get Solid Sleep By Putting Those Devices to Bed

Do you sleep with your phone near your bed? You're not alone. Our research tells us that 26% of parents and 36% of teens wake up to check their phones at least once a night. And younger kids playing Nintendo Switch in their rooms past lights out pose the same problem: Our devices are interfering with our sleep.

As parents, we fight the battle of bedtime because we know sleep is really important to our kids' physical development. And many of us know how much a lack of sleep can negatively affect mental health. So, even if there weren't other concerns around privacy and safety that went along with kids having devices in their bedrooms, protecting their sleeping hours is a good enough reason to stow devices elsewhere or lock them down at night. Try sitting down as a family and taking a team approach: You're all going to charge your devices elsewhere overnight (your sleep is important, too!). If keeping all devices out of the bedroom isn't feasible for some reason, then make sure to lock down the functions that can be disruptive, like using the parental control app with the Switch or Screen Time on an iPhone. So, pull up those covers and shut down those devices to get some solid shut-eye!

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#Culture: What's the Meaning of Memes?

If you use any kind of social media, you've seen a meme. Basically, they're images taken out of context with funny captions that spread around the internet with people riffing on them as they travel. If one sticks around for a while, it can become a kind of inside internet joke that people will recognize, even if you're using the image in a new way. Sometimes, memes comment on current events, sometimes they highlight a universal truth, and sometimes they reveal a fact about the poster. Really, the applications are limitless, and they're often hilarious. So, in general, parents have seen memes and probably laughed at them, but then why are kids' memes so confusing?

They're meant to be. Unless you watch, listen to, or play what they play, you aren't supposed to understand the references or why they're funny to your kid. And that's fine. For the most part, memes are harmless fun and a shorthand kids use to communicate. The biggest risks with memes come when they convey hateful or stereotypical ideas, mature content, or misinformation . Social media is home to all types of memes, so if your kid uses Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, or any other social app, they will likely see these, depending on who and what they follow. TikTok even has its own world of insider memes. Younger kids who play games like Roblox or Minecraft have their own worlds of memes that are readily available online—but they're not all appropriate for kids. Also, since lots of kids get their news from social media, they sometimes see a hot take on current events in a meme and take it for the truth. And iffy memes kids pass around can affect their future; just ask the Harvard freshmen who got their acceptances rescindedfor sharing racist memes.

Ultimately, like any other piece of content from the internet, we need to stay involved and help kids make sense of the stuff they don't understand—or think they do, but don't. Know Your Meme can help you decipher them as well. And if you see a meme that looks offensive and your kid says, "You just don't get it," you can tell them that their teachers and future colleges won't either. If it seems like it might be offensive, it probably is.

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TikTok and Performance Platforms: What You Need to Know

If you've seen your kid dancing around your living room in front of their phone, they might be making a TikTok video. Witnessed your kid pretending to put on makeup while talking to the mirror? They're dreaming of being a YouTube star. Ever randomly Google your kid's name and a short story on Wattpad pops up?

In the age of online performance, many kids have shifted their dreams from basketball pro and movie star to esports competitor and influencer. Though hitting the big time online isn't easy, it does happen, so some kids desperately want to start their own channel or account in the hopes they'll be one of the lucky ones. But should you let them ? The truth is, motivations matter. Unlike kids shooting a million free throws in the privacy of an empty court, these kids are trying to make it big in front of the whole world. So, if kids strike out with the expectation that they're going to go viral, the mean comments and low number of likes might really bring them down. That doesn't mean you need to say no. It does mean you need to get to know the platform(s) your kid wants to use, set parameters, monitor, and make sure they can handle the scrutiny—and potential creepers . It's also important that they have fun! Being creative is wonderful and to be encouraged, but when the focus is only on success, the magic of the process gets lost. So focus on safety—and fun.

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New Phone, Now What?

You made it through the holidays and school break, and maybe you even nailed it with the perfect device, game, or gadget for your kid. But now that the initial excitement has passed and your kid is obsessed, you might be having second thoughts.

Don't worry! Not only are you not alone, but it's not too late. If you got a tablet or phone for your kid, you can still take a breath, sit down with them, talk about expectations, and go through the settings with them. You can also take some time to use the parental controls on the device itself: Screen Time on iOS and Family Link on Android , which is still an app you have to download but can access through Digital Wellbeing. Control time limits, downloads, internet searches, mature content, and more—depending on their age and level of maturity—and then communicate with your kid about the whys and hows. If you got a smart home device or game console, it's worth checking out the settings and parental controls on them, too. And as the new year kicks off, consider using that Family Media Agreement you've been meaning to introduce.

