The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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The Social Media Sweet Spot: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Use Social Media Thoughtfully

two bored teenage girls look at their phonesA recent study out of University College London confirmed a very strong connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers. And this connection was much stronger in girls than in boys. (This does not mean that social media causes depression -- it just means that we know that children who use more social media have more depressive symptoms. More research needs to be done to figure out the reason behind this.)

The researchers looked at four explanations for why this might be. Poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-esteem, and poor body image all played a role.

My mind’s eye went immediately to my three wonderful, intelligent, strong and independent daughters, and to the social media apps that are such an integral part of their lives. My 15-year-old texts and video-chats with her friends through Snapchat, FaceTime and Whatsapp. My 13-year-old creates lip-syncing videos to share with her buddies via TikTok. And my 9-year-old immerses herself in a virtual zoological Animal Jam world of colorful biomes and customizable animals.

These apps provide positive experiences, such as socializing with friends, expressing emotions through creative cinematography, and learning facts about wildlife and its habitats. My little one often claims, “I’m so much better at typing now that I am using Animal Jam all the time!” Indeed, there is something to be said for the technical savvy that children are picking up as they navigate their way through social media landscapes that often baffle the older generation. If electronic communication is the way of the future, then it can be helpful to hone their digital skills at early ages.

In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists a few: offering of opportunities for community engagement, such as political or charitable events; fostering of ideas through blogs, videos, podcasts and games; opening of doors to connect with people of diverse backgrounds in a much smaller and more interconnected global world; enhancing of learning opportunities as students gather together in group chats to work on homework or projects; and greater access to health information about topics that teens might otherwise not feel comfortable discussing with adults (such as mental or sexual health issues).

So there are pros and cons. This leaves us with so many questions. How do we parents find the balance? That sweet spot where they reap the benefits but are protected from the pitfalls? How much do we need to worry about impending depression or anxiety creeping up on them? How much time is too much time on social media? What can I do to mitigate these scary-sounding effects the devices might be having on my children?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts on how parents can help teens use social media thoughtfully and appropriately:

  • Create screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and kitchen tables. And screen-free times such as mealtime and before bedtime. This will help reduce the amount of time kids are on their devices and allow for better quality and quantity sleep. (The devices might need to be given a “curfew” to enforce this tactic. A charging station in the kitchen or other central room can also be a good spot to park the devices for the night.)
  • Open the lines of communication with your kids. Talk to them about their social media experiences. Educate them about the advantages and disadvantages. Have ongoing conversations about anything they want to talk about, and reassure them that you are the trusted adult they can turn to if/when they become mired in teenage angst.
  • Keep in mind that it is not only quantity, but quality, that is important. Keep abreast of the apps your children are using, and encourage them to use social media in positive ways.
  • Avoid banning, blocking or restricting your kids’ access to social media sites. This generally doesn’t work and may backfire if the forbidden fruit becomes so tempting that they simply use it behind your back.
  • Be a good example to your kids. Use your own devices less! Engage with your children, and on your own, in non-screen activities. Enjoy the outdoors, read a book, play a game, do some fun activities as a family. Wax nostalgic for the days of yore when smartphones didn’t exist but people still knew how to enjoy!

My three girls are living in the wild west of cyberspace, with a frontier that is open to exploration. I hope that I can help guide them to that sweet spot of not-too-much and not-too-little, so that they enjoy the positive without enduring the negative along the way.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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Tips for Parents to Manage Kids’ Fortnite Obsession

Mother and son play video gamesVideo games are on my mind these days. Especially violent ones, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. But special recognition goes to Fortnite, since as a mother and pediatrician, my interests lie in what is most popular among the children.

What is Fortnite? It’s an online multiplayer shooter game, in which 100 players are dropped onto an island where they are expected to attack other players while defending themselves. Eventually one player remains and is declared the winner.

What has brought Fortnite to my attention? First, I learned about the recent inaugural Fortnite World Cup in which over 40 million players participated, from more than 200 countries. It took place at a real stadium with an audience of almost 24,000 live viewers, and more than 2 million people watching from their electronic devices. If those numbers alone weren’t mind-boggling enough, the tournament offered a $30 million prize pool. Teenagers became millionaires overnight.

Next, I was recently privy to several online discussions among large groups of parents discussing the Fortnite phenomenon and how to rein it in. The minority of parents knew nothing of the game. There were a few parents who focused on the positive aspects of online games, such as opportunity for learning skills like conflict negotiation or hand-eye coordination, and the provision of a space to forge online communities and peer relationships. In fact, the concept of “social acceptance” was a recurring theme amongst the game’s advocates. A very small group of enthusiastic gamer parents even played together with their children and praised the game for teaching building know-how and springboarding discussions about budgeting and finances.

