January 10, 2019


Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology. By Diana Graber. AMACOM/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     The tide of books intended to help parents negotiate child-rearing in our digital age is on the verge of becoming a flood, if not a tidal wave. Inevitably well-meaning and frequently filled with very similar recommendations, these many books – not to mention the even-faster-proliferating shorter-form articles and Web sites – can be difficult for parents to sort through, partly because they sound so similar: Raising Your Child in a Digital World by Kristy Goodwin; How to Fix the Future—Staying Human in the Digital Age by Andrew Keen; and so forth. Diana Graber’s entry is called Raising Humans in a Digital World and, like others in the field, offers the considered views of an intelligent adult and parent whose own lifespan, of course, encompasses both the time before ubiquitous digital life and a current time in which everything is computer-driven, or at least seems to be.

     A parent who knows erudite-but-puckish satirist Tom Lehrer may be reminded of his line about what was once charmingly called smut: “When correctly viewed/ Everything is lewd.” Thus, seen through the lens of a world that is now digital but was not always digital (from the viewpoint of Graber and the many other authors of similar works), everything is digital – and that fact is the determining factor in family life.

     It may seem that way from an adult viewpoint, but young children – it is helpful to speak directly with some of them – are a great deal more matter-of-fact about things. For them, Wikipedia is not a marvel of instant information access: it has as much and as little importance in everyday life as the Encyclopedia Britannica did for earlier generations. The computer-in-your-pocket-or-purse known as a smartphone is not a piece of astonishment, as it can be for those who remember floppy discs (five-and-a-quarter-inch or even eight-inch ones): it is simply there, a bit of everyday life as commonplace as pens and pencils carried in pockets and purses used to be. There is a fundamental disconnect between the well-meaning and worried authors of books such as Graber’s and the young people they are worried about – the inevitable conflict between what are really two different worlds and, as a result, two different worldviews.

     That said, parents certainly have a role to play in the digital age, as in all prior ages, and the parental concerns with which Graber deals are legitimate ones that are not, at their core, very different from the concerns that parents have had since time immemorial: show children how to negotiate elements of the world with which they are not familiar, warn them about possible hidden dangers, protect them against bad people and bad circumstances with which they may unwittingly become involved, and help them grow into adults who use their tools (in contemporary times, digital tools) responsibly. Indeed, one of Graber’s most salient points is that the Internet and all the means of using it are, collectively, tools – a view that it may not be easy to put across to children, for whom they are something closer to a basic landscape of life. For example, Graber, founder or co-founder of several online and school-based digital-literacy programs, wants kids to use technologically enabled communication as a means of strengthening real-world relationships; but today’s children are more likely to see tech connection as the norm and real-world interaction as a necessity (in school, for instance) that is not inherently better or more useful than the digital type. The difference between the two forms of interacting, so clear to parents, is largely meaningless to today’s children.

     To be sure, Graber’s concerns are real and, from a parental/adult standpoint, legitimate. Young children cannot realize that the online postings they make constantly and casually may come back to haunt them years or decades later when, for instance, they are looking for a job. Young children may recognize cyberbullying but not think much about it if they are not themselves victimized. Young people exploring their sexuality may engage in sexting as casually as kids in earlier generations “played doctor,” not realizing that items sent electronically may persist in the cloud – and on friends’ and frenemies’ cellphones – essentially forever, and that there can be legal as well as emotional consequences to transmitting highly personal screenshots and selfies. Legality and privacy are not concepts that are easy for children to grasp or for adults to discuss with them, and Graber’s recommendations on how to tackle these difficult topics are welcome, if not much different from those of others writing about modern digital life. Also useful is Graber’s willingness, even eagerness, to have parents use technology to monitor their kids’ technology – a sensible way of “keeping an eye on children” in our contemporary world, although it helps to accept the reality that kids can and will find workarounds for parental supervision that they deem too intrusive.

     One thing that sets Graber’s book apart from similar ones, and that parents may find especially useful, is her creation of specific suggestions for things parents and kids can do together to explore the digital world and put it in context. She correctly observes that “many kids – even those already using social media – are unfamiliar with the terminology of the digital activities they are so adept at engaging in,” and she offers ways in which this kind of more-adult knowledge (which kids may find largely irrelevant to their everyday lives) can become part of activities whose aim is, above all, to help kids put the digital world in perspective and avoid its seamier and more-dangerous sides. The extent to which today’s young people will want to participate with parents in the scenarios that Graber thinks up is arguable and will vary greatly from family to family, but the notion of turning digital interaction into a series of participatory activities is a good one that can help open the door to some serious discussions of the pluses and minuses of the world in which today’s young people are growing up. However, parents be warned: Graber, like so many other authors of books on aspects of child-rearing, pays insufficient attention to the sheer amount of time needed to implement her ideas and strategies. Anyone who wants to follow Graber’s lead must be prepared to become thoroughly familiar with digital matters that will inevitably have a steeper learning curve for parents than for today’s kids. Digital communication may be instantaneous, but learning how to use it – for those who did not grow up with it permeating their lives – can be very time-consuming indeed.

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