Experts on Kids & Social Media Weigh the Pros and Cons of ‘Growing Up in Public’

In a 74 Interview, Carla Engelbrecht and Devorah Heitner urge parents to eschew online surveillance of their children and instead lead with curiosity.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice

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Parents are more concerned than ever about their kids’ social media habits, worried about everything from oversharing and cyberbullying to anxiety, depression, sleep and study time. 

Recent surveys of young people show that parents’ concerns may be justified: More than half of U.S. teens spend at least four hours a day on these apps. Girls, who are particularly vulnerable, spend an average of nearly an hour more on them per day than boys. Many parents are searching for support. 

Perhaps more than anyone, Carla Engelbrecht and Devorah Heitner are qualified to offer it. They’ve spent years puzzling over how families can help understand media from the inside out, and how schools both help and hurt kids’ ability to cope.

Engelbrecht is a longtime children’s media developer. A veteran of Sesame Workshop and PBS Kids Interactive, she spent seven years at Netflix, most recently as its director of product innovation. Engelbrecht was one of the minds behind the network’s Black Mirror “Bandersnatch” episode in 2018, which allowed viewers to choose among five possible endings. 

Carla Engelbrecht (second from right) appears onstage with colleagues during a Netflix event on Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch” episode in 2019. Engelbrecht, who was director of product innovation for the streaming service, is now testing a social media platform for children under 13. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

Engelbrecht is now in public beta testing for Betweened, a new social media platform for kids under 13. She calls it a “course correction” for young people’s social media, aiming to teach them to be more mindful, thoughtful and responsible online.

Heitner is an author and speaker who specializes in helping parents and educators understand how digital technology, especially social media and interactive gaming, shape kids’ realities. Her books include 2016’s Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and her new work Growing Up In Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World

Speaking to either one would be enlightening, but we decided to facilitate a broader conversation by inviting them to come together (virtually) to share insights and offer a bit of advice for both parents and schools. 

Their conversation with The 74’s Greg Toppo was wide-ranging, covering the effects of the pandemic, the pressures kids feel online and the women’s experiences communicating with their own children.

Devorah Heitner spoke in 2017 at the Roads to Respect Conference in Los Angeles. Heitner’s new book explores the impact of modern technology on childhood, including the effects of increased adult supervision of kids through tracking devices. (Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Rape Treatment Center)

The solutions they offer aren’t simple. In Heitner’s words, parents seeking to learn more about their kids’’ media usage should pull back their surveillance and “lead with curiosity.” 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Devorah, tell us a little bit about your new book.

Devorah Heitner: I wrote Growing Up in Public because I was speaking for years about Screenwise in schools and all these other environments, and people said, “O.K., I get that we want to think about quality over quantity with screen time. But we also want to understand what kids’ subjective experience is and not just focus on how many minutes are good or bad.”

People lie about that anyway. People are sort of oblivious to their own screen use sometimes and get over-focused on their kids’. A lot of adults are recognizing: If I could have had a Tumblr or a Twitter or Instagram as a kid, I could have really done a lot of damage to my prospects and opportunities by so openly sharing.

What are we doing to our reputations?

As I started digging into that question, I recognized that parents are really part of the surveillance culture with kids. So are schools, with grading apps like Life360 or Bark [which keep track of kids’ location, among other functions]. I really started understanding in a fuller way how kids are scrutinized. Kids are growing up very searchable, very public, and some of that is awesome. They have a platform, they can be activists. Some of it is problematic. 

The title of your book, Growing Up in Public, says so much about kid’s lives these days. I saw this term the other day: not FOMO, “Fear of Missing Out,” but FOMU, “Fear of Messing Up.” Are those competing interests for young people?

Heitner: Well, there’s definitely a fear of messing up and especially being called out. There’s a lot of “gotcha” culture going on, and kids documenting each others’ screw-ups. And as much as you patiently explain, as I have to my own 14-year-old, the concept of mutually assured destruction, if you’re on a group text with somebody for long enough, both of you have probably said a few things you don’t want repeated outside of that context.

I think it’s modeled by adults, but this kind of “gotcha” culture is very insidious and terrifying. And it should be terrifying. 

Carla, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Carla Engelbrecht: I’m a longtime product developer and researcher in the kids’ space. I’ve spent a lot of time making products for kids. I’ve seen for years kids wanting access to Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and TikTok, all through the generations of social media. And they always want what is not made for them. They’re aspirational.

Kids are just plopped into this. And just as you wouldn’t give a new driver the keys to the car and just say, “Go!” — you need to teach them how to drive — there’s the same concept for me with media use. We need to teach our kids. Parents don’t know what they’re doing, because none of us have really been through this before, and they abstain. They need support in learning how to do this. Where Devorah talks about things from that guidance perspective, I’m looking at: How can we build a product for kids that helps them learn? 

