Dr. Devorah Heitner on Online Safety, Internet “Rabbit Holes,” and Differently Wired Kids

gender nonconformity kids

This episode focuses on online communities and potentially dangerous internet rabbit holes that kids can go down. I felt pulled to tackle this topic for the show because I know that the past few years has been a time where differently wired kids have been a) spending a LOT more time online and connecting with people they may not have even meant in real life, and b) doing their identity development largely online as a result of COVID. I also know that this can put our kids, and us as their parents and caregivers, in challenging positions as we navigate a seemingly endless stream of discourse that may lead our kids down the wrong paths.

My friend and screen and tech expert Dr. Devorah Heitner joins me to talk about the ways differently wired kids might be exposed to harmful content, and why our kids may be more susceptible to toxic or unhealthy virtual rabbit holes in the first place, the popular places where teens and kids are hanging out the most right now, the way our kids’ worldview and their brain development is impacted they content their engaging with, and what we parents might not know that we should know about regarding this topic.

This is a sometimes heavy conversation, but I encourage you to listen and be open. I believe it’s critical that we understand what our kids may be doing online, and feel informed and confident in order so we can talk with them in a way that supports their growth and development, their relationship with technology, and our connection together. 


About Dr. Devorah Heitner

Dr. Devorah Heitner is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and her book on navigating Privacy and Reputation with kids and teens, Growing Up in Public will be out in 2023 with Penguin Random House.

Dr. Heitner’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The 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. She is delighted to be raising her own teenager and she lives with her family in Chicagoland. You can follow her on Twitter @Devorahheitner and on Instagram @devorahheitnerphd.


Things you’ll learn from this episode

  • Why differently wired kids are more vulnerable to Internet rabbit holes
  • The places online where today’s teens and kids are hanging out the most right now
  • Whether it’s possible to set up controls to manage the type of contents kids are accessing in sites like Reddit
  • The way our kids’ worldview and their brain development is impacted by engaging with potentially toxic content
  • What parents don’t know about what’s going on with their kids and the way that they’re accessing content


Resources mentioned for Unmasking Autism


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Episode Transcript

Debbie Reber  00:00

Tilt Parenting is proud to partner with Fusion Academy this season. Fusion Academy is a private, middle and high school with one on one classrooms to meet students exactly where they’re at academically, socially and emotionally learn more about the most personalized school in the world and how they’ve changed the lives of 1000s of families, including mine at fusionacademy.com/tilt.

Devorah Heitner  00:23

A kid who’s been through a rough couple of years, a kid who has been bullied or left out at school, a kid who’s had to maybe move schools because of social situations, a kid who has had people say unkind things about their difference, or about their appearance or about other aspects of their identity. That’s a kid who may be more vulnerable to a group or a set of a way of thinking that’s like you’re included and let us tell you all the reasons that other people are wrong for not understanding you. And let us give you a role here.

Debbie Reber  00:55

Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host, Debbie Reber. So today is an important conversation about online communities and internet rabbit holes. And I felt pulled to tackle this topic for the show. Because I know that the past few years in particular has been a time where differently wired kids have been spending a lot more time online and connecting with people they may not have even met in real life, and are engaged in their identity development largely online as a result of COVID. And I also know that this can put our kids and us as their parents and caregivers in challenging positions as we navigate a seemingly endless stream of discourse that may lead our kids down the wrong path. So I asked my friend and screen and tech expert, Dr. Devorah Heitner. To join me for a frank and open conversation about all of it. We talked about the ways differently wired kids might be exposed to harmful content online, and why our kids may be more susceptible to toxic or unhealthy virtual rabbit holes in the first place. We also talked about the popular places where teens have kids are hanging out the most right now online, the way our kids’ worldview and their brain development is impacted by the content they’re engaging with, and what we parents might not know that we should know about this topic. This is the second time Dora has been on the show, but in case you’re new to her work Devorah Heitner is the author of screen wise helping kids thrive and survive in their digital world. And the upcoming book on navigating privacy and reputation with kids and teens called Growing up in public. She has a PhD in media technology and society from Northwestern University. And she writes regularly for the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN opinion. And I just want to say upfront, this can be a tough topic to explore. But I encourage you to listen and be open. I think it’s so important that we understand what our kids may be doing online and feel informed and confident in order to talk to them about it in a way that supports their growth and development, their relationship with technology and our connection with them together. Before I get to my chat with Devorah, I get emails every day from parents who ask if I do private coaching or consulting for families with atypical kids. And while I don’t work one on one with parents, I’ve created what I think is the next best thing, a way to work with me get the live coaching, support, learn and practice strategies that work with differently wired kids and connect with other parents who totally get you all for a fraction of the cost of private coaching. The Differently Wired Club is a membership community for parents raising neurodivergent kids and over the past three years it has become a wonderful home base for many parents like us. Members get virtual office hours, coaching calls, expert guests, monthly themes, connection with other parents and much more. I open the doors to the club a few days at the end of every month. So those doors are open right now. To learn more and join us visit tiltparenting.com/club. Okay, and now without further ado, here is my conversation with Devorah.

