Would You–Or Do You–Monitor Your Child’s Digital Activity?

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

In 1994, when I was 13 years old, I did what I suspect many 13 year-old boys might do.  I snuck into my younger sister’s room, found her colorfully-bound private journal, read it, dusted off my fingerprints, and smirked, knowing I now possessed information to get under her skin.  It seemed like the best way to torment my sister, who didn’t deserve the heckling that ensued after I teased her about a boy she clearly liked.  She’d devoted several pages to him in her journal.

Fast forward to 2013.  I’m not sure how many students keep a traditional journal, but many students use social media and the internet to broadcast their thoughts by the day, hour, and even minute.  Many students either don’t think their parents know what’s going on, or they think their parents are oblivious to belligerent online activity.  Many parents are.

Given this fact, to what extent should parents monitor, curtail, or even spy on their child’s cell phone or internet use?

I’m not a parent, but as a teacher, I’m completely aware of the innocent and nefarious ways kids and teenagers use their digital devices.  I’ve heard students talking about Snapchat, where they can take a picture of themselves then send it to a friend or acquaintance, with the file being supposedly self-destructing after 10 seconds.  You can imagine the type of photos some reckless and hormone-riddled teens send to each other.  Some students bully each other to the point of tragedy, described here by blogger Caitlin Kelly over at BroadsideThen there’s Twitter and Instagram, tools many teenagers use to supply the world with endless streams of narcissistic drivel, trash-talk, and “selfies.

On the other hand, students engage in positive online communities relating to their interests.  I’m thinking about my students who are self-described “nerds,” using social media to connect with other anime or gaming aficionados.  “

Here’s some hypothetical scenarios to consider:

  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 15 year-old boy and suspect drug-use, bullying, or other reckless behavior.  Your son has left for the afternoon to hang out with some friends at the bowling alley, and, surprisingly, he left his phone on the kitchen counter. Would you search through your his cell phone records or Twitter feed without he or she knowing it?  What would you do if you found incriminating evidence?
  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 13 year-old girl, and you’ve been in a year-long battle with her over how she dresses.  Despite your best efforts to keep her from dressing in what you deem as racy attire, you suspect her exhibitionist streak is manifesting itself online.  While she heads to living room to complete some algebra homework, you notice her laptop is open and the screen seems to show a picture that can’t be your daughter in a skimpy bathing suit.  Except that it is, and you sneak into her room and scroll down to find other photos more fit for a 21-year old aspiring model.  What do you do?
  • Your child has just received his driver’s license.  You require him to check in whenever he gets to his stated destination, but you’re suspicious that he isn’t always where he says he is.  You’re also aware of small GPS tracking devices that can be affixed to cars.  Do you install a device, to keep secret tabs on where your teen is headed, given his new freedom?

A couple years removed from college, I helped a former sociology professor with field research for her book.  I interviewed parents about their own surveillance.  After conducting and recording 8-10 extensive interviews, it became apparent that those parent-child dynamics based more on trust, versus spying and surveillance, seemed to spawn healthier relationships.  At the time, the ubiquity of cell phones was on the verge of manifesting itself, but the prevalence of digital tools in our lives wasn’t as intense as it is 8 or so years later.  There are certainly new challenges and considerations for parents, regarding the choices about access and surveillance.

As parents and would-be parents, I’m wondering how you might respond to the scenarios above.  Or do you–would you–not allow a teen to have his or her laptop?  How about cell phones–at what age should a child have a phone?  What restrictions or monitoring do you–or would you–employ?  

Emphasizing the Gift of Attention


Like most teachers, I’m a few weeks into the school year.   I’ve dealt with shifting rosters, a classroom change, opening-school paperwork, and trying to establish a positive, productive classroom culture. Though my classroom actions and procedures, I’ve implicitly and explicitly emphasized certain behaviors and values, like collaboration, being on time, and organization.

What’s new this year is an emphasis on attention.

Without teaching ourselves–and students–how to sustain thought and practice concentration, I’m wary all of our innovative technology applications in the classroom can become merely engagement gimmicks, distracting us and students from deeper thought needed to make meaningful connections and compose or read longer texts. I’ve previously written about the phenomenon in the context of digital versus “old-school” reading.

Can students learn effectively–and deeply–without being trained—or practicing—the art of sustained focus and thought?  Do we want classrooms to be places where digital tools and use are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult not to distract one’s self? It seems to be a disappearing skill for our young people, and while they might be clicking on hyperlinks left and right, Tweeting their friends, and completing a math assignment—all at the same time—I wonder how a generation of learners seemingly unable to pay attention will function.

