Kevin: With easy access to technology and the internet, today's young people are more connected than ever before to both their communities and the world around them. Information and education are more freely available than at any time in history. Yet, with this connectivity comes a significant amount of risk. Are parents, teachers, and administrators equipped to help students navigate online environments in a safe and healthy way? What are the latest risks, and how can we protect kids? And what should schools do about cyberbullying, and what warning signs should they watch for? This is What I Want To Know, and today I'm joined by Titania Jordan to find out.
Kevin: Titania Jordan is the Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Parent Officer of Bark Technologies, an internet safety solution that helps parents and schools keep children safer online. Her job is to help educate parents and schools about how to raise responsible digital natives. Titania is also the coauthor of Parenting in a Tech World, a handbook offering tips and advice on fostering a healthy relationship between kids and technology. Today, she joins us not only as a tech expert but, more importantly, as a parent to discuss how we can protect our children against cyber-bullying. Titania, welcome to the show.
Titania: Thank you for having me. I am so excited to be here.
Kevin: The work you're doing is pretty amazing, and we're going to get into the nuts and bolts of how you help families and kids navigate that intersection of technology and learning and time usage for children. But how did you get into technology generally? How did that become your life's work?
Titania: I personally believe it's by the grace of God. I think He opens doors where some people only see walls. I've always been very interested in technology. I've always loved to tinker with things and learn how to use things. Whenever anybody in the family would buy any sort of gadget, they'd always throw the manual to me and say, "You figure this out and then teach me how to use it."
Kevin: You share stories about helping your father navigate his own experience. Talk a little bit about that.
Titania: Yes, as he was growing his business and needed to do things like mail merge on labels and learn Microsoft Suite of applications, he didn't have time for that, but his nine-year-old daughter did, and so that's what I did.
Kevin: Well, let's talk about this whole issue of technology and children today. And first, what is Bark Technologies?
Titania: So, Bark Technologies is an amazing company that is now global, started in the U.S. It helps to protect close to 6 million children across the nation, and it uses artificial intelligence to do so. What it does is it connects to children's devices and accounts, social media, text message, email — and analyzes for context, analyzes for dangers, whether it's dangerous content or dangerous people. When the AI detects a dangerous person or dangerous content, it then sends an alert to the parent, to the caregiver, to the IT administrator if it's in an educational facility, and then also gives best recommended next steps for how to address.
Kevin: Don't you find that parents are often surprised by what their kids are, one, exposed to and how vulnerable they are on the internet?
Titania: A 100%. I have never met a parent who has been like, "Oh yeah, I figured my kid would encounter that at age six, age 10." They're all shocked and surprised and saddened.
Kevin: To that end, do you have any data on, of those 6 million users, how frequently they send those alerts to parents? I just am wondering how bad of a problem is it?
Titania: Unfortunately, these issues are very prevalent. Every day Bark sends around 85 severe self-harm or suicidal situation alerts, and this is involving children. It's really heartbreaking, and that's just suicide. There are issues surrounding violence, including gun violence, potential school shooting threats that we have thwarted, online predation, anxiety, depression, eating disorder, you name it; your kids are encountering it more frequently than you might imagine and at a much younger age.
Kevin: What is interesting to me, and you and I talked about it before the show: I have a five-year-old granddaughter and a two-year-old grandson, and both my son and my daughter-in-law — they do what a lot of young parents do. At some point in time, they'll put a tablet in front of the kids, and I jokingly say, "Boy, that's a great babysitter." How do you balance what today's technology offers young parents with the challenges that you see?
Titania: It is so hard. I'm just going to put that out there. I work in this space every day, and I've got a 13-year-old son, and I'm still figuring it out. Because tablets and screens are such great babysitters, and I say “great” with an asterisk; it's a quick fix. It's a very easy solution to a very immediate and tough problem. Flip side is that some of the effects of that you are not going to see for a very long time. You're stimulating the pleasure centers of your child's brain that isn't fully formed. It's akin to what happens in a brain when it ingests drugs or alcohol or sugar, and so it's a very dangerous thing that you've got to be very cognizant about.
When you do hand your child something with a screen that could connect to the world, make sure that there are safety measures in place. They can't just navigate to the internet even before they can read. They can't just open YouTube and browse freely. They can only stay within a certain parameter that you have set to make sure they are encountering little bits at a time, and then plenty of non-screen time.