But the overwhelming majority of parents responded with a resounding “DON’T GO THERE!” Their concerns were varied. Some worried about the addictive component and excessive screen time exposure. Others feared online predators. But mostly it was the violent nature that gave them angst. While observing their children play, they noted emotional agitation, aggressive language, and trash talk. And this made them cringe. They collectively questioned the effect of exposure to virtual violence on their children’s overall mental health and wellbeing.

This was not only a topic for parenting forums, but for the media in general, following the devastating mass shootings that took place last month in Texas and Ohio. An alleged connection between video game and real world violence was cited yet again by lawmakers wanting to point a finger at factors that might be contributing to the preponderance of mass shootings in the U.S.

The blaming of video game culture led to a widespread media response noting that researchers thus far have not proven an absolute cause and effect link between video game violence and mass atrocities. Experts have pointed out that billions of people play video games in countries all over the world, yet do not suffer from the same gun violence as Americans have to contend with on a daily basis. In fact, countries such as Japan and South Korea have a much more intense gaming industry, but extremely low rates of violent crime and mass casualty events. One thing does seem clear, though- easy access to firearms, weak gun laws, and the sheer number of civilian-owned guns is unique to the U.S. and most likely a major contributing factor in the gun violence we see today.

Finally, in my capacity as visiting scholar in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Center for Women, I am working with researchers to study the impact of social media on children and adolescents. This includes interactive games such as Fortnite. A recent study from this lab conducted by Dr. Linda Charmarmaran found that Fortnite gamers reported getting less sleep than non-players, a deprivation that can potentially compromise school performance.

So what are parents to do about their child’s Fortnite obsession? Here are some tips gleaned from experts in the fields of psychology and pediatrics:

  • Watch and play with your child to determine whether the game is appropriate for your child at this stage in their life.
  • Set limits about when and how much your child can play, so as not to interfere with more important activities, such as homework, sleep, physical activity, and real-life interactions with friends and family.
  • Talk about the feelings the game triggers in your child, and explain your values regarding violent behavior and conflict resolution.

My daughters don’t play Fortnite. But they have a very active online presence, and these tips will be on my mind as new apps and games dominate their world.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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The Lessons We Should Learn from Settlement Houses

Hull House in Chicago during the 1900sAs a country we seem to be moving far away from the nurturing and sustaining activity of the settlement houses of our past. The first settlement house, established in New York City’s Lower East Side – Neighborhood Guild – was founded by Stanton Coit, and just a few years later came Hull House in Chicago, materializing through the passionate vision of Jane Addams. Settlement houses were the cornerstone of communities as they over time took on the task of educating citizens, providing English language classes for immigrants, organizing employment connections, and offering enrichment and recreation opportunities to all in the neighborhood. A most significant beginning to the current child and youth development field, settlement houses provided childcare services for the children of working mothers. The Immigrants’ Protective League, The Juvenile Protective Association, The Institute for Juvenile Research, The Federal Children’s Bureau, along with Child Labor Laws can all trace back to the persistent national efforts of settlement house founders and advocates.

Today, the health and wellbeing of thousands of children are in peril.It has long been established in the field of child and youth development that caring relationships are key factors in the positive and healthy development of children and youth. Separating children from their primary caring relationship--their parents--is critically detrimental and traumatizing. To grow up healthy and be productive citizens of whatever community and country they attach to, children need to acquire, practice, and effectively apply the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Adolescents who were besieged by trauma as children cannot undertake successfully the daily tasks of growing-up. Nor can a hostile environment possibly support positive mental health and trust in adults, for even the youngest. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested that “children torn from their parents experience serious short- and long-term health consequences.”

Decades of research in the child and youth development fields have made it clear that children need to be surrounded by appropriate structure, safety, supportive relationships, skill-building, high expectations, continuity, and predictability. It is imperative that we do not detach ourselves from these important tenets of caring for all children. We could use the more collective and holistic approach of the settlement house in our methods of organizing immigration. Former first lady, Laura Bush has asked, “In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis?” I believe we can and we must--immediately.

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Hall specializes in research and evaluation on youth development programs, settings, and learning experiences.

 

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Three Activities to Help Students Deepen Their Gratitude

This article originally appeared in Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.


Young students sitting in a classroom with their teacherIt’s one thing to teach kids to say “thank you” when they receive a gift or when someone does a favor for them. But how can we help children understand what gratitude really means, in ways that will make them more likely to feel it deeply, express it authentically, and reap its many benefits?