It seems to me like Betweened is a site for parents as much as anybody. 

Engelbrecht: There’s definitely two audiences here. There’s absolutely a path where I could build a product for kids and launch them onto it. But I wouldn’t be addressing all the pain points.

Kids want short-form content. They want to create. They want to connect with their peers. In order to successfully set kids up to do that, parents need tools, too. And so it is really a product for both kids and parents.

Carla mentioned all these different apps coming down the road. Devorah, I’m thinking about you saying to someone recently how you’ve been working on this book for five years. A lot has changed in five years. We didn’t have TikTok five years ago. 

Heitner: Screenwise came out in the fall of 2016, which was a memorable time for many reasons: a lot of social forces happening in our world with Trump’s election. 

And then you have the pandemic in 2020. That’s around the time I had sold the book and was trying to interview people. Suddenly, I’m not in schools anymore. I’m on Zoom with kids, which is a whole research problem: How do you get a wider range of kids, not just the super-compliant kids who show up to a Zoom? And the pandemic was an accelerant to a lot of things happening already with kids in tech.

“Parents are really part of the surveillance culture with kids. So are schools.”

Devorah Heitner

It was certainly not the beginning of kids being too young and not COPPA-compliant [the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids]. But it accelerated, and there was kind of a push toward things like Kids Messenger [on Facebook] and other things that I even experimented with at the time. 

The pandemic started when my son was 10. We were like, “Oh, what can we do to help him communicate with friends?” We experimented with Messenger. It was a fail for us, but I also talked to the people at Pinwheel and Gabb [two mobile phone companies marketed for children]. There are people, in different ways, trying to come up with solutions because they have understood that both the adult apps and the adult devices, like a smartphone that does all the things, might not be the ideal thing to give a 10-year-old. 

What’s changed since 2016 is there used to be more worry about one-to-one computing in schools. Now, every school pretty much is one-to-one. It’s really the outlier schools that don’t have tech or aren’t giving kids individual tech. Even as late as 2015, 2016, I was helping schools negotiate that with parents. And parents were like, “I don’t know. I’m not sure about screen time. I don’t know if I want my kid getting a Chromebook.”

Try to find a school now that doesn’t give kids iPads or Chromebooks or something. That’s probably one of the bigger differences. And then just the explosion in server-based gaming like Roblox and Minecraft and the ways kids interact in those digital communities. You see a lot of very complicated, weird ideas among adults who care about children. Like “I’ll wait until eighth grade to give a kid a phone. Meanwhile,my third-grader plays Roblox on a server with strangers.” 

Engelbrecht: Or has access to text messaging through their iPad.

Heitner: Exactly. And they’re very smugly waiting till eighth grade and I’m like, “For what? For your kid to make voice calls?” That’s the one thing they don’t want to do.

Carla, you come from a game design background. People have lots of terrible takes about video games, which I’m sure you’re used to. How has that background informed what you’re doing and what Betweened looks like?

Engelbrecht: A lot of people come to video games and they’re just like, “They’re evil,” or “They’re awful,” or “They’re violent.” And you can say the same thing about television. You can also say the same thing if you only eat broccoli. Anything in excess is not good for you — like running a marathon every day. I take a very pragmatic approach to most things we can actually find good in.

When I look at video games, I can’t classify them as evil. I instead look for the good things. And it’s the same with social media. Social media as part of a balanced media diet gives parents a lot of opportunities to connect, gives kids a lot of opportunity to express creativity and develop skills. 

“There wasn’t social media when I was in college. A bad decision in college couldn’t chase me through my entire life. In that sense, there are risks that feel much larger.”

Carla Engelbrecht

I’ll give you an example on the games side of things: Years ago, I did a South by Southwest talk called “What Left 4 Dead Can Teach Us About Parenting.” Left 4 Dead is not a game that kids should ever play. It’s a violent, first-person zombie apocalyptic shooter. It’s also one of the most beautifully designed cooperative games ever. I’m terrible with thumb sticks on video game controllers. I can’t walk in a straight line in a video game. I’m not great at the actual zombie-killing side of things. But I’m really good at running around and picking up health packs and checking in on people who have been damaged by zombies.

So there are different roles that people can play. I can still participate in the game, even though the primary way of playing Left 4 Dead is not what works for me. 

Also, if I’m playing with people, it fosters communication. I have to talk to people and someone needs to say. “Hey, I need help,” and I can come over. That’s what I’m looking for in games and social media: What are those underlying skills that, with a thoughtful perspective, you can leverage for good?

