7 Skills Digital Kids Will Need in 2017 and Beyond

01/02/2017 12:27 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2017

It’s 2017. Do you know what your (digital) kids are up to?

Chances are they’re glued to a new gadget they received over the holidays—an iPhone 7, Kindle, or electronic toy of some sort. You can expect, if they are like most kids surveyed last year, that in 2017 they’ll spend 4 1/2 hours per day with their screens (for tweens); and nearly 7 hours per day (for teens), and this doesn’t include time using devices for school or in school, which is increasing each year.

So will they spend this time safely and wisely? Not without these seven indispensable skills:

1) Knowing How to Unplug. According to a Common Sense Media study, parents are “moderately” or “extremely” worried about screen time. Over half (56%) indicate concern that their children may become addicted to technology. Ironically, parents are spending record time with media too…averaging more than 9 hours (9:22) per day. 82% of that time is devoted to personal screen media (not work).

So how can plugged-in parents help kids unplug? Well, we can start by putting down our own devices to demonstrate that it can actually be done. If that’s too painful, we can use technology (i.e., parental control software) to manage our kids’ screen time.

But the only long-term, fail-proof strategy involves kids wanting to unplug themselves. Try introducing them to new habits like “no tech” family meals or outdoor activities. Sound crazy? Well by their own accounts, teens say they feel “addicted” to their devices. Maybe this self-assessment is their way for asking for help.

2) Social Skills. In the well-known book, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” author Robert Fulghum lists the skills one needs to live life well: share everything, play fair, don’t be mean, etc. These are the same skills kids need online too! In fact, media experts agree the most essential online skills are social and behavioral skills.

The best way for kids to learn these skills? Through face-to-face interactions with live human beings. This is how we develop empathy, compassion, kindness—the capacities, when expressed online, that turn it into the safer, kinder environment adults dream about.

3) Reputation Management. According to experts like Social Assurity’s Alan Katzman, colleges and employers are increasingly looking online to determine who to admit or hire. So not only do kids need to be mindful of what they post about themselves online, they also need to think about what their followers and friends (and parents!) post too. Sound like a lot of work? It is. But knowing how construct a positive digital reputation that can open doors to opportunities is a life skill every kid needs.

4) Maintaining Safe Relationships. Parents justifiably worry about the bad things that can happen when kids make and maintain relationships online—cyber bullying, predators, sexting and such. That’s why it’s important to have frank discussions about these issues, starting the moment they first go online. If you think your kids are learning about these issues in school, think again. According to those who work the front lines of cyber bullying, like Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center,

Schools desperately need some clear, practical guidance from the federal government as to what is expected within a 21st century school in America to reduce online (and offline) harassment and promote peer respect, tolerance, and kindness. It’s 2017, for crying out loud.

In the meantime, this important work falls on the shoulders of parents. So in addition to teaching (and modeling) safe screen use, why not advocate for in-school education too?

5) Knowing When To Keep It Private. Kids today are caught in a perfect storm when it comes to online privacy, or lack of it. Adolescence, as we know, is a time a self-discovery when teens seek attention and approval from peers. It’s also when most get unfettered access to a whole world of peers (via their devices). This explains all those selfies, embarrassing photos and posts. Without adult role models to lead the way (or, sometimes, very poor ones), young people often share too much personal information online, especially when kids too young to know better use social media (7.5 million Facebook users are under 13). It’s important for them to learn to weigh the benefits vs. the pitfalls of posting too much personal stuff online (see #3).

6) Identifying Fake News. The explosion of “fake news” in 2016 brought us one good thing: awareness of the importance of teaching kids how to be critical consumers of online information. Many call this “media literacy” and it is needs to be taught early and often, because kids with sharp critical thinking skills will be better media consumers and producers. They will be smarter citizens. We need to help them learn these skills now.

7) Ingenuity and Leadership. Finally, let’s help kids bring their natural ingenuity, curiosity, and creativity to the online world. Why? Because adults have done a crappy job keeping the Internet civil and safe and I think kids can do this better. In fact I know they can. When I have tasked kids in the classroom to come up with ideas for apps and website that make the world “safer and kinder” they have dazzled me with their ideas — software that transforms mean comments into kind ones, algorithms that send two warnings to bullies before simply deleting their accounts, or apps that deliver meals to the homeless (via drone) every time a paying customer orders one.

Additionally, while the importance of teaching “Digital Citizenship” (the safe and responsible use of digital tools) received a lot of attention in 2016, I hope 2017 will be the year of “Digital Leadership.” Educator George Couros says that being “citizens” is just average; we should be encouraging kids to be “digital leaders” who are,

Using the vast reach of technology (especially the use of social media) to improve the lives, well-being, and circumstances of others.”

Now that’s a New Year’s resolution I can get excited about.

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