Kevin: More and more, I'm intrigued, though, Titania, about the neuroscience associated with brain stimulation and introducing kids to these tablets and those images at a young age. You equated it to even drug usage because the brains aren't fully developed, and a lot of parents, they instinctively say, "Is that real?"
Titania: The science is very real. It's early, which is scary, right? Because again, we are a living experiment, and our children are part of that. But it's very real. You can, again, use Google to look up studies of how tech and games and apps and social media stimulate parts of your brain that are similar to cocaine, to sexual activity; it's very similar. And anecdotally, it's heartbreaking once you've crossed that chasm. I've got nieces and nephews that come over, and once they have been introduced to the iPad, they don't care about puzzles, they don't care about coloring, they don't want to go outside, play with the dog. It's all about, "Can I have the iPad? Can I borrow your phone?" That's it. That's all they want. And it's just sad; it's hard to go back.
Kevin: Now, do you at Bark or do you and your work as a Parent Outreach Coordinator in this space, do you offer recommendations about time usage on iPads and the like or these tablets for kids?
Titania: Yes, absolutely. Without a doubt, less is more, but post pandemic, post virtual learning and even virtual therapy, in some cases, it's just inevitable that we can't escape a screen, so it's more about quality over quantity. If your children are creating instead of consuming or competing even instead of consuming, that's better for them. Also, just understanding our bodies. We are not meant, either child or adult, to be sedentary for long periods of time, and so, if there is something keeping your child still for more than two hours at a time, it's time to change things up. They have got to move for their physical health and for their mental health.
Kevin: Now, you mentioned your own son who's 13, and then I talked about my grandkids; they're five and two. What have you seen in terms of the changes with your son who, from the age of five or six, and then going into the teenage years — it seems to me that the challenges would increase or be different. Talk a little bit about the aging process of young kids and how all this relates.
Titania: Obviously, when your children are younger, before they can even read, they are now being entertained by something that stimulates them like no other toy, no other adult does. So, you're up against that. Then they learn how to read, and then they can search for things. They don't necessarily come to you to ask you questions because they can just ask Google, which is terrifying in and of itself. And in fact, TikTok is now the new Google, which is even scarier, for reasons we could get into later.
There are also people out there, a lot of them, that have bad intentions toward your children, and they are in all the places where children are to groom them and abuse them. Then your children become, almost, want to be influencers, want to be superstars. They want to create their own YouTube channels; they want to be on TikTok; they want to be on Instagram; they want to perform; they want to record videos, and there's so many things they want to do. And so, you need to talk to them about managing a digital footprint and reputation, and they're navigating very adult themes before their brains are fully formed. And so, that is just such a hard dynamic.
Then you move into social media, where there's the comparison trap, the longing for acceptance through likes and comments and follows, and even inclusions in private chat groups and chat threads. And it is a whole different world. And we as adults can't even begin to understand it. Even if we're in it, it's different for them.
Kevin: I'm amazed by the bullying that happens online. How kids — you talk about the comparison issue — how kids feel marginalized, how on social media, filters are used to bully kids, and the body shaming, all of this. Talk specifically about how parents deal with this bullying phenomenon that's taken on different dimensions in the cyber world.
Titania: One really staggering fact, just to help put in perspective, is per our case study. We do a case study every year at Bark, and just over 2021, 72% of tweens, that's 8 to 12-year-olds, and 85% of teens experienced bullying either as a bully themselves or a victim or a witness. So, your child could neither be the bully or the bullied, but perhaps they're one of 20 kids on a text thread, and they're watching it happen, and that can desensitize them. The way that children speak to each other today, it's really staggering. They're throwing around terms like, "Go kill yourself." They're not actually wishing that a child would die by suicide. It's just a colloquial term that they're throwing around, not realizing the gravity of that phrase or the gravity of the problem that we're facing, where suicide is the second leading cause of death in children in this nation.
And so, while I'm not a doctor or a scientist, I firmly believe that we have to address this yesterday in terms of encouraging more empathy education in the classroom. If a child can feel what it's like to be in the shoes of somebody who is being bullied, they're much more likely to refrain from that sort of activity. But peer pressure is a very powerful, powerful thing, and we all made mistakes as children, and so it's hard. It's really hard.
You cannot hand your child a device and sit back and think, "Phew, now I can finally get some stuff done." You have got to know what they're doing on those devices, and if you don't have the time to sit and hover and helicopter for every minute they're on it, because who does? I don't. You need to set up parental controls. So, whether it's an Android device, an iOS device, a gaming console, whatever it is: Google the parental controls that exist for that device. Even for your smart television or your smart speaker, there are parental controls that are free. There's more that you have to do as a parent today than ever, but you have to. It's your job. It is your job to keep your child safe, not only in the real world with seat belts and sunscreen but also in the virtual world.