But I’m not about to completely ban cell phones and discourage connectivity. Far from it.

I do allow students to use phones to access Schoology.com for classroom assignments and discussion boards. I do allow them to use the camera to take pictures for notes.  They may use dictionary and thesaurus apps, and they do have ample access to laptops and desktops.

It takes self-discipline–especially for struggling high school students, to avoid the constant pull of social media, music videos on YouTube, Twitter feeds, and other information streams.

However, we’re doing a disservice if we don’t teach students how to use the amazing technology tools out there.  In fact, to my amazement, only 4-5 out of my 80 students use Google Drive during an informal poll today.  Tomorrow’s lesson?  Explain how Google Drive helps my efficiency, productivity, and collaborative ability, then get them signed up, and share a document with a classmate.

Last year, I wrote about mindful use of technology, sharing these tips with the blogosphere.  I’ll do the same with students.

I’ll explain that I can’t write this blog post very well, for example, with 13 windows open while checking my phone for texts every two minutes. I’ll explain that while it’s great to compose 140 character messages in thirty seconds, it’s even better to write a 500-word blog post. I’ll  also admit that I feel the pull of digital distraction too, explaining that 20-25 minute focused bursts without multitasking is my preferred strategy for reading and writing.

It’s all the rage to supply all students with iPads or laptops, unleashing the power of technology tools for learning. We can’t forget what deeper learning entails, however, and whether or not our digital habits benefit academic growth.

So, can students learn effectively without disconnecting for meaningful periods of time?  How do you handle digital distraction in your own life?  Do you struggle staying productive?  If you are a teacher, do you allow cell phone use in the classroom?  Do you have a policy when and where phones are off-limits?  How do you enforce it?

Maintaining a Blogging Presence, Catalysts, and Inspiration

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

As much as I love being online, blogging, Tweeting, and the like, I don’t like how demanding it feels sometimes.  How, if I don’t write a captivating post or send out X number of Tweets, then I’m somehow falling behind.  How, if I don’t read and respond to some loyal Stew’ reader’s posts, then I’m giving them the short end of the stick.  How you might feel like you’re missing something if you’re not checking your Twitter feed.  Sometimes, I’m excited to publish a post–I just know it will resonate with readers–and then there is marginal response.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather "sparks" for new writing.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather “sparks” for new writing.

Maintaining a blog is a challenging endeavor, and I don’t recommend it if you’re not passionate about the writing process and discovery of new ideas.  The process of finding, refining, and revising my place in the real and digital world is what keeps me blogging.  If readers comment, great.  If readers don’t comment but I’ve enjoyed the process of composing a post, I’m cool with that.

For new bloggers out there, take heed: Melissa over at Freeing Imperfections blog has some solid realizations for new bloggers.  Here’s what she wishes she’d known when she began blogging.  Highlights include:

1. Blogging is not easy and it’s incredibly time-consuming – at first.

10. Not everyone will care that you have a blog. But if you care, the people who want to read your blog will follow.

14. Social media is good for blog growth. Before I started my blog, I thought being on it more would be a bad thing. Without social media, my blog would still be in the dark with no readers, reaching no one.

I’m conflicted, at times, over how much time I spend in front of a screen; this concern has appeared here and here and here in Mindful Stew.  Regarding Melissa’s point about social media, I don’t like to feel obligated to promote blog posts on Twitter or Facebook, but I do enjoy ensuing dialogue when folks leave comments.  It’s exciting to know that something you put out there strikes a chord with readers.  And now that I’ve dropped my number of posts to three or four a month, I try to be deliberate about publishing.

I want to write about what matters to me with a connection to more universal ideas and experience.  I want to write on Saturday mornings over several cups of coffee, and I want to write after experiencing an idea itch when I witness something out there in the world or online, whether it be a quote, a visit to the Farmer’s Market, or a news blurb.   I’m always fascinated by what great bloggers and writers out there like Caitlin KellyAnnie Murphy Paul, and Terry Heick encounter as catalysts for their own posts.

Soon, the school year will begin and I’ll have a deluge of new experiences and faces to provide sparks for reflection and analysis, and my own desire to balance digital and “analog” life will be put to the test.

I know I’ll have students who are constantly connected–many seemingly addicted–with their iPhones and Androids.  Part of me wants to tell them to disconnect, to observe the world around them and slow down their thinking, without mediating life through a screen. Another part of me knows it’s my job to help students navigate and use the digital world more productively.  