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Online Negativity and Vulnerable Kids: Let Some Sunshine In

As parents, we're familiar with cyberbullying, and while that certainly happens, we also need to think about the power of online words between people who have—or have had—a relationship. While not technically cyberbullying, it can be incredibly damaging, especially if the people involved are in pain and vulnerable.

The documentary I Love You, Now Die looks at a very extreme case in which a girlfriend sent thousands of texts about ways her depressed boyfriend could take his own life—and then he did. Though there are nuances to this story, it illustrates what can happen when there's a steady flow of online communication reinforcing already depressed or anxious thoughts. In this case, it was text messages, but if kids are accessing self-harm hashtags on TikTok , accounts about depression on Instagram, or anxiety-focused bloggers on Tumblr, they can get saturated in negativity. Even younger kids can get caught up in negative spaces online, like in the chat on Roblox or Animal Jam. So, if you think your kid might be vulnerable, talk to them about how finding people who understand is important, but how it's also critical to find messages about working through those feelings and coming out the other side. Aside from professional help, it can be useful for kids to use social media to find connection and support, and there are even apps that can help them build positive habits and find uplifting advice.

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Screen Time and School - How to Measure and Monitor

"But I need the computer to do my homework!" says the kid whose parent just told them to get off the device. So how do we find balance with screen use when kids need devices to do homework, and how do we know they're really using the device to get schoolwork done?

As schools increasingly require kids to go online, use apps for practice, or collaborate on shared documents, we find ourselves stuck between screens and a hard place. Since we're keeping tabs on their "just for fun" device use, it's also OK to ask questions about the tech they're using for school: What's it for? Why that product? How long should it take? Then, we need to set some expectations around the balance between the "must-dos" and "may-dos" of screen use. So, if there's an evening when they have to be on the computer for a while to write a paper, it might not be the night for an hour of Fortnite. Also, to avoid the sinkhole of multitasking and wasted time, it can help to have kids do homework in a public place in the home and put other screens in another room. And since even the comments in Google Docs can turn into an off-task chat, having a parent nearby—and walking through the room occasionally—can help. Finally,since sleep is so important, have a set bedtime that takes precedence over homework, which helps kids get the rest they need and may cut down on endless procrastination.

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Juul and Beyond: Modern Marketing and Our Kids

In 1971, cigarette companies had to stop advertising on television and radio. At that point, no one could anticipate a whole new way to inhale: vaping. Most recently, Juul e-cigarettes, which look a lot like flash drives, invaded youth culture. And since their kid-friendly flavors were heavily advertised online and in apps like Instagram, kids bought them. According to one study, more than 60% of kids didn't know Juul pods contain nicotine.

Juul is just one example of how the online worlds where our kids hang out can be full of ads that are designed to entice kids and teens. Starting with YouTube Kids unboxing videos and going all the way up to detox teas on social media, our kids need to learn to navigate this new era of marketing . It's never too early to call out commercials, whether they're explicit ads or product placement. Turning it into a game can help kids make a habit of recognizing when something's being sold, and examining why some ads are more compelling than others can give older kids some insight, too. So, even though Juul has stopped advertising, there will be another carefully crafted commodity that will hop all over social media via hashtag, and we want our kids to be ready.

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Filters, Time Limits, and Tracking: How to Handle Parental Controls

You're hired! Your new position involves screening your kid's Instagram messages, watching their TikTok videos, preventing pornographic web searches, and making sure your kid isn't waking up at 3 a.m. to text. Congratulations!

Trying to stay on top of our kid's device and media use can feel like a full-time job, so no wonder it's overwhelming. Controlling every facet of our kids' online lives is essentially impossible: Despite our best efforts, their friend might show them something iffy, or they may find ways around the parental controls we put in place. That said, there are some tech tools that can help you set and maintain boundaries. Whether your little kid is on a tablet or your big kid has a phone, both iOS and Android have built-in features that control time spent, filter content, and put parents in the driver's seat. Devices like the Nintendo Switch and the Echo  have controls, and services likeNetflix have some helpful settings. And if you're on the hunt for more, you can consider your goals  before getting special software or a device. In the end, though, setting boundaries and guiding our kids' tech use comes down to the parenting basics you know and love: conversations, expectations, transparent oversight, and clear consequences. Ultimately, we want our kids to know how to self-regulate around media and tech, so we can set that as our goal no matter the controls we use—or don't.