I wanted to switch gears a little bit and talk about something you mentioned earlier, Devorah: casual surveillance. I think about the stories we hear about parents not even just surveilling their kids — tracking their phones or their cars — but just keeping up in a way that we never even dreamed of. I wonder: Where did this come from? And how do you think a site like Betweened is going to help? 

Engelbrecht: I wish I knew exactly where it came from, but it certainly seems it’s symptomatic of the same thing: Everything has just kind of crept up on us. It’s like, as phones started to be introduced, we just thought, “Oh, well, I need to charge my phone, so I’ll charge it next to my bed.” And then the next thing you know, you’re checking it first thing when you wake up. It’s this slippery slope without the mindfulness of what it’s doing. Something has to happen to stop you, to make you take a step back and think, “How far have I gone? What boundaries have I crossed or what new boundary do I need to establish?” And to Devorah’s earlier point, the pandemic accelerated a lot of this.

Heitner: Part of it is we do it because we can. Even in relationships. I’ve known my husband since before we each had cell phones, but we didn’t used to check in as often because we didn’t have cell phones. It had to really rise to the level of an emergency before I would call him at work.

“As much as you patiently explain, as I have to my own 14-year-old, the concept of mutually assured destruction, if you’re on a group text with somebody for long enough, both of you have probably said a few things you don’t want repeated.”

Devorah Heitner

Remember the days of 9-to-5 office jobs? He left in the morning and was at his job. I was a grad student then and I would go up to Northwestern and not even really have any reachability by phone. Now we have phones, and the expectation is pretty much down-to-the-minute: If I’m 11 minutes late, I’ll probably text and say, “I’m 11 minutes late.” There’s just so much expectation for contact and communication and knowing where other people are. We don’t use location surveillance for that, but a lot of families do, and a lot of people have watches and will check into each other’s location on watches.

Because it’s there, people do it. And then there’s also just tremendous worry right now about kids. Given that we as a society think it’s a good idea for everyone to have assault weapons, parents are a little nervous. That anxiety creeps into everything.

My older daughter is 31, and I remember getting her first cell phone when she was 12 or 13. I remember the intense peer pressure she felt to have a phone. And I really didn’t like it at all. But I kind of justified it by saying to myself, “This is going to keep her safe.” And I remember thinking to myself, “You’re so full of shit. You’re just really trying to smooth things over.” And I guess I wonder: As parents, do we have an overextended sense of peril about our kids these days?

Heitner: There’s a sense of peril. Also, the Internet and online news and targeted algorithms just fuel that worry and outrage. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.

Engelbrecht: In some ways, it’s almost like there are more risks that could stick with you. There wasn’t social media when I was in college. A bad decision in college couldn’t chase me through my entire life. In that sense, there are risks that feel much larger.

I think about my daughter and I don’t want something to chase her for her entire life. That part of it feels very real. And then it feels out of control. I don’t have the tools or know exactly how I can best help her except for having hard conversations and trying to put some bumpers around her. But there’s not a lot of tools to put the bumpers around her.

Devorah, one of the things you have said is that the kind of surveillance a lot of parents are undertaking is really undermining the trust their kids feel, and backfiring because kids won’t open up to them when they really need to. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Heitner: You just see kids really getting focused on going deeper underground. If their parents are like, “I’m going to get Bark and read every single thing they text,” then you see some kids who are like, “O.K., I need to go deeper underground, I need a VPN or to only text on Snapchat, or I need to do something where I can be more evasive.” And that concerns me, because then there’s no way to make use of the parent when the parent might be useful.

Engelbrecht: I think about how to create space to allow the kid to have a second chance at telling me the truth. For example, if there’s an empty bag of gummies and the kid is the only one who could have eaten it but says they didn’t, how can I create space to talk about making mistakes versus lying or intentionally hiding the truth? Saying, “I’m going to ask what happened to the gummis again, but first I want you to take a moment to think about your answer — it’s OK to change your answer, because I want to understand the truth. We all make mistakes and we can talk about it. But intentionally hiding the truth has consequences.”

If I later find out that the child lied, then there’s consequences. The hope is that eventually, a parent can say, “If you end up at a party where there’s alcohol, don’t drive home. Call me for a ride home. If you try to hide that there was alcohol and make poor decisions, then there’s additional consequences.”

“I don’t want to be in the place where I’m policing her homework. Now that she’s in seventh grade, it’s time for her to be learning those skills before there’s the consequences of missing your homework in high school or college.”

Carla Engelbrecht

It’s important to be able to say, “I made a mistake” and talk about what to do from there. Hopefully, that provides an alternative to the arms race of increasingly sneaky strategies that Devorah described.

