by Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
District Superintendent, Questar III BOCES

Today’s students face some challenges that previous generations did not. From the rise of social media and cyberbullying to the increasing threat of climate change, students are exposed to topics that can be difficult and complex for adults, let alone children still developing emotionally and intellectually. As a result, they may not have the tools and wherewithal to know how to cope with these challenges on their own. These challenges include more access to breaking news and information – as well as misinformation – than any other previous generation of children were exposed to.

As a result, state lawmakers are proposing legislation to control the amount of potentially harmful content available to our children 24/7 through their digital devices. This includes the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation for Kids Act (SAFE Act), which would require social media companies to restrict addictive features on their platforms. The bill would prohibit social media companies from sending notifications to minors between 12 and 6 a.m. without parental consent and allow parents to block access to social media for minors during this time. It would also allow parents to limit the number of hours their children could spend on their platforms.

Why is this important? A September 2023 report by Common Sense Media found that teens get as many as 237 or more notifications on their phones each day – and about a quarter of these came during school hours. Moreover, the report found that some teens use their phones for more than six hours per day. While excessive phone use and the pressure to respond can be stressful for some, studies show that social media is impacting young people and contributing to online bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts or worse. Also, the access to events beyond their communities is often just a click or two away.

The recent shootings in Lewiston, Maine and the horrific scenes in the Middle East with Hamas killing and kidnapping Israelis and Israel’s war in Gaza are examples of the death and destruction easily accessible through social media. Once a teen or child sees these images, we cannot help them unsee them – something that can traumatize them for time to come. This is an opportune time to talk to your child about why spending too much time on social media is unhealthy, to find other ways to engage their time more productively, or to teach them how to discern fact from fiction online.

Like the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East will continue to be far-reaching and hard for some to understand. As educators and parents, we must provide a safe space for our students and children to process what is happening. It is important to listen to their concerns or anxieties and reassure to them that they are safe and that there are resources to help.

Groups across the state and country have released information and compiled resources to help families and educators alike talk to children and students about these sensitive topics. Common Sense Media developed a Digital Learning and Citizenship Curriculum to help teachers address the challenges – and the new learning opportunities – of technology. It also offers access to offer research-backed resources and culturally relevant tips and advice to help parents navigate topics such as when to give a child a cellphone to how to manage risky online behavior like sexting.

Below are some resources to help families:

Sometimes it may not be clear whom to contact about resolving an issue or answering a question at school. Many questions or concerns can be addressed by communicating directly with the closest point of contact with your child, such as their teacher or counselor. If these individuals are unable to help you can then elevate it to the next level on the chain of command, such as an assistant principal or principal.

This column appeared in the Register Star and The Daily Mail newspapers.

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