Expert on kids and social media to speak at SCH

by Len Lear
Posted 3/7/24

Heitner is considered an expert in social media and mental health, online hate speech and bullying, internet safety, digital culture, sexting and digital citizenship.

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Expert on kids and social media to speak at SCH


“Parents say, 'I'm concerned that my kids have no social skills. They are looking down at their phones all the time or playing video games. It's not clear if they will ever be able to focus on anything.' Parents are concerned their kids will take or receive a naughty picture, and their innocence will be destroyed. Or that they will be cyber-bullied, or be a cyber-bully themselves ... What about if every dumb thought a kid has will be out there for everyone to see?”

These words were recently spoken during a TED Talk by Devorah Heitner, who will be speaking at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy's middle school auditorium, 8000 Cherokee St., on Wednesday, March 13, 7 p.m. The talk about her new book, “Growing up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World” and her previous book, “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World”is open to the public.

Heitner, a Connecticut native who now lives in Chicago, is considered an expert in social media and mental health, online hate speech and bullying, internet safety, digital culture, sexting and digital citizenship. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and CNN Opinion. She has a Ph.D. in Media/Technology & Society from Northwestern University and has taught at DePaul and Northwestern.

I interviewed her last week by phone as she was checking in to a hotel in Tennessee. She said she is constantly on the road, speaking at public and private schools, corporations, radio and television talk shows, accumulating lots of frequent flyer miles. How is it that she became so wrapped up in the subject of young people and their cell phones and social media?

“I was teaching a class, and I had my (college) students do interviews with nine-year-olds,” said Heitner, mother of a teenage son herself. “I then recognized how quickly things had changed in just 10 years. Parents were saying things like 'Should we be putting our kids' photos on Facebook?' 'How much screen time should we be giving our kids? I don't know what they're doing on those phones.' There is so much concern and anxiety among parents about these issues that I decided to research the subject in depth.”

Heitner's reaction to these parental concerns: “Based on my research, I believe that this is a normal part of the cycle of anxiety of technology. When trains or telephones were new, there were also concerns expressed that they would destroy family life. Any time we have these major technological changes, we will have these concerns expressed. That doesn't mean we have nothing to be concerned about, but we are worried too much about the wrong thing. Instead of worrying about whether they will see salacious material, we should be concerned with whether they will be thoughtful in their communication.”

Another issue Heitner analyzes is spying on kids' cell phones. “Parents ask if they should spy,” said Heitner. “I ask, 'What would you be looking for?' Most of what you see will be really boring. Before we think about catching kids doing the wrong things, we should be thinking about whether we have done a good enough job modeling the right things.”

On the other hand, although she is not “pro-spying,” Heitner does acknowledge that if there are indications that the young person may be considering whether to harm him/herself or other people, then the intervention of mental health professionals may be necessary or even, as a last resort, law enforcement.

Among other things, “Growing up in Public” tells parents how they can mentor children as they grow up on Roblox, Instagram, TikTok, Discord and other social media apps, how to help them navigate a world where they can be exposed to problematic content, how to help children be thoughtful about their digital footprint and reputation, strategies for teaching tweens and teens to recognize how social media affects their mood and mental health and when to take a break.

Heitner also provides suggestions on how to reduce conflict about screentime in your household, how to strike the right balance, set appropriate boundaries, nurture positive online habits and transform technology into a tool for growth, learning and connection rather than the negative online habits we are all too familiar with.

For more information, visit Len Lear can be reached at