Friday, November 18, 2011

House Rules for Digitally Literate Girls

A dear friend, Gayle Trotter, is a thought-provoking writer on issues of faith, culture and politics, and we sat down recently to discuss the topic of digital literacy and tween girls. Our interview was selected by the Alliance for Women in Media for their "Special Report on Digital Literacy for Women and Girls", and we are so pleased to be part of this publication and group of writers.

The full interview and even more tips is available below:

What Size Is My Daughter’s Digital Footprint?

“In order to be competitive in the job market, girls will have to embrace and use digital tools to their advantage. Our generation has a responsibility to model this comfort level, adapt our behaviors, and show continual learning if we want our daughters to succeed.”

Gayle Trotter: You are known on the web as "Ms. Twixt."  What do you want people to think of when they see your name?

Ms. Twixt: I designed a label and ran a boutique called Twixt, and Twixt is a riff on the phrase “Betwixt and between.” I chose it because I focused on tween girls who are girls ages 7 to 14. Ms. Twixt is what my shop customers called me.

GT: What does digital literacy mean to you?

MT: Being digitally literate means a few things to me. It means not being afraid of technology, being comfortable with ALL the communication and media devices in your family, recognizing the expanding “footprint of digital media” (that is, how digital communications spread and leap from one format to another), separating fact from fiction and education from advertising online, and understanding both the risks and rewards that come from digital communication.

GT: Why are you so interested in girls and digital literacy?  What is the advantage for girls to be digitally literate?

MT: The generation in school today is the first “digital native” generation — they are being raised with technology. They have no notion that a phone ever needs to be wired physically to anything. The idea of calling a television remote a “clicker” makes no sense. Friends can be someone they’ve never met in person. Contrast this with their parents’ generation: growing up, I remember that every kitchen of every house I was ever in had a phone attached to the wall. Children today are growing up with technology as an integral part of their everyday lives, not as something that they need to take a course in. But that’s not how most parents have adopted technology; most have had to “learn” it.
I’m interested in digital literacy for both girls and parents because being digitally illiterate puts both groups at an economic disadvantage, actually can be perilous, and information online has, to borrow a term from physics, a long half-life — that is, information posted online hangs out for a really long time.
In writing my blog and newspaper column and running the store, I would have conversations with nearly every parent about their daughter’s cell phone usage or demands for one, whether or not Facebook was a good idea, concerns about sexting, etc. In my professional life, I lead the digital strategy department of a consulting firm, so it turned out that I was able to be helpful to a lot of these parents. It’s nice to have my two worlds of tween girls’ lifestyle and digital communication come together — that’s certainly not something I’d thought I’d see.
I saw that parents who were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with technology were at a huge disadvantage when it came to communicating with and teaching their daughters — these girls had to figure it out on their own or learn from the their friends. Navigating digital waters can be treacherous. There are cyber-stalkers, and gossipmongers rule sites like Facebook and Formspring. On top of that can be the surprise texting bill at the end of the month.
But like every coin, there’s a shiny, bright side to digital communications: kids can learn in totally new ways; information for their history paper is readily available; parents can reach their child to communicate a last-minute carpool change; we all have family photos at our fingertips; it’s easier to stay in touch with friends who’ve moved schools, etc. So it’s a very good thing.
But the benefits of technology have traditionally left girls behind. In the past, girls have lagged behind boys in high-paying technology careers, girls did not opt to pursue degrees in computer science or engineering, and girls’ scores in math and science were not on par with their male counterparts in school. In this first digital native generation, there is HUGE opportunity to make sure this trend doesn’t continue.

GT: What are the unique challenges girl face in cyberspace?

MT: The physical world poses challenges for girls and boys, and all parents worry, rightly, about what can go wrong out in the “real world.” Today, however, our kids’ real world now includes their virtual or online world. Consider:
·      Kids today now have a whole new identity, an online identity that parents may or may not know about it. In fact, it’s possible for anyone to create and maintain multiple identities online.
·      Kids can meet and form friendships with people with whom no adult in their lives have ever met in person. While this is certainly normal as kids grow older, it is now commonplace at increasingly younger ages.
·      Kids communicate with each other electronically as much if not more than in person. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have relationships with other kids that are only face-to-face — for example, kids share their music choices on Pandora or Spotify; playdates or sleepovers almost always include some rounds of YouTube surfing; and live get-togethers ALWAYS also include separate one-to-one communications via mobile phones with other kids who may or may not be at that same event. These are all forms of digital communication and preference sharing, and it is the new normal.
It’s no surprise that girls are more social and verbally communicative than boys — libraries have acres of well-researched tomes on the how girls communicate, the secret lives of girls, bullying, etc. Digital communications and social networks in particular are especially well suited for how girls communicate with each other — and that includes all of the good and bad that comes with the territory. Authors such as Rosalind Wiseman, Rachel Simmons, and Peggy Orenstein have done excellent work on the social dynamics of girls. Research finds that a rich social currency for girls is in the exchange and control of information, and nowhere is information more freely exchanged than online. One’s “status,” list of “friends,” number of “likes,” and number and nature of “Formspring questions” are all part of girls’ social currency. As a result, girls who do not understand the social networking medium will have a difficult time navigating real-life classroom hallways.  So navigating girlhood digitally is a particular concern more for our daughters than our sons.
Just as important as understanding digital communications is knowing how to trouble-shoot problems online. This ranges from being able to identify and address cyberbullying, to understanding what a credible source is for online research, to deciding what information to share online, to assessing online invitations from various sources. We teach our kids how to resolve conflict in face-to-face situations on the playing field or in the classroom — why wouldn’t we also teach them how to do so in cyberspace? The perils are no less real.