Heitner: That makes a lot of sense. I was just going to say: The surveillance — schools just push it really hard. Every time I go to a school, they’re like, “Are you logged into Canvas?” or “Are you logged into PowerSchool?” They’re just really pushing it so hard.

Are schools culpable in this? Sounds like you’d say, “Yes.” I don’t know if you’d call it surveillance, though. One of the functions of schools is to keep track of things, right?

Heitner: But what about the location tracking? My kid has to scan a QR code to get into the cafeteria. I skipped lunch every day of high school and ate with my drama club friends in the theater. Was that so bad? They have 3,500 kids QR-coding themselves into study hall. It’s pretty locked down. It’s pretty Big Brother, or Little Brother if you read Cory Doctorow. 

Engelbrecht: Homework tracking means having full visibility of my daughter when part of what she needs to learn is the executive function skills to actually be able to plan and follow through and do her homework. I don’t want to be in the place where I’m policing her homework. Now that she’s in seventh grade, it’s time for her to be learning those skills before there’s the consequences of missing your homework in high school or college.

So to me, it’s kind of that same thing: The information is there. Should it be provided? How do you use it? And, for me it’s: How do we better equip administrators, teachers or parents to stop and think about how to leverage this information? So maybe a kid who’s consistently missing their homework, yes, the parents should have more visibility as part of a support program to get the kid back on track and help them learn the skills. But to Devorah’s point, it doesn’t mean everyone needs to be badging into lunch.

Devorah, your message to parents is: There are all these things happening. There are all these things you have to keep track of. There are lots and lots of risks to kids being on social media, especially teenagers. But you shouldn’t panic. And I wanted to just throw this out to both of you: Instead of panicking, what should parents do? 

Heitner: Carla, you’re talking about creating a new community space for kids that’s more of a learning space, and that’s one alternative. Another alternative, in addition to, or potentially instead of, for parents who don’t have access to that, is just leaning into one or two spaces they really want to mentor their kids in.

Maybe their kid’s really involved in Minecraft. And if they want to join Discord [a free voice, chat, gaming and communications app], the parents are waiting and saying, “O.K. You can join your library Discord with Minecraft or your school Minecraft club on Discord, but not general Discord.”

Two 9-year-olds play the open world computer game Minecraft. Parenting expert Devorah Heitner urges parents to know more about what their kids are doing online without resorting to surveillance. (Getty Images)

Parents will tell me their kids are playing Roblox or they’re on YouTube. But I’m like, “What channels? It’s just like if somebody says, “I’m watching TV.” Well, what are you watching? Because that really is a big differentiator in terms of the experience.

Engelbrecht: It goes back to your “Fear of Messing Up.” I think so much about how it’s important for parents to wade in and get involved with their kids. This has been the advice for decades, whatever the newfangled thing was. I was just doing some writing about encouraging parents to actually do dance challenges with their kids. It’s an opportunity to bond. It actually requires some planning and practice. It’s physical activity. I assume most parents are like me, that they’re not a great dancer and it’s uncomfortable and you don’t want to mess up.

But modeling that I’ll do something that’s out of my comfort zone and connect with you over something that I know you enjoy, can be very simple. It doesn’t mean a parent has to suddenly learn all aspects of Roblox or Discord, because they can be intimidating. But just find an entry point and connect with the child and participate with them. It just has so many benefits. It’s true whether they’re into Tonka trucks or Roblox. Parenting means, “Get in there with your kid.”

Devorah, you use the phrase, “Lead with curiosity.”

Engelbrecht: Oh, I love that.

Heitner: You want to be curious and have your kid share it with you. Their expertise and experience as well and their discernment — what do they like or not like about this app? How would they change it if they could? Staying curious is an alternative to spying — being curious and asking kids to be curious even about their own experience. Do I actually feel less stressed when I scroll this app? That’s maybe a lot of mindfulness to expect of kids, who have a lot going on and a lot coming at them. But it’s important for all of us to be curious about how our experience is going.

Engelbrecht: That’s one of the ways I’ve been thinking about it from a product perspective: just how to help build in some scaffolds for mindfulness — things like when you start an app, actually having a timer that’s like, “How long do you want to spend on it right now?”

I set a timer for myself when I use TikTok because I spend a very long time on it. So being able to put that in there as a scaffold, to start being mindful and thoughtful about it. We’re posting content, but we’re actually not posting endless scrolls where you could spend all day.

I don’t want to prioritize the traditional tech metric of “time on task.” To me, success is like, “You can come and use Betweened for 20 minutes and then know you can come back another day and there’s lots of interesting stuff for you.” But it’s not all-consuming, must-do-this-all-the-time. And that’s a different perspective on tech products. It’s not how most products are developed.

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