Debbie Reber  04:26

Hello, Devorah, welcome to the podcast.

Devorah Heitner  04:28

Hi, Debbie. It’s so great to be here.

Debbie Reber  04:31

Yeah, I was thinking. We haven’t been on a podcast together in years, although we just did a really cool big tech reset over the summer. But this is a different conversation. And I’m really curious and interested to get into it with you. But can you take a few minutes before we get started and just do your spiel for us? Tell us a little bit about who you are in the world and what you do?

Devorah Heitner  04:52

Of course, sure. So I am Devorah Heitner and I wrote Screen Wise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in their Digital World and I Just finished writing and will be out next year Growing Up in Public. And that’s about kids making their way in this world, as surveilled as they are. And as public as they are on social media and kind of navigating the searchability. And reputation challenges and privacy challenges of being a young person today, I work with schools all over the country and the world, and I help parents especially understand their digital kids.

Debbie Reber  05:24

Wow, you have that down. That is a very succinct and clear description of what you do. So thank you for that. And I just have to say to listeners that I have gotten a little bit of a behind the scenes look at Growing up in Public as Devorah’s been working on it. And I’m really excited for this book. So I will, you’re gonna come back on when your book comes out. Because I really want to get into that. I think it’s fascinating. But I wanted to do something a little more specific for this conversation because of conversations I’ve had with so many parents and reading articles and knowing how vulnerable neurodivergent kids can be to certain communities online and knowing the toxic spaces that exist, virtually right now, it feels really scary and daunting. And so maybe that’s a place to start from your experience. And what you know, with regards to the vulnerability of neurodivergent kids, like have you seen that? What does the research show or what have you found to be true in terms of these kids potentially being more prone to explore things online in a way that might not be healthy?

Devorah Heitner  06:32

I mean, it’s really tricky, because, you know, we know digital spaces can be areas of strength for folks who are differently wired. And we know that building community online has a lot of accessibility advantages, whether you’re neurodiverse, whether you have any physical disabilities, like for so many people, connecting with people online has been a life changing opportunity for all kinds of different reasons, whether it’s the fact that you have a really niche interest, and there’s 10 people around the world that they don’t live where you do, whether it’s because eye contact is a little bit uncomfortable. There might be all kinds of reasons. And I think it’s fair to say that a lot of us, including you and me, right Debbie, know each other from the internet, but then have met in person. So there’s also the fact that the internet and digital spaces are spaces where we can connect and that doesn’t for you know, for closed the possibility of like an IRL relationship. So I think that’s really important. But But yeah, I think neurodivergent kids differently wired, young people can really fall into some tricky situations potentially, they can also again, this can be an area of strength, they can make friends and a game that they play, they can have a leadership opportunity in say, like a Discord server that they might not go for, like they might not be the kid who wants to run for vice president of their junior class in high school, but they might be the kid who wants to be the moderator on a server. Right. And so it’s an opportunity again, to step into leadership, I think what we worry about is the toxicity of some of these spaces and the negativity and I think those fall into different categories. One thing that I wrote about a little bit for Growing Up in Public is about sort of mental health discord and other mental health spaces and how if you’re struggling with your mental health, the best place for you might not be like to spend hours and hours talking about mental health in a mental health Discord server, or on a mental health Reddit or on a mental health Quora, like these might not be the most positive peers to engage in, like for your recovery