GT: How can you let girls become digitally proficient without being exposed to the trash on the Internet?

MT: In a word: slowly. Kids should be taught to go online in stages appropriate to their age, and parents need to monitor their children’s activity online.
Here are some tips for parents:
·      Create a family technology policy. Articulate clearly what your expectations are with respect to how mobile phones, television viewing, Internet browsing, YouTube watching, texting, etc., are acceptable for your family. You should share and discuss this policy with your kids so that they are clear on the behavior expectations and the reasons why. The ethics you enforce in real life absolutely extend to your kids' digital lives.
·      Trust but verify:
o   There are settings on every major browser that enable “safe search” — which is essentially search result listings of questionable sites or sites with adult content being blocked from display. Clearly this is a form of censorship, and it’s not too different from the settings on one’s cable box that block out channels based on a parent’s preference.
o   Parents should check the browsing history on all computers in the home regularly. Not only is this a list of where your kids have gone online, but it provides insight into the kind of information they are looking for and what they really use the Internet for (so you can tell if “online research” includes Facebook or not).
o   Parents should “Google” their kid’s names a few times a year to keep tabs on what information strangers can find about your child.
o   With mobile phones, most major carriers offer text plans that not only help you to budget text usage but also monitor the texts. Some carriers charge a fee while others do not — it varies a great deal. You can also look for a plan option that backs-up the information on a phone (very helpful for the address book feature) and monitor photos taken with the phone.
·      One rule in our household is that all browsing MUST happen at the dining table or living room; computers are not allowed in bedrooms. Publicly viewed screens have a “fresh air” effect on browsing.
·      If your kids are under the age of 13 and want to join Facebook, consider setting up a Facebook account for the entire family instead of each member of the family. Check your privacy settings frequently on Facebook (the default settings change often).
·      Another household rule with mobile phones that you might find helpful: store all phones in a central place (i.e., NOT in the child’s room). Not only does it help to mitigate the morning scramble and ensure sleep, but it prevents the late-night, unmonitored text sessions.
·      An ostrich strategy won’t work when it comes to technology. If you don’t know how to text, learn; if you don’t know what Facebook or Twitter are, spend some time poking around on those sites; and if you don’t know what you don’t know, ask other parents what they’re monitoring online.
·      Some of the best ways to parent include modeling the behaviors we want to see in our children. While we often think of that in the context of manners, speech, and ethics, the same applies to online behaviors.
·      Focus on the positives of technology and what it offers to your kids; girls especially need to be comfortable with technology in today’s world.
Tips for teaching kids to go online safely:
·      Kids need to know that just because they read something online, it is not necessarily true. They should learn which sites are trusted for research information and to check the footnotes, bibliography and sources for any online research.
·      Kids should keep a running list of online bookmarks for any research project. Sites such as Delicious make this easy to both save and organize, and it’s incredibly helpful to have a list of their sources available with a single click.
·      Avoid using both their first and last name together for any login, username, or screename.
·      NEVER enter their address online – this should ONLY be done by a parent.
·      Sit down together in front of the computer to research something. This summer we were looking for a new tank filter for our turtle, and this exercise was really helpful for our girls to see how we searched for information, the kinds of terms and phrases we used, and which sites we chose to visit and which ones we chose not to and why. The parent should narrate what they’re doing and thinking at each step in the process. We do exactly this kind of task-based testing in the development world when developing applications, and it is extremely valuable. This same exercise can also be done when going onto the family Facebook account and reading through Wall posts, viewing photos, finding friends, etc.
·      If your child really wants to explore a social network online, there are kid-only sites such as Everloop, Imbee, and Togetherville that are tailored just for them. Parents can feel secure in knowing that these communities have live monitoring and are COPPA-compliant (COPPA is the Child Online Privacy and Protection Act).
·      Kids should understand that information posted online has a very long “half-life.” This means not only that anyone can find that goofy photo they took with their friends junior year, but that photo will come up when someone searches for them 5 or 10 years from now — and folks they care about (such as college admission officers, job interviewers, scholarship committees, coaches) will most assuredly search for them online. This is a tough reality to confront as it means that all of the trials and tribulations of growing up and the mistakes that come with it are on public display. We can’t stuff that genie back in the bottle, but being cognizant of it is vital.
·      Be picky. Kids should be very selective in which sites they chose to use for research and which communities they choose to join. Discuss with them the merits of one social network over another, why one source for research is better than another, etc. With such vastness of information, it's important to learn to filter it well. They should be selective with their time and what information they share online — VERY selective.

