The App Chat: 4 Questions Parents Can Ask to Bridge the App Gap

Apps & Mobile, EdTech, Learning, PreK-12

Lately, I’ve been struck by how parents talk about their kids’ use of technology.  Some are mystified; others are fearful. Some parents, in particular, seem completely flummoxed by how to begin a conversation with their children about social and other media that constitute the learning environment in which children gain interpersonal and communication skills. I worry that if parents do not begin to have real give-and-take conversations with their kids about the digital media they use (on their phones, on their iPads, and soon on their TVs), we will raise another generation of young people left to figure out how to navigate these new realms on their own.

Why We Need to App Chat

Attending a recent school-sponsored presentation on how students use technology, I heard an anxious parent ask the student “experts” how they learned about new apps.  The students shrugged and explained that they researched them online through websites like AppAdvice, or they were simply part of their daily conversation with their peers. The parent’s question revealed her panic about keeping up with all these new tools, whereas the students’ responses indicated their nonplussed comfort with their constantly shifting technological landscape. I thought, “How can we get these kids and their parents to talk to one another so that both can benefit?”

If children and adults can app chat in a nonjudgmental way, our kids can benefit from the coaching adults can provide about etiquette, safety, and mindfulness. If adults don’t lecture children about the evils of technology and, instead, respect the ubiquitous nature of technology in their world, children may trust the guidance they know they need.  Adults, likewise, can learn more about the world their children inhabit and build stronger connections with their kids.

Learning Together

Learning about apps goes both ways. I find that my students love hearing about new apps – and are inevitably surprised to learn something from an old-timer like me. When I introduced Collaborize, an online classroom platform, to my fifth-graders, several students set up their own account so they could share resources and discuss strategy related to their passion for the game Minecraft.  (I later explained to my students that they needed an adult involved since they weren’t legally old enough to run the site themselves.)

Similarly, when I introduced my classes to Class Dojo, which assigns cute monster avatars to participants and awards points or takes them away based on student behaviors, two of my students liked it so much, they set up accounts with their families. Now their parents monitor their behavior, chores, and homework attentiveness at home.

Because I can see how my inventive middle-schoolers adapt applications to their own needs and interests, I wonder how as adults we can help children use technology more positively and productively. We miss opportunities to teach if we simply hang back and fret about what young people are doing online. So, I’ve come up with a series of questions parents and teachers can use to help bridge the app gap and start the conversations that need to happen.

Question 1: Hey, what’s up with that app?

This seems so simple, but it’s an important first step.  If you look over a child’s shoulder and see something new and interesting happening on the screen of his mobile phone or her tablet, ask what it is. Don’t just assume that it’s a waste of time or a means of making mischief on social media. Whether your child is using Snapchat or Words with Friends, it helps to enter the conversation in a nonjudgmental way to gather information and insight into the world our children inhabit, see what captures their interest, and observe how they interact with one another.

Question 2: How do you use that app?

Continue the conversation by asking for a tour. Keeping an open mind (and tone), ask the app user questions about how the app works and, more importantly, how it is used by your child and your child’s circle of friends. Every child is different. Your child may use Snapchat innocently and may be totally disgusted by how peers have used it for sexting. Yet he or she may obsessively play multiple and overlapping rounds of Words with Friends, a seemingly harmless Scrabble-like game even English teachers like me might approve of, at all hours of the day and night.

Follow up this question with a little research of your own.  I have just discovered Lindsay Weber’s posts for The Daily Dot, in which she deconstructs teen trends in her weekly column “YOLO.” A recent post asks, “’What is Vine?’ and other apps that people are talking about.” In her post, Weber digs in like cultural anthropologist in her subject and shares her understanding of teen vs. adult use of the applications in question.

Question 3: Can you show me how I might use the app too?

Many parents I run into are still afraid of trying these new apps for themselves. They fear trying new things, view these tools as useless, and fear appearing incompetent in front of their children. A colleague of mine actually reported to me that the phrase her students most dislike hearing from their parents is “I’m no good with computers.”

Psychologist Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, recently spoke at my school about the complex world of parenting today. She would say, I think, that in situations such as those I’ve described, parents actually back off from the kind of vulnerability that would allow them to build better relationships with their kids.

So I suggest that parents and others who work with children swallow their fear and pride and whatever else is holding them back and ask kids to teach them how to use the apps of the moment. This may be a little like my father asking his children how to do the Twist (as I recall, he ended up with his arm through a window), but opening up in this way can forge bonds that might not otherwise happen. Our children, after all, are the best guides we can ask for in the fluctuating online spaces they inhabit.

Question 4: How else can you use that app — for good?

Many parents seem to believe that the apps their children use are time-wasters at best.  They are concerned that children are not developing the face-to-face social skills they need. They worry that children are losing touch with the physical world and the real people sitting next to them on the sofa. They understand the need to unplug and listen to our own thoughts rather than continue the mindless texts and status updates that occupy much of our children’s time. These concerns, of course, are very real – and I have a hunch that parents know too well the costs that come with being constantly online.

Perhaps by initiating the app chat I’ve described above, parents and other adults can begin to appreciate the digital realities of children’s lives. Now they are in a position to make suggestions about down time and mindfulness, about the impact of thoughtless behavior, about digital citizenship. They may also perceive how children need a safe space – even online – to just hang out, just as I once did with my best friend at the local playground.

Once they’ve been fully introduced to an app, adults might recognize and articulate skills the child is mastering unknowingly (such as design theory in Minecraft), or they might help the child see how to use the app more productively (Twitter to create a personal learning network, Pinterest to organize and share research, for example).

The adult might even challenge the child to look beyond the entertainment value and imagine ways to use apps as means to solve world problems. Volunteen Nation, Global Youth Service Day, and iEARN might be places to start.

Perhaps together we can use apps to better ourselves, build relationships, and promote the greater good of all.

Susan Lucille Davis

Susan Lucille Davis

Susan Lucille Davis teaches 7th- and 8th-grade English at the 'Iolani School in Honolulu, HI. Follow Susan on Twitter at @suludavis.