 
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Ring in the Holiday Season With Media Picks for the Whole Family

And so it begins: The holiday season is fully upon us, and though our celebrations may differ, we all share one thing: school breaks. Our kids will be home with us, and we want to spend quality time together. Though that will include lots of off-screen activities, we want to maximize our media time, too.

Let's start with gratitude. Really, no matter what time of year it is, we want to encourage our kids to be grateful, but since it's on brand right now, we can seize the opportunity and sit down to some movies or TV shows that focus on thankfulness. If you're into holiday cheer, there's plenty of media that will work for the whole family. And if the holidays aren't your focus, but you want to share some screen time together, there aregreat choices for that, too. So, stay in and cozy up when you're ready to take a break from the bustle!

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MS Digital Citizenship and Safety Reminders For Parents

Social Media - Social media accounts should not be created by students under the age of 13 years old. We highly recommend that if you give your child permission to have a social media account that you set up the account with them and monitor it regularly. Keep a list of all of your child’s websites that require usernames and words. 

Screen Time - Students in Middle School should limit their screen time outside of homework activities. This will help with their sleep habits and curve digital addiction. Remember that time spent on a laptop or phone can be time used up to do physical activities.

Devices at Home - We highly recommend that no devices should be allowed in bedrooms (this includes personal phones and school laptops). We recommend finding a common space to charge all devices at night.

Online Etiquette - Students should be thoughtful about the content they post online. We encourage students to ask themselves: is what I am posting kind, thoughtful, and necessary? Students are encouraged to be direct, clear, and respectful. We have reminded students that online discussions (e.g. emails, text, social media, etc.) do not include body language or tone of voice which makes word choice even more important. Students are reminded to avoid sarcasm and jokes about serious topics online to avoid being misunderstood. 

Technology Contracts - Develop a family technology contract to ensure that children are using technology wisely and safely. 
 

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How to Find Teachable Moments Using Media

Many parents have had that sinking feeling after sitting down with their kid to share a beloved classic from their youth only to get to a scene full of racism/sexism/other terrible messages, etc. But instead of covering your kid's eyes and singing, "La, la, la, la!" as loud as we can, we can turn that scene into a teachable moment.

Of course, it's harder when it takes us by surprise, but when we seek out media that introduces important topics, it can lead to a great conversation, especially if you're not sure how to get it started. Little kids usually need us to be the bridge between media and real life to make connections and put it all into context. And tweens and teens—who might go full eyeroll otherwise—are more likely to push past those awkward moments if you're talking about movie characters rather than about them. So, while you're reading and watching together, keep your eye out for opportunities to tackle some tough topics.

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Is the Amount of Screen Time My Kid Gets Normal?

As parents in the digital age, we have a lot to manage, and our kids' time on screens is not the least of it. It's easy to get anxious and wonder if we're doing it right, or, at least, if what we're doing is "normal."

Our new research shows that tweens and teens are using nearly 5 to 7.5 hours of screen media a day, which is an increase from 2016. As of 2017, kids 0-8 spend about two hours on screens each day; however, it's likely that number's gone up, too. But since there's no exact number of minutes around how much is too much for each age, how can we know if our kid are in the Goldilocks zone of "just right"?

Here are some questions you can use to get a sense of whether or not your kid's screen use is in balance with the rest of their lives:
Are they physically healthy and sleeping enough? Are they feeling connected to others? Engaged and doing okay at school? Pursuing hobbies? Having fun when they use screens? If you can answer yes to these questions, and you're not dealing with tons of conflict about screens in your house, then you let screen time fall into the "Keep an Eye On It" category instead of the "I Should Probably Worry About This All the Time" category.

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How to Handle News About the Election

As election news heats up, it's more likely that kids of all ages will hear and see a lot about the candidates and issues. Depending on their age, we want to help them make sense of the messages, think critically about what they believe, and practice news literacy skills along the way.

With any election comes a lot of noise: negative ads, competing statistics, and even personal attacks. There are lessons in those elements, but we can always steer our kid back to the actual issues. What's at stake? How can there be two opposite ideas about one issue? How do we know the truth? Letting little ones have a kid-appropriate window into the election and voting can be powerful for them. If there's a mock election at school, talk through the results. And, with older kids, you can ask them where they're getting their news, what they think, and why. It's also great to walk them through the process of checking multiple sources, especially if they're getting their news from social media, so they can develop skills to become critical thinkers and news-literate consumers.