Although it’s not a new calendar year, the start of the school year marks a major shift for writing/blogging educators out there–we might have a ton to say, but finding time is tricky.  I look forward to continuing blogging on the ‘Stew, in addition to a blogging gig over at the Center for Teaching Quality.   Happy blogging, everyone.

What shifts have you experienced in maintaining your digital presence?  What tips would you give to beginning bloggers?  What are your “go-to” sites, experiences, or observations that often spark your own blog posts?

Fake Followers and Follows: Scram!



If you have recently subscribed to Mindful Stew, you might be the site’s 1,500th follower!

Except that you’re probably not, as I know a large percentage of this blog’s followers aren’t real–I’m not sure how many flesh-and-blood folks follow the ‘Stew.  Freakin’ spambots.  fagner1222ds, dhexd, aeryn65, catalinatutu, and eugeniotony: I’d love to hear from you.

According to this official WordPress forum, there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to prevent fake users and bizarre international business blogs from subscribing to our public sites.  Do any of y’all have the same issue?

What concerns me is the industry of online “influence” based on number of hits, subscribers, page views, and other measures, much of it driven by spambots.  And people are profitting from it.   This image below is from tweetangels.com, clearly advertising to a certain demographic.  It’s pretty creep stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 5.00.55 PM

The greater issue at play here is how perceived online popularity and activity may influence our decisions and behaviors.  I’ll admit I’ve been more likely to click on YouTube videos or check out certain Twitter feeds because of a number.  How many of you are likely to check out a link that doesn’t have any views or followers?  

Luckily, having a huge number of Twitter followers often has nothing to do with influence (although that big number might be feeding a big ego).  After all, it’s all about retweets and clicks if you’re trying to spread an idea or product–I don’t think the fake accounts will be rushing to help disseminate information or engage in dialogue.

The presence of SPAM, false influence and popularity, and the veil of the screen should remind us–I hope–to continue having a robust presence in the real-world, in balancing out our online lives and identities with what we do face-to-face and in the flesh.

I’m afraid it will become trickier and trickier to discern what digital material is authentically created by people and what is produced by computers or robots.  In 1950, British computing pioneer Alan Turing was already pondering whether or not machines can think.  The eponymous test, the Turing Test, has essentially been an Artificial Intelligence measuring stick for years now.

A human must figure out if a a computer program or another person is chatting with them on a screen.  Computers are getting mighty close to “thinking,” much closer than your sidekick Siri on your iPhone.

On a parting note, I appreciate all of you real readers and commenters–without you, I wouldn’t blog.  

Two for Tuesday–Video Debut and Thoughts on “Deep Reading”

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

Some recent ‘Stew posts have highlighted a collaboration between students and teachers at Fern Creek Traditional High School and the Navajo Nation.  I’m proud to present this video produced by Courtney, one of my digital media students, about our journey.  This truly represents a great range of planning, execution,and technical skill inherent in effective digital stories.

On another note, Annie Murphy Paul’s essay on “deep reading” reminds us that it might be foolish to overly embrace digital text consumption, especially if it comes at the cost of forgetting–or not teaching–how to immerse one’s self in a longer, print-based narrative.  In a guest post for TeachThought.com, I responded to Paul’s essay after posing this question on Twitter:

Picture 1

I agree with her assertion, to an extent.  But I question how well young people can tap into the power of the digital world, making connections, composing blog posts, etc., without having a foundation in deep reading.  What happens when educators and parents fall victim to an unbalanced approach to literacy, fully embracing all the possibilities of the digital world, bypassing deep, “old-school” reading?

As a teacher, I’d rather have a class full of deep readers than hordes of students hooked to their smart phones.  Students who immerse themselves in narratives and novels generally bring a lot more to the table, so to speak. They often ask more questions, write more effectively, and display greater concentration skills. Yes, these are massive generalizations, but I’ve interacted with hundreds of students over the past nine years…

I don’t know about you, but I feel and think/read differently, especially when it comes to pace and attention span when I read a screen versus a novel or extended non-fiction text on the printed page.  The implications of this massive shift in literacy skills and reading tendencies are still unknown.

I’ve Got Too Much Money Locked Up In My Computer


During middle school, I signed up for BMG music service over and over again, relishing the accumulation of cheapish CDs–12 for the price of one, plus enormous shipping costs–and my collection grew from dozens to hundreds over a few years.  Small black plastic cases gave way to larger wooden storage units.  My ability to make locally renowned mix tapes skyrocketed.  The collection was a source of pride.   I bought plenty of crap, took a chance on bands such as Primus and Ministry (not personal favorites now or then), and used every family member as an alias as to increase my music stash.

