The Interview SeriesSep 11, 2020

Finding Common Digital Ground: Advice from Dr. Kyra Gaunt

Dr. Kyra Gaunt—or Professor G as she’s known to her students at the University at Albany—is an ethnomusicologist and the author of The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. She was chosen as a member of the 2009 inaugural class of “world-changing” TED Fellows and offers professional consulting services and testimony in state and federal legal court cases as a federally-certified social media expert. Her work has contributed to the emerging field of Black girlhood studies and hip-hop feminism, and her upcoming book, PLAYED: Twerking at the Intersection of Music, YouTube, and Violence Against Black Girls, takes a deep dive into the ways music reproduces racism and sexploitation online.

In part one of our interview, she discusses digital literacy and shares practical advice for parents and kids. Below are Dr. Gaunt’s insights on each topic, as told to our Cheif Growth Officer, Brittany Skolovy.

On how parents and kids can get on the same page about age-appropriate content:

Tiffany Shlain has this idea where you take a day off from social media. Maybe there’s an hour or two-hour period once a week where you unplug and share. I’m very interested in what I call a “transactional competence.”

So a parent might say to their kid, “I want you to pick out two of your favorite videos and I’m going to pick two that I think are appropriate for you. And in two weeks, we’re going to take two hours on a Saturday where we’re unplugged. During that time, we’re going to spend an hour or two talking about why you like your videos and why I like mine. Then we come together—transactionally together at once—and decide what’s appropriate. Can we find some middle ground?”

If you do that every two weeks, you decide with your children what is appropriate in your family, based on your own norms and values. And the kids begin to learn their own literacy. It’s based on the children’s trust of the parents, and vice versa.

You could try to build that out in your community—maybe even having a monthly party where you share what you’re learning from those transactional moments, comparing and contrasting. In the first hour, the parents get together and share what they learned, and the kids are in another room sharing what they learned. Then, you come together as a group. And maybe it’s not just with your community; maybe there’s a monthly session on Zoom with the parents in your kid’s classroom.

On digital literacy for parents and kids:

There need to be more scholars who are doing applied work bridging the gap between parents and public policymakers—particularly public health policymakers. There’s an awareness aspect that needs to go on for both sides.

I still don’t feel like there’s enough digital media literacy, not only for children but for parents, especially in marginalized communities. Even my physician said, “YouTube is my babysitter for my seven-year-old twins. I put my kids on the app when I’m tired.” This is a white woman, and that happens even more in marginalized communities where people have low incomes and don’t have a lot of time.

They’re probably not thinking about it unless they’ve been educated on it. And I don’t know where people get that education in poor Black and Brown communities when everybody has free access to YouTube, the general audience platform.

On her advice for young digital citizens:

I’m going to talk directly to the kids under 13: you’ve had the experience at school where someone put a kick-me sign on your back. There was no way you could figure it out until somebody kicked you, and then the gig is up. It might happen to you two or three times.

There are things happening to you online that are like the kick-me sign. There’s an expression that says, “No man or woman is an island,” so you can’t manage the complexity of your mobile phone on your own. You can’t see the kick-me sign on your back, and you can’t see the kick-me sign that’s forcing content to you.

But you have your parents and some savvy friends. And the more people we can talk to about things we can’t see behind us—or behind an app—the better. You have to be in a conversation with people who look out for your care. And you’re not big enough. You have some insights, but you’re not big enough to box with the threats that are out there that you can’t see.

All of us learn from making mistakes, not just kids. The younger you are now online, the more costly some of those mistakes can be. And they could cost you things that you can’t even imagine yet. Be willing to tell your parents when an adult approaches you, or something happens that you thought you could manage yourself. I’m 50 and I still have to go to somebody to look for the kick-me sign on my back.

If you’d like to learn more from Dr. Gaunt, check out her website!


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