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November 29, 2022
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10 Tips for Digital Wellness Conversations with Students and Caregivers

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Nonjudgmental learning environments that bring students and caregivers together can change the conversation around digital safety.
Technology
10 Tips for Improving School Digital Wellness Sessions - Header
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While many school districts provide digital safety information for students, such guidance is too often packaged as one-way informational sessions in which an instructor or expert gives an in-class lecture, shows a video, or leads a school assembly. Frequently, these lessons are presented as morality tales in which there are clear “right” and “wrong” online behaviors, but students rarely receive guidance on how to integrate these “rules” into their existing digital lives.
Some school districts host digital safety nights in which caregivers, like their children, receive lectures that stoke fear about the potential consequences of “poor” digital oversight of students. What is generally absent are opportunities for students and caregivers to share perspectives with each other, learn together, and seek to understand each other’s concerns around digital device use.

Redesigning Digital Safety Conversations

For nearly a decade and a half, our roles as clinical faculty at the University of Michigan have allowed us to alternate between on-the-ground work with children and observation of broader trends in learning. Kristin’s work is rooted in school librarianship and has expanded into public libraries’ roles in lifelong learning, while Liz teaches preservice K-12 educators. Liz has years of experience in designing, implementing, and evaluating digital wellness curricula with middle school students.

Contrary to popular opinion, middle schoolers are eager to talk about life online when they feel they are in nonjudgmental safe spaces.

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We have seen that, contrary to popular opinion, middle schoolers are eager to talk about life online when they feel they are in nonjudgmental safe spaces. We wondered if we could adapt our digital wellness work with middle schoolers to engender conversations between these students and their caregivers. With nearly 30 years of online facilitation of workshops and conferences between us, we were experienced in creating interactive, engaging online events that established a culture of trust for participants. That was our goal in convening the first online Digital Wellness Symposium in spring of 2022, which drew middle schoolers and their parents from many districts across Michigan. Hosted by the University of Michigan (U-M) Schools of Education and Information, the symposium’s overarching goal was to connect middle schoolers and their parents so they could make informed family decisions about the role and presence of technology in their homes.
In planning this event, we found there was a “magic sauce” for digital wellness instruction when we brought together Generation X adults with their Generation Z tweens in activities that were informative, welcomed student perspectives and emotions about online life, and made space for students to share how they are using digital tools. Parents and tweens were more eager for and open to this kind of conversation than we expected. For example, we were not surprised to hear that parents saw online gaming as an addictive distraction and that their tweens chafed at being interrupted during game play. But during one of our guided activities, after a parent described her son’s unresponsiveness when she asked him to leave games, the son had an opportunity to explain his perspective: gaming with others is a friendship activity, and friends don’t leave friends mid-mission. This parent realized that if their son could have a few minutes grace time to finish the round, he could be a better friend, the kind of friend his mother agreed that she wanted him to be.