CDs in case

I could trade albums with friends.  I could remove the cover art and plaster my bedroom walls.  I could sell used albums to Pitchfork records on Main Street in Concord, NH, so I could buy the latest Pearl Jam album just as it came out.  Heck, I could even utilize outcast CDs as frisbees.

Digital music consumption, for all of its benefits, has eroded a secondary and social market.  

So now I’ve got a couple thousands of dollars locked up in my computer in the form of MP3s, an issue NPR’s Planet Money recently explored in this thought-provoking  piece from reporter Caitlin Kenney.   Have you heard of ReDigi? It’s an online marketplace for pre-owned digital goods such as e-books and MP3s, but the company is, unsurprisingly, embroiled in lawsuits.

If you can do whatever you want with a physical CD or book, ReDigi contends, then you should be able to do the same with digital pieces.  The legal concept is known as first-sale doctrine.  Why shouldn’t I be able to resell MP3s purchased on iTunes for half-price to somebody else? 

Kenney asks,  “Do you really own something if it’s just a bunch of ones and zeroes on your computer? If you take a digital song and you move someplace else, did you actually move it or did you just make a copy and destroy the original?”  

A judge sided with Capitol records in their case against Redigi, stating that you can only sell your MP3s if you do so along with the original device on which the item was downloaded, say an iPod or computer.  

If streaming and wireless technology continues to proliferate and improve, what is the incentive to buy any books, music, or movies?  Personally, I still buy an album or so a month on iTunes, plus scattered single tracks.   But I might soon shift to strictly on-demand music.  I’d rather put my money in a retirement account or towards a vacation than in an inaccessible digital vault.  

As far as books are concerned, I can’t imagine trading my dusty and eclectic bookshelves for digital versions of texts that send me back to a specific time and place, still provide opportunities to trade and borrow, and serve as conversation pieces for guests.  

We continue to consume and purchase more and more digital material, so ownership issues will not become simpler any time soon.  And for those who pat themselves on the back, because they believe they are saving the environment by bypassing petroleum-based plastic CD covers and book pages sourced by deforestation, the issue isn’t so simple.  Here’s some final food for thought, a PBS Mediashift article about the environmental impact of digital versus print media.

Do you still collect CDS, tapes, or Vinyl?  How about e-books?  Have you considered your inability to legally sell digital items you purchase?  What is your take?

Diminishing Everything But Now: Time and Technology


“Time is not money. It’s the way human beings move through this thing called life. If we can bring ourselves to consider the ways digital technology can make time rather than simply take more of it, we will be in a position to live for a better today, right now.”

The-Time-Is-Now-Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

I’m currently on spring break, enjoying a “staycation” at home in Louisville.  For the next week, I’ve got plenty of time.  I don’t need to check my work e-mail.  For at least several days, I won’t log on to Google Drive to work on my lesson plans.  I will blog and check my Twitter feed for compelling links, but digital demands are low.   

When it comes to working as a teacher, I don’t save time due to digital technology, largely because I choose to engage myself in digital possibilities.

Digital technology funnels me a conveyor belt full of more responsibilities and requests, more e-mails, and more blogging and social networking opportunities.  I find myself constantly weighing whether or not to accept new digital tasks and challenges, because I’m sensitive to having the choice to spend time away from screens.

I have little tolerance for digital demands that diminish the idea of time, demanding instant response and engagement, making it seem like we must be connected or online all the time to function properly in our daily lives.  Or to be abreast what is happening now.  

I guarantee I didn’t miss anything important on Twitter in the past hour while writing this blog post.   

I’d go crazy if my job demanded connectivity 24-7, like a hedge fund analyst acquaintance I met at a bachelor party in New Orleans, who had to wake up–or did he simply stay awake?–for a mandatory 3:00 am  conference call with an overseas company to hear and react to their earnings report.  It’s a new phenomenon that so many moments, each and every day, can be perceived or required as crucial.   Rushkoff writes:

Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.

This idea of diminishment of the future and past, in addition to trying to process the onslaught of information is why I’m cautious when it comes to employing technology in my classroom.  How do we, and our students, thoughtfully plan out and execute a goal or project–generally think thoughtfully about the future–when we obsess over technologies that act to compress everything to the now?

How do we value time–or do we even care to save it–if all that matters is the present moment?

Forbes magazines list of The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013 is fascinating.  Besides University Professor, most professions on the list do not seem to have inherent digital technology and time demands that extend beyond traditional work hours.  Seamstress/Tailor.  Jeweler.  Hair Sylist.  Librarian.  Audiologist.  There also seems to be a correlation between working with your hands, and not a screen/digital technologies, for lower stress.

