Back in the mid-2000s Jesse Miller was working with various advocacy groups when he made a presentation to the BC Chiefs of Police about social media. By chance, one of the Chiefs was married to the Vice Principal of a secondary school, and she wanted him to come and do a presentation for the students. A seed was planted, and Jesse began studying static internet and mobile technology trends. By the time he’d earned his master’s degree, he’d created a number of presentations on the topic—and he went on to found Mediated Reality, a social media consulting business.
We sat down with Jesse to learn more about how parents and kids can navigate technology and social media with confidence and empathy.
What do you think is the most common misconception that parents have about technology?
Some of the biggest pushback I’ve had from parents happens because they didn’t have this kind of technology when they were kids, so they don’t think their kid should operate like that. That’s not reflective of reality today. The world that children grow up in today compared to my generation, my parents’ generation—it’s much different. Kids live in a world where the screens are not only part of their learning every day, but they are part of their entertainment.
Everything that I’ve done in my career as an advocate for kids and screens has led to this point in our reality with a pandemic. We want to see kids using these tools in their everyday. And, how dare we shame it—especially now that our reality is one where potentially the only opportunity they have to facilitate education, is via remote learning? Because our normal has changed, we need to adapt expectations and approaches.
What are the biggest developments that you’ve seen in the internet landscape for kids?
Vancouver is my home city. I was front and centre when the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup in 2011 and we had a massive riot. People actively took photographs of themselves rioting and put them on the internet. And then they went home and were surprised people were identifying them.
I grew up in a time where you could make a mistake and nobody would ever know about it except the people that were there. But, cell phones went from just being a device for the purpose of text and phone to being all-inclusive. The internet has become so ubiquitous in our everyday that there is no actual separation of offline and online, everything is intertwined.
We’ve seen some major global changes in 2020. What have events like COVID shown us about our relationship with technology?
I’ve visited remote parts of Canada, where you go to a school and you find out that children go to school without eating. It’s a reality for our society. And schools supplement that. They recognize that. And whenever somebody says that kids today have these great technological tools, that’s great—but do those tools translate to every kid’s experiences at home? How do we ensure that kids have good access to the internet at home? And what does it mean for that access to become part of a universal guarantee?
I visited northern British Columbia, and I left the school I was presenting to at 9:30 at night, and there are all these cars idling in the parking lot. I thought there must be a volleyball practice or something along those lines—but then I see kids in the car. The principal pointed out that the kids come to the school and sit in the parking lot to use the school Wi-Fi and complete homework because their internet at home is not reliable.
And so, what does it mean if we’re in 2020 when we have a pandemic and every kid is supposed to be able to work from home? Do the tools they have at home facilitate that, and does it allow for family harmony?
And so, unfortunately in the past couple of years, a lot of parents have dismissed the needs of technology, almost as if it’s a peripheral in their kid’s life as opposed to a necessary tool to grow with and learn how to balance. And, what I’ve challenged parents with is this: If you left the house today without your cell phone and you went back to get it, were you better prepared for your day with that device? And if that’s the case, why dismiss the value of what your child is doing with those tools to help them move forward in their education for the 21st-century reality? And what the pandemic showed us is that every kid needs to be connected for the purpose of learning and growth.
How has social media played into the social justice movements we’ve seen lately?
Tools like Twitter would have made the 1992 Los Angeles riots entirely different. And so, realistically, the internet is entwined with protest. But in countries that would not necessarily want to see their populations rising up the way we have around the world, you might see governments trying to limit things like communications.
Any important communication around the world is now being facilitated by multiple channels of social media: private messaging, double-ended encrypted technologies—and that’s light years ahead of where we were 10 years ago. In the last six months, social media has made what’s always existed more obvious.
A lot of parents wonder when their kids should get their first phones. How should they introduce technology in a way that they feel good about?
When it comes to parenting, no matter how much academic research is out there and no matter how many qualitative or quantitative studies—parents themselves have unique relationships with their kids.
If you have three kids, you should not be policing the technology use as a whole. You can deliver rules and regulations fairly for all three individuals, but you would have to be reflective of each individual. Younger kids are more malleable with rules and regulations. And giving those to kids is important. It should be an open communication, and they should understand that the internet is a real place. Having a person who loves and cares for you looking out for you is valuable.
Parents often say, “I don’t know anything about the video game my kid plays and I don’t care because it’s not my thing.” When you say that, you’re automatically dismissing the value of what your child does online. You can’t properly oversee and navigate for your kid if you’re not willing to put in the time and effort to really learn what they’re interested in doing.
There is a learning curve for parents with digital technologies. They need to be willing to come down to the level of their child’s interest, even if it seems so foreign to them. And so, when I meet parents who say, “Well I just don’t get Roblox, why is my kid wanting to build all these things?” Because they’re interested in building things! Would you question Lego the same way? Just because the medium is different doesn’t mean the child’s interest is any less valid.
What can parents do to make technology less contentious in their homes?
What’s important for parents to recognize is that there are so many opinions about what we should be doing—and until we have enough data, we’re not going to know for sure what was good or what was bad. But this emerging piece is really important: it’s not necessarily the quantity of time that’s spent online it’s the quality of time and the purpose.
Think of a kid who is balancing school, entertainment, fun and communications all on screens. If they’re healthy and you have good communication going on, I don’t care if it’s three hours or six. It’s more about the quality than the quantity of time. But if you start seeing your child slipping in some of those regards and then the other things, maybe it is time for a bit of a reset and oversight if need be.