Melinda Gates on Kids and Technology

By Tracey Dowdy

“I spent my career at Microsoft trying to imagine what technology could do, and still I wasn’t prepared for smartphones and social media.” So says Melinda Gates, entrepreneur and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with her husband, Microsoft founder, Bill Gates.

If she wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of technology’s influence on her kids, what hope is there for the rest of us? Plenty. As we raise what demographers are calling “iGen”, I think it’s safe to say none of us could have anticipated the impact technology has had on culture, particularly on the way our kids are growing up.

Being a teen today isn’t just vastly different from when we were kids, it’s very different from what it was even ten years ago. Facebook was created in 2004 but wasn’t mainstream for another couple of years, then Twitter showed up in 2006, Instagram in 2010, and Snapchat took over teen’s social media in 2011.

It can seem overwhelming and leave you scratching your head as to how you can keep up or keep them safe. Says Gates, “Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it.”

To help navigate these often stormy waters, Gates shares the following suggestions to parents.

  • Learn about the issue: The Atlantic recently ran a story with the sobering headline, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, and cautioned that while they’re “more comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.” There are several studies linking social media and stress for teens, but using these guidelines, parents can help their teens manage some of that anxiety and peer pressure.
  • Unplug: The Gates’ don’t allow cellphones at the table. Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent. Surprised? I was. Like most of you, I was sure the Jobs’ home looked like a real world Smart House but in reality, he restricted the amount of time his kids spent online and on devices. Instead, both recognize the importance of face-to-face interaction, imaginative, real-world play, and the value of simply flipping the off-switch sometimes.
  • Have Tough Conversations: Whether it’s talking about issues like cyber-bullying, sexting, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia or any of the other myriad of social issues that are rampant online, take the time to engage in honest, heart-to-heart conversations about the impact these issues have in the real world, to real people. Introduce them to resources like The Crisis Textline that offers 24/7 support.
  • Advocate for your kids: As your teens transition from high school to college, make sure they not only have the technology they need to succeed but the resources and support as well. USA Today featured a two-part story here and here regarding the overwhelming number of college students struggling with mental health and the mental health crisis on U.S. college campuses. The Center for Online Education offers this list of mental health resources for students.
  • Make a Plan: It’s important to outline boundaries and expectations for technology use and one of the simplest ways is through a Family Media Contract. It will look different for every family, so customize it to suit your needs.

“Here’s to staying on top of all the changes social media is bringing to our kids’ lives,” says Gates, “So that we can continue to guide and support them in this fast-changing world.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


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