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Digital Parenting: Navigating the Fine Line Between Privacy and Sharing

Updated: Jan 14

Growing up in public is shaping kids' self-esteem and identity development.

Teens looking a social media

Key points:

  • Parents should actively engage with kids' digital activities as guides, not intruders or spies.

  • Teaching digital literacy and critical thinking are keys to navigating online spaces safely.

  • Focus on kids’ mental health—how they feel and act—not arbitrary measures like screentime.

  • Look for ways to encourage a balance between online and offline activities.

Almost every online activity leaves a digital footprint that becomes permanent and searchable, its use out of the control of the owner. Kids are growing up with technology all around them, influencing normal developmental tasks that rely on peer interaction. Social media provides a stage for identity exploration by enabling kids to publicly “test” different versions of self. However, social networks expand feedback beyond legitimate peers to a broader public. The desire for social validation, paramount during adolescence, can create pressures to adopt an artificial façade or give in to peer pressure. Tweens and teens may not understand that something posted in a split second to make them desirable or popular can impact their digital footprint and follow them into adulthood. A short-term social gain can have longer-term costs when the permanence of online content makes it hard to reclaim an authentic self. How do we prepare our kids to successfully grow up in public?

A short-term social gain can have longer-term costs when the permanence of online content makes it hard to reclaim an authentic self. How do we prepare our kids to successfully grow up in public?


We'll Be Chatting With the Author

In anticipation of our upcoming Cyberwise Chat with Dr. Devorah Heitner, I just finished reading her book "Growing Up in Public.” Dr. Heitner takes my question head-on and explores the impact of the ‘sharing and comparing’ culture on young minds. Her book is a balanced perspective on how kids interact with digital media drawn from research and extensive interviews with parents and kids. As a psychologist, media producer, and parent with a ready soapbox for digital literacy, I found Dr. Heitner’s work to be smart and practical. While addressing parental fears, she does not give in to technophobia. Dr. Heitner views kids as having agency, worthy of respect and empathy, and needing guidance and empowerment, not as hapless victims. She emphasizes the importance of preparing kids to succeed through communication, mentoring, skill-building, empathy, and trust rather than anxiety-induced tracking, monitoring, and blind restrictions.


The Digital Landscape

"Growing Up in Public" describes the ever-changing digital landscape that our kids are navigating. It discusses how the ubiquitous presence of social media, online gaming, and digital communication has transformed traditional concepts of childhood and adolescence. Dr. Heitner emphasizes the benefits, such as increased connectivity and access to information, and the challenges of being social online, such as defining privacy, setting boundaries, and developing a healthy identity.


Research Applied to Real-Life

“Growing Up in Public” is full of real-life examples that enhance its relatability. Dr. Heitner shares her own stories, parent questions, and kids' perspectives to illustrate how different the world of today’s teens is from what we parents experienced growing up. Dr. Heitner acknowledges the concerns over research that shows correlations between screen time and attention and sleep and the findings related to social media use and mental health. While the results are often “it depends,” no parent wants to risk the well-being of their own child, and she provides practical advice for assessing your child.


Parental Guidance and Digital Literacy

"Growing Up in Public" provides a realistic guide for parents on how to help their children develop key digital literacy skills and encourages parents to take an active role in kids’ digital lives, not just skulk around in the background. Dr. Heitner suggests practical ways for parents to discuss online safety, privacy, and the importance of balancing life spent online versus offline. She also includes an important discussion of parent behaviors, such as the psychological implications of sharenting (parents who share their kids' images and information) and the potential for undermining motivation and causing interpersonal conflict through continual digital monitoring.


Parents will benefit from the information and strategies for dealing with tough topics. Dr. Heitner walks you through how to deal with sexting, canceling, shaming, and what to do when things go wrong. She also discusses the looming concerns over social media and college applications and whether ill-advised social media posts can really thwart your kids’ college admission chances.

Dr. Heitner walks you through how to deal with sexting, canceling, shaming, and what to do when things go wrong.


Not surprisingly, Dr. Heitner is a kindred spirit, advocating for digital literacy to be part of the educational curriculum, preparing students from an early age to critically analyze and engage with digital content. She also touches on the importance for media producers and content creators to create media that considers the developmental needs and vulnerabilities of young audiences.


A Balanced Approach

What I like best is that "Growing Up in Public" doesn’t demonize technology. Dr. Heitner endorses a balanced, intentional approach. Digital media is an integral part of modern life, and successful use relies on critical thinking and mindful engagement with technology.


As both a parent and a professional in the field, I resonate with Dr. Heitner’s insights for guiding kids (and their parents) through the digital age. It underscores the need for an ongoing dialogue and education on digital literacy that is essential if we want our kids to not only survive but thrive in this connected world.


Please join us! Dr. Devorah Heitner joins Diana Graber and me on our Cyberwise Chat, Tuesday, January 16, 2024, 12 noon PST. Register for free at

Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Dr. Pamela Rutledge is a media psychologist–a social scientist who applies expertise in human behavior and neuroscience, along with 20+ years as a media producer, to media and technology. Working across the pipeline, from design and development to audience impact, she translates structures and data into the human stories that create actionable consumer engagement strategies. Dr. Rutledge has worked with a variety of clients, such as 20th Century Fox Films, Warner Bros. Theatrical Marketing, OWN Network, Saatchi, and Saatchi, KCET’s Sid the Science Kid and the US Department of Defense, to identify audience motivations, develop data strategies and hone brand stories. Dr. Rutledge was recently honored as the 2020 recipient of the award for Distinguished Professional Contribution to the Field of Media Psychology given by American Psychological Association’s Division for Media Psychology and Technology. You can subscribe to read all of her articles here.





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