GT: Are traditional school programs the best way to educate girls about digital literacy?

MT: Schools teach our children how to study, how to research, and how not to plagiarize, and learning how to go online to seek information for academic purposes is consistent with their scope. Schools are increasingly setting policies with respect to mobile phone access and use during the school day, access to social networking sites, and cyber-bullying. I think that such policies are an important part in setting the tone of a school community. So yes, schools have an important role to play in making our sons and daughters digitally literate. But the parent’s role is much broader in digital literacy because it encompasses technologies that the schools do not — mobile phone usage, television consumption, social networking access and usage, etc.  Learning how to be one’s authentic self both in-person and online, learning cyber-etiquette, and the like are all important lessons for parents to impart to their kids.

GT: You are a graduate of Berkeley and Yale. What is the responsibility of educated and successful women to model technological engagement to girls and young women?

MT: It’s a great point: being comfortable with technology is no longer relegated to the engineers on campus. Access to and efficient use of technology is as essential to academic and career success as any core subject because technology is baked into every subject. Foreign language, science, math, history, geography, business, medical, and English classrooms all use online resources to enhance teaching. Being comfortable with the tools being used and resources available to support intellectual exploration requires girls to engage with technology. More career paths are open to people who know how to use and adapt to technology, and careers in fields that haven’t even yet been invented are likely to rely heavily on technology. In order to be competitive in the job market, girls will have to embrace and use digital tools to their advantage. Our generation has a responsibility to model this comfort level, adapt our behaviors, and show continual learning if we want our daughters to succeed.

GT: Social networking sites are the vanguard of technology right now. Do you think women have an advantage over men in technology that is relational, such as Facebook?

MT: Women tend to be natural “connectors” and “sharers”, and both behaviors lend themselves well to social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It’s almost a gut instinct to share tips and information amongst ourselves, and posting reviews online or writing blog posts is a natural digital extension of that behavior. What I think will be interesting to monitor is how this first digital native generation of boys and girls use social networking technologies and if the gender-based difference in relational technologies continues. To sum up, just as we teach our daughters how to play nice in the real sandbox at the park, we also need to teach them how to navigate cyberspace. Even if your family opts-out of Facebook and cellphones, others in her class will not. Our daughters need to understand what’s happening on other’s screens even if she doesn’t have her own because it affects the environment in which she lives. She doesn’t have to participate, but she does need to understand.

Ms. Twixt is all about positive experiences for tween girls (ages 7-12). By day, Ms. Twixt runs the digital strategy practice of a consulting firm and is a mother to three tween-age girls and a baby boy. She writes under the pen name Ms. Twixt in an attempt to reduce the drama she causes for her tween daughters. Ms. Twixt is a blogger and online columnist for the Examiner.  She earned her MBA from Yale and makes her living advising Fortune 500 companies on social media and digital strategy. She previously owned a storefront in Washington, DC, that opened in 2007 to rave reviews and was selected in 2008 and 2009 as Nickelodeon’s Parents’ Pick for both “Best Kids Store” and as DC Living magazine’s “Best of 2008 Style.” She has worked with hundreds of tweens and their parents on issues such as digital literacy, cyberbullying, self-confidence, and girl power and is a thought-leader on all things tweens. Read more:

Gayle Trotter is a lawyer, mother of six, and blogger on politics, culture, and faith. You can read her work at

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for a practical guide to this issue. In our house, we require that all online activity takes place in our communal lounge-room, and that any online forms not only needs approval,but are reviewed by us first. We also check privacy settings on a regular basis. I also think it is important to take an active role rather than adopting ostrich approach.

Ms. Twixt said...

Thanks for commenting! I agree - having the kids go online in a communal room gives it that fresh-air effect that reinforces that just like everyone in the room can see where you go online, so can everyone in cyberspace.

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