‘Growing Up In Public’ Helps Guides Parents In a Digital World

The other day, when I was washing dishes, I noticed something new about how my four-year-old son was watching videos. For the first time, he was moving the video progress bar to find the specific scene he wanted to watch. “I want the part with the alien!” he explained when I asked what he was doing. At his age, I couldn’t even work our VCR.

My wife and I had, initially, been the kind of new parents who swore their kids would never watch YouTube videos for hours a day. And then COVID-19 changed our lives forever. As the pandemic wore on and our patience wore thin, we began using screens as one of many tools in our toolbox.

The truth is, though, the pandemic was only an accelerator in our son’s exposure to computers and technology. Young people are growing up in a vastly different world than the one we were raised in, one with screens everywhere. An abundance of social media platforms, surveillance opportunities, and endless information absolutely impact our mental health, even if we can’t decide how.

As a parent, this is a terrifying prospect. I have actual nightmares about my kids growing up in a world where their privacy is up for grabs, where a wrong post can destroy their lives, where they’re encouraged to eat Tide Pods or something equally dangerous.

This is why I was delighted to learn about Devorah Heitner’s new book — “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.” When I first saw a post about it (on social media, obviously), I thought, “Thank goodness. Someone is going to tell me what to do.” Of course, Heitner doesn’t really tell parents what to do in this useful volume. That would be impossible; each family’s situation is unique and requires different choices, based on an infinite web of variables.

What she does do is provide a wealth of information and advice to empower the parents who are making these calls. Heitner has a Ph.D. in Media/Technology & Society from Northwestern University. She has written and spoken about the complex intersection of kids and tech on a smorgasbord of high-profile platforms, from the New York Times to NPR and beyond. Once you start reading her book, it’s clear why so many folks have sought her expertise.

Heitner’s writing is clear and easy to read. This is a book that handles a great many thorny topics (chapter headings include “Sharenting: Balancing Parents’ Needs With Kids’ Privacy” and “Sexting”), each one extensively researched and explained in great detail. Heitner must have spoken to scores of teens, adults, and relevant professionals while working on the manuscript, as each chapter features many real-world experiences that expand upon her ideas and expertise. Despite being chock-full of specifics, the text is always a smooth read. Facts are framed in an easily digestible way but are not diluted. Heitner is speaking from experience, both as a researcher/writer and as a mom of a teenager herself.

In the introductory chapter, Heitner writes that she has “tremendous affection and admiration for young people,” and that she aims to “help build more empathy for young people doing all their messy, chaotic, and stressful growing up in public.”

I must say, the empathy comes through loud and clear. One thing this book lacks entirely is any sense of judgment towards kids or their parents, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Sometimes it seems like the conversations about parenting or growing up in the age of tech are nine parts of judgment. To read something so grounded in the tricky reality of it all was like an exhale.

As I moved through chapters about classroom apps and influencer culture, one word kept returning in a variety of guises: Surveillance. Kids these days are being tracked in myriad ways — with geotrackers like Life360, with classroom apps that send a push notification to parents whenever their kids get a grade, in social exchanges on Snapchat or TikTok. As a parent of younger kids (mine are four and eight months old), I hadn’t realized how rife with surveillance the school experience had become.

While it was a little scary to learn about it all, I was struck by how grounded Heitner’s writing remained. She is never alarmist, never stoking fears or creating panic. Instead, she employs a measured tone. In the chapter titled “Growing Up in the Public Eye,” she writes about teens who are “so aware that someone may take and post a picture of them at any time that they try to look good all the time, just in case,” which we can all probably agree is not heartening. In the same chapter, however, she relates the story of a teen who uses social media to find influencers who “encourage her to value herself for who she is.”

Likewise, she speaks to multiple teens who became influencers themselves about how they navigated the stresses and power that comes with being so exposed while still in high school — for better or for worse. The stories she tells of these young folks are nuanced. Aspects of being YouTube famous are, of course, joyful and fun. Other aspects, not so much. Heitner takes the time to unpack it all in a thoughtful way that’s helpful for parents who may not have any idea how to talk to their kids about this brave new world.

There are many other valuable lessons to take from “Growing Up in Public.” Heitner’s Small Privacy (one’s own social circle, i.e. family and friends) vs. Big Privacy (the whole wide world) framework provides a productive way of thinking about what and how to post, for example. The chapter on sexting is similarly constructive, listing reasons why teens might send nudes and how parents can reshape their thinking about how much control they can have over their teens’ intimate encounters. As a queer parent, I particularly appreciated that Heitner took time in this section to discuss how tech and sexuality intersect with teen LGBTQIA+ identities differently than they do with their cisgender or heterosexual peers. Once again, Heitner shows sensitivity and a dedication to nuance that is admirable and very welcome.

It’s not easy to be a parent in a fast-paced, technologically-advancing world. Honestly, we could all use a little guidance from someone who understands both how hard it is and the ins and outs of the available tech. For that, I’m glad to have read this excellent book. Parents everywhere should pick up a copy.