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Scams, Lootboxes, and Skins: How Kids Spend Money Online

Ever lose allowance money trying desperately to win that plastic-bag goldfish from a rigged carnival game? Your kid may be doing the same—only online.

Although there are apps and games that contain purchases for actual content, the money kids spend online sometimes goes toward purely cosmetic items—like "skins" inFortnite—or to avoid waiting to play the next level. There are also lootboxes, which are unknown items you pay for in the hopes that you'll get something good—so, gambling. Even games like Animal Jam, which is for little kids, has a subscription plan for boxes full of unknown items. And then, of course, there are bad actors who come up with ways to take kids' money with promises of cool stuff. Thankfully, there are ways to control what your kid is purchasing via devices, and the app stores now let you know if there are in-app purchases in the description. Setting expectations ahead of time, giving a game allowance, and avoiding games that include lots of purchases are also ways to curtail the impact on your credit card.

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Less Than Awesome Apps (and What to Do About Them)

Common Sense Media Tip of the Week

The app stores are full of some cool content that can be great for kids. They're also home to some sketchy titles that weren't made with kids'—or maybe anyone's—best interests in mind. Though there's no way we can stay on top of every title, it's great to know what's hot in your kid's school and whether or not it's a good fit for your kid.

For little kids, the biggest risks often lie in free apps in the form of pushy purchases, mature ads, and creepy content that's made to look like it's OK for kids. For instance, there are free apps, riddled with ads, that use cute animation to let kids perform simulated plastic surgery! So, when it comes to free apps, it's best to look for trusted sources—like PBS or Khan Academy—and take a second to check them out yourself first.

Older kids and teens could run into apps that are all about anonymous feedback, live video chats with strangers, or are made to keep secrets. Apps like Yolo: Q&A had its big moment in the wake of the last anonymous app, and there are sure to be more. HOLLA: Live Random Video Chat is one of many "meet strangers" apps, and secret photo vaults that look like calculators are easy to find. So, as always, check what your kid's up to online and keep those lines of conversation open!

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Talk About Your Digital Day

"How was school?" "Did you have a good day?" We find ourselves asking these questions when our kids get home, even after we get "Fine" or "Yeah" for the millionth time. There are lots of creative ways to get your kids talking, but one possibility serves two purposes: If you swap stories about your digital day, you'll get them talking and get a peek into their online lives. Ask about what games they're into and why, if they saw anything awesome on YouTube, or what they made in Minecraft. And then share your own stories about cute cat videos, interesting news, or—gulp—mistakes you made and then fixed. If it's not during a device-free dinner, you can show each other things as well, which will likely lead to deeper conversations if you steer them in that direction. The more you share about the fun stuff, it's likely your kids will be more willing to share the hard stuff, too. So keep talking!

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Parents and Privacy: What Do You Need to Know?

Data breaches, hacks, and leaks—oh, my! Internet privacy sometimes feels like a mythical, murky forest that we have to find the courage to navigate. It definitely can be confusing and overwhelming. But when it comes to our kids, we do need to care.

By now, we all know that a lot of our data is up for grabs, but we expect that our kids' school devices are safe. So, when it comes time to sign that permission slip or a computer comes home, it's OK to ask questions. And while we all scramble to stay on top of the revelations and new legislation around media and tech, there are some simple steps you can take at home that can make things more private—and give you some peace of mind.

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Set Yourself Up for Success with Screens

If you let your screen rules slide over the summer, you are not alone. So as the school year begins, there are media- and tech-related issues to consider at every age that can get everyone on the same page.

First, if you're considering getting your kid their first phone this year, it's important to keep some key issues in mind and to ask some questions. And if your kid already has a phone, you'll want to know what apps they use since there will likely be ones you recognize—and ones you don't. Finally, no matter your kid's age, the time they spend on devices is always a concern, so setting your school year expectations will help prevent conflict and ease the whole family back into your routine.

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Back in the School Saddle!

Giddyap! It may or may not be your first time at this rodeo, but either way, it's back-to-school time. That means getting into routines, staying organized, and—to keep it real—just getting out of the house on time.

If you're working on getting teeth brushed, shoes on, and breakfast eaten with your little kid, there are apps that can save you from giving a thousand reminders. For older kids who might scoff at anything too "babyish," there are other options for time management that can keep your kid on track. When it comes to teens, they might need some tools to keep them focused and organized, so a variety of resources can get the year off on the right foot.

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