Kevin: What about schools? We've talked about parents and their role, and schools run the gamut. You've got teachers in schools that are on it. And I know that many school leaders grapple with: should they ban these cell phones? How do they limit that usage? What do they do if there's a constant and ongoing challenge or problem with students who just stay on their phones and don't pay attention?
Titania: How children ever got to be able to use smartphones in the classroom is still beyond me, and I do what I do. I mean, I will never forget: I was asked to speak to an eighth-grade class about dangers of social media, and half of them were on their phones. And I looked up at the teacher and I was like, "Is this... How? What? How is this allowed? How is this allowed?" And she's like, "I gave up a year ago. Good luck." No, that is not acceptable to me.
That aside, it introduces a great deal of challenges: how they can even learn and absorb information when they've got this thing, like a slot machine, tugging at their brains. Good luck with that. Parents and schools have to work together. We are not going to be as effective if we are in separate camps when our children are at stake. I think some drastic measures need to take place, whether it's children checking their phones in, in a box in the front office at the beginning of the day and not getting them until they leave for the day, and if they need to contact Mom, Dad, et cetera, they can go to the front office.
Kevin: And you allude to the fact that schools and parents need to work more closely together. What kinds of things should schools be doing to make sure they're in touch with parents?
Titania: Teachers need a great deal more respect, and they need to be more empowered. I believe that there are a lot of things that aren't said or done because someone might be afraid to lose their job or somebody doesn't know just what kind of dynamic is going on at home. But those teachers are spending upwards of eight hours a day with my son during the school year. I maybe have two or three with him. They are closer to the situation. I trust them. I rely on them. I need those teachers who have spent years with children in that age range, who are the experts on children, to tell me what to do, to tell me what's going on.
We need to empower teachers to be able to have control in their classroom, and we need to be talking more. We need to empower teachers. Teachers, we need you to tell us what the heck is happening in your classroom. You see things and you hear things that would completely shock us. And I almost feel like there's a great lack of education on parents' part of what's really happening with kids today at school, and there's also not enough resources for teachers. I know that school counselors are overwhelmed. There's a mental health crisis, and there just aren't enough counselors to go around. It's not just one person's issue to solve. It is a collective effort. We all need to do more, but speaking on behalf of parents, tell me what to do, and I'll do it.
Kevin: So Titania, I have one more question and this is what I really want to know. What kind of advice would you give that young couple as they plan their efforts to raise their children as responsible digital natives and that they take the right steps to ensure that their children are protected as well as benefiting from technology? What advice would you give a young couple?
Titania: I would say embrace real life much more so than digital life. Yes, you want to take a picture of everything, you want to videotape everything, but make sure that your baby, when your baby is outside of the womb, that they see your eyeballs more than they see the other side of the camera lens. Make sure that before they can even talk and walk, they're observing you and your partner or you and your colleagues having conversations and not just sitting around silent with the TV on, everybody on their phone. They're going to learn so much more by observing than by your instruction.
Then when they get old enough, please don't have the default be to use a digital babysitter. For eons, parents have survived parenting young children without screens. We can do hard things. We can do this. I'm not saying you're never going to need it, but please, please just don't default to it. Delay is the way. Wait as long as you can. Your children don't need devices in their rooms. They don't need gaming consoles in their rooms. They don't need smartphones. They don't need to be the first kid in their class with a smartphone. They don't need social media right away. Just delay, delay, delay.
And don't be afraid to get help. A lot of parents struggle with, "I think my child might need to talk to a therapist. I think I might need to talk to a therapist." There's such a stigma attached to that. Get rid of that stigma. If you are feeling that you need some outside professional help, get it. You will all be much better for it.
Kevin: Wow. Well said. Titania Jordan, thank you so much for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Titania: Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin: My conversation with Titania Jordan was so packed full of insights that we couldn't fit it all into one episode, so we created a special bonus episode of Tech Tips with Titania, where we continue our conversation. Look for it on your favorite podcast platform or on YouTube.
Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Titania is the chief marketing officer and chief parent of Bark Technologies, an internet safety solution that helps parents and schools keep children safer online. Her job is to help educate parents and schools about how to raise "responsible digital natives."
Titania is also the co-author of Parenting in a Tech World, a handbook offering tips and advice on fostering a healthy relationship between kids and technology.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.