I think this one reason why I thoroughly enjoy building, hunting, cooking, and growing things to balance out the stresses and time-demands of my digital life.  

How does digital technology use or save your time?  How much are you influenced by the pressure of now as it relates to digital technology?  Do you attempt to save time during the day to engage more with a screen, or step away?  


Slowing the Twitter Information Torrent


I just finished paring down my number of Twitter follows from 55 to 25.

Compared to other bloggers who write about technology and culture, I realize it’s a miniscule number.  But as of this writing, I find it burdensome to attempt to keep up to speed with Twitter.  Like blogger Cheri Lucas Rowlands, whose Writing Through the Fog is one of my must-reads,  I’ve felt that attempting to keep pace with a sizable Twitter feed seems like trying to be keep a giant sponge saturated, with no time to wring it out:

Sometimes I envision my Twitter feed as rushing water: my presence is a dam, and each tweet is debris making its way downstream. It’s now a challenge to let information simply flow—to let tweets swim by without me seeing or interacting with them. But because of this constant, obsessive reading and absorbing of everything on the Internet, I cannot write.

I also want to write more.  I want to strike a better balance consuming and creating media.  I want to cast a line and snag a Tweet now and then, but not feel the need to spread a net across the torrent.  

Like many of you out there, I find self-directed learning and engagement in the digital age exhilarating, enlightening, confounding, time-consuming, and tricky to navigate.  I could spent all day, everyday, reading interesting essays, interpreting infographics, and watching YouTube videos laid out in front of me on my Twitter feed.   

If we can be possessed by the things we own, we can also be possessed by the information we attempt to consume.  The more online accounts we create, the more follows we amass on Twitter, the greater the burden.  And it is a burden, especially when your job doesn’t pay you to curate information.  I teach, and I desire to stay abreast of new developments and demonstrations of effective teaching and learning.  But with the demands of lesson planning, grading papers, creating sub plans, calling parents, and maintaining a non-digital life, I don’t want to drown myself in information.

How do you curate information on the internet?  Are you a Twitter user?  What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses as a tool?  Besides Twitter, what have you found to be useful websites or tools to manage information flow?

The Digital Literacy Curriculum Gap

Room 137, Techculture

Are most teenagers inherently wired to seek out and use the internet for good?   Absolutely not.  Would I have harnessed the amazing connectivity and community-building power of the internet, had smart phones and tablets been prevalent while I was in high school in the late 1990s?  Probably not, especially if I didn’t have a teacher or mentor help explain the consequences–both good and bad–of my online activity.

One major flaw of the new Common Core standards is the digital literacy gap.


Most school curriculums, including the new Common Core standards, foolishly ignore the critical conversations and lessons about how and why we use technology.  Today, I conducted a lesson on digital footprints with one of my classes.  We googled names, found easy access to offensive student Twitter accounts full of foul language and racy pictures, and discussed what it means to have incongruent online and offline identities.  Most students hadn’t considered the issue at all.  They were engaged, and some even immediately accessed their social media accounts to change the privacy settings.

I’ve decided that each Monday I will step away from digital storytelling projects in order to challenge students’ notions about crap detection, attention, and participation, among other ideas, which are all tips from Howard Rheingold’s illuminating book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.

If we want students to utilize Twitter to curate information from experts on topics they are interested in, instead of simply trash talking and sharing mundane details of their daily lives, then we have to show them how.  If we want students to utilize Google Drive and other cloud-based services as one strategy to avoid forgetting flash drives and assignments at home, then we have to show them how to sign up and use various accounts.  If we complain about students writing with incorrect grammar, but don’t acknowledge the world of Textspeak and its influence, then we must conduct lessons on code switching.

In the rush to inundate our lives and schools with gadgets and 21st Century Technology, we are lacking the same urgency to teach critical digital media skills, mindsets, and ethical use.  As a result, there are too many students who are currently graduating, becoming embodiments of David Bowden’s words, and it’s not necessarily their fault.

But so often

We use this tool to ignore them

And the rest of those humans

For just as fire can be used for warmth or destruction

We misuse url’s, firewalling off the world with distractions

We search daily, but find nothing

Add friends, but loose community

Look for love but get pornography

Try to discover ourselves, but loose our identity

What do you think of “The Inner Net”?  Do you agree or disagree about the importance of critical discussion about technology in schools?  How would you assess your own use of technology?  Whose job, if anybody’s, should it be to teach critical digital literacy skills?  What do you wish you knew how to do?  What projects inspire, or have inspired you, to try out a new use of digital technology or communication?