10 Tips for Engagement Across Generations

We want to encourage more schools and educational centers to find ways to include caregivers when conducting digital wellness and safety activities with students. Below, we share tips from our experience hosting the U-M Digital Wellness Youth and Parent Symposium.
Tip #1: Have Specific Goals: It is important to have clear goals and convey those to participants. We ultimately wanted to find ways for caregivers and their children to have open and nonjudgmental dialogues about digital device use. We were also clear that this was not a symposium designed as a “do and don’t” lecture, though we knew that some parents would appreciate hearing from an expert in digital wellness. Session facilitators (University of Michigan teaching interns) positioned themselves as fellow learners, not talking heads.
Tip #2: Foster Intergenerational Connectivity: We focused on points of intergenerational connectivity, such as Gen X versus Gen Z contests and family teams who could partner to earn points by doing physical, conversational, or digital activity challenges in the Goosechase app throughout the morning. We also framed questions of device use and digital wellness as something all of us are working on. All ages had opportunities to hear and discuss factual information and explore experiences and emotions around device use. Frequentlyn, both generations were called on to consider how established “rules” for online life (e.g., simple formulas for screen time, storing devices outside of bedrooms, and reminders not to disclose personal addresses) might connect to nuanced, real-world applications and to recognize that there may not be a single “right or wrong” for all scenarios. For example, now that students use tools such as FaceTime to connect with friends (as their parents once did with telephones), should that screen time be treated similarly to time on social media, gaming, or watching YouTube? These are the gray areas that Liz’s research showed students were eager to talk about and reconcile with the “do’s and don’ts” of previous digital citizenship lessons.
Tip #3: Interactivity is Key: Students and parents need opportunities for interactivity in digital wellness sessions because it is easy to tune out of “sit-and-get” lectures. For example, rather than a traditional lecture, our keynote speaker posed scenarios and invited attendees to respond in the chat or ask a question with their mic. Breakout sessions created informal conversational structures and used tools like Jamboard to elicit input, rank priorities, and evaluate one’s perspective against that of other attendees.
Tip #4: Don’t Forget the Fun: While we take digital wellness seriously, we wanted to create an event that felt fun, rather than academic. First, we built in a game-based approach, where students and caregivers used Goosechase to complete fun missions. Some app challenges were related to digital wellness while others provided general opportunities for students to connect with their caregivers or others in the community. Sending off one generation to complete a challenge allowed the other to attend a session by themselves. It also made sure middle schoolers would get frequent breaks and physical exercise that would add to their staying power. Second, we created a whole-group trivia game between the parents and kids, pitting Generation X against Generation Z to see what each knew about the other generation’s pop culture. Doing this early in the day helped everyone see that each generation has knowledge, and one is not “superior” to another. Finally, we included prizes in the form of small gift cards to help motivate the kids to keep engaging and create a sense of fun with a little competition.
Tip #5: Schedule Short Sessions: While our pilot event was spread over three and a half hours, we divided up the symposium into a variety of shorter sessions. Kids and adults have a limited attention span when it comes to Zoom learning, so we wanted to make sure to have quick sessions ranging from 25 to 45 minutes. As our symposium schedule shows, we also scheduled a variety of modalities for the symposium, so families got chances for breaks, physical activities, and reflection:
8:45–9:00: Welcome, norm-setting, opening Gen X vs. Gen Z trivia game
9:00–9:30: Opening keynote
9:35–10:20: Breakout for parents/caregivers with keynote speaker (students on break with Goosechase activities)
10:20–11:00: Student-only breakout with U-M facilitators (parents on break with Goosechase activities)
11:00–11:10: Parent/student break, talk at home
11:10–11:40: Breakout sessions, round 1, with U-M facilitator
11:40–11:50: Parent/student break, talk at home
11:50–12:20: Breakout sessions, round 2, with U-M facilitator
12:20–12:30: Final words
Tip #6: Have Lots of Breaks: It was important that we integrated many breaks for the students and caregivers, so they had opportunities to disconnect from Zoom and refresh. Throughout the symposium, we released Goosechase app challenges that encouraged families (singly or jointly) to engage in physical, conversational, or digital activity challenges and reflect offline on what they were learning. Snack breaks were scheduled in, too!
Tip #7: Bring in Experts: We hypothesized that registering for the workshop would be more appealing to parents if we had an expert presenter on digital wellness to anchor the day. But we wanted our family teams to experience that interactive keynote with one another, not in silos, so they would have common concepts to refer to. We made room for two peer-only sessions: one in which students chatted with one another and U-M facilitators, followed by one in which parents could ask questions of the keynote presenter. Later in the day, families attended breakout sessions as a team, in which they were able to engage in interactive conversations and activities that helped them discuss and make sense of how various online activities impact their sense of well-being.
As anticipated, our evaluation feedback showed that kids overwhelmingly found the most resonance in sessions restricted to peers and U-M facilitators and that parents found the keynote most valuable. Each generation needed a different entry point to buy into the workshop and its processes. Thus, we do not discourage you from bringing in an expert, but we suggest you consider what variety of wraparound activities will help each generation explore and internalize the expert’s advice.
Tip #8: Use a “No Judgment” Approach: Setting up a “no judgment” culture was important. If possible, event hosts may find hiring a neutral, external facilitator (not, say, students’ classroom teacher) to be a good investment. The presence of students’ classroom teachers or building staff may make students think they will be judged for the thoughts, feelings, and opinions they share—and, consequently, stop sharing them. Thus, we began the day by establishing five event goals: a safe and comfortable space, intergenerational conversation, healthy online strategies, a fun environment, and no judgment. We also outlined conversational norms both at the start of the day and periodically during other activities, including:
Own your own learning. Be mindful of your chat. (It is part of your digital footprint.) Extend care to our community: provide space for everyone to share.
Engage in humble inquiry. Try to avoid speaking for others such as “Most people...” Rather, say, “I think…” or “I feel…”
Listen actively when you are not talking.
Your voice is important, but you also have a right to “pass” respectfully if you would prefer not to respond.  
Permission to “pass” was an important signal that helped us set this event apart from school, where students may feel obligated to respond. This option empowered students to make choices about how they would engage online, reinforcing one of the key goals of the conference: each of us should know that we can choose the degree to which we participate in online activities. We were clear that these expectations applied to all participants, including adult session leaders and parents/caregivers. We should note that while classrooms have the luxury of time to develop these norms collaboratively, our single convening did not give us that affordance.
Tip #9: Meet Students Where They Are: It is important to recognize that most middle school students are using digital tools 24/7 (almost!). Thus, it was necessary to situate our digital wellness curricula in the context of students’ real-world technology engagement in and beyond the classroom. Think again of the “classic” advice students receive about digital citizenship and how it tends to focus on setting secure passwords and not giving out personal information. Based on Liz’s research, we knew that those activities are a fraction of what middle schoolers do online. So, our curriculum included activities related to social media, group texting, FaceTime calls, meme-making, gaming, and online commenting. Situating digital wellness in the students’ authentic contexts made it easier for them to see value in discussing these lessons.
Tip #10: Provide Tangible Takeaways: Include a couple of takeaway activities. For example, have the parent/student team create guidelines for digital wellness at home, ask them to participate in a “no tech” day together, or encourage a weekly “check in” date where they get ice cream and talk about their digital lives. After our event, we emailed participating families a copy of the slide deck for reference, and a follow-up digital wellness resource guide customized to include the questions that arose during the symposium. About a week later, we followed up by mailing them a copy of our keynote speaker’s book, some U-M swag, and any gift cards they had won.

Educators can help families navigate important conversations about technology use, how it makes us feel, and how we want to engage with it.

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All of us–educators, caregivers, and students–have experienced unprecedented techno-cultural change over the past two-plus years. Online life is more expansive than ever, with more nuanced kinds of engagement. Educators can help families navigate important conversations about technology use, how it makes us feel, and how we want to engage with it. We hope that our experience will empower formal and informal educators to invite their students and their families to step away from the bustle of daily life and engage in thoughtful, powerful conversations about the technology that pervades all of our lives.
The Digital Wellness Symposium was made possible in part by the University of Michigan (U-M) School of Education, the U-M School of Information, and the U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching’s Faculty Development Fund.

Liz Kolb is a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Education where she works with preservice and in-service teachers on integrating technology into K-12 teaching. She is the author of numerous books and articles related to educational technology, most recently Learning First, Technology Second: In Practice.



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