One way to increase kids’ gratitude is to guide them to not only acknowledge that someone else did something for them, but to also consider why the person did it, what the cost to the person was, and what benefits they have received from it. The idea is that gratitude happens when you realize that another person has intentionally done something that benefits you, especially at a cost to themselves.

This thinking process, which researchers refer to as “benefit appraisal,” highlights the interpersonal nature of gratitude and may help strengthen our relationships. In one study, elementary schoolers who were taught benefit appraisal reported more positive emotions and showed more grateful attitudes and behaviors than other students, both immediately and months later.

In partnership with the Greater Good Science Center and the John Templeton Foundation, Open Circle, an evidence-based social-emotional learning program for students in grades K-5, has added a new component based on the science of gratitude—including benefit appraisal. In addition to incorporating gratitude into their professional development workshops for educators, they developed gratitude lessons and practices for their classroom curriculum for grades 4-5.

The pilot group of teachers who have tried the gratitude curriculum have responded very positively, reporting benefits for themselves and their students such as strengthened classroom relationships and community, higher levels of positive emotions, and more generous and compassionate action.

We are grateful to Open Circle for allowing us to share three sample activities for helping students deepen their understanding and practice of gratitude—along with insights from some of the teachers who have used them.

Click here to see the full post in Greater Good and read the three sample activities for helping students deepen their gratitude.

Emily Campbell is the research assistant for the Greater Good Science Center’s education program and a Ph.D. student in education at UC Berkeley.

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Approaching Adulthood: Assisting Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

In 1954, the United Nations established Universal Children’s Day (November 20) to promote togetherness and children’s rights. It is a day that reminds and encourages us to work towards a better future by improving the wellbeing of children all across the globe. In recognition of Universal Children’s Day, Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers, looks at the obstacles facing children and young adults who are at risk of aging out of foster care and highlights programs that can improve their welfare.


Transitional age youth, those who are leaving state systems of care, are one of our most vulnerable populations of children. Each year in the United States, about 23,000 young people age out of foster care, according to Child Trends, because they reach the legal age of adulthood (18-22 years, depending on the state) and are no longer qualified to receive state services. And each year, these youth lack a permanent relationship with a biological or adoptive guardian, forcing them to navigate the challenges of adulthood without a mentor and critical support systems.

In the U.S., nearly 36,000 children are at risk for aging out of the system, as they are at least 9 years of age and have a case plan for long-term care or emancipation. For those who are at risk of aging out of foster care without a permanent solution and forever family, they are at greater risk for homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, early pregnancy, substance abuse, and struggles with physical, mental, and behavioral health.

Often times, these youth are dually enrolled in multiple state systems of care, including child welfare, juvenile justice, and behavioral and mental health services. In 2015 in Massachusetts, 312 out of 800 youth offenders in the Department of Youth Services had previous involvement with the Department of Children and Families prior to their detention, according to a 2016 Tufts University study. This sequential, often simultaneous, involvement in multiple systems of care place these youth at a crossroads; they lack positive, unconditional supports and mentoring that is offered through adult relationships as well as concrete resources and tools required to thrive independently, including housing, employment, health insurance, education, and basic life skills. Transitional age youth are often removed from conversations pertaining to child welfare and are underserved in the innovation of strategies to best support and strengthen children within these systems.

The Home for Little Wanderers believes that these youth deserve every opportunity to thrive and succeed to their full potential as they enter adulthood. By collaborating with the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Mental Health, and the Massachusetts Task Force for Youth Aging Out, the Home has developed specific and effective supports to serve this population. Through customized, age-specific services the Home has implemented innovative programs, including the Young Adult Resource Network (YARN) for “wraparound” services, the Roxbury Village to provide transitional housing for homeless youth, Academic Support for College and Life (ASCL), Peer Mentors, Life Skills programs, and Life Coaches. All of these programs share the same goal and ultimate vision for success: to connect young adults with community resources and help them become contributing members in the community while acquiring the skills they need to achieve self-sufficiency.

Alongside this, the Home works tirelessly to collaborate with various agencies through both communication and action to advocate for change and ensure their voices are heard. Through shared partnerships, the Home works to strengthen connections and services for youth who are at risk for transitioning out of care, which not only prepare them for entering adulthood, but also foster connections and relationships with adults and peers that will follow them on their path toward personal and professional success.

For more information on the Home and their work with Transitional Age Youth visit: thehome.org

Joan Wallace-Benjamin, Ph.D. is president and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers as well as a graduate of Wellesley College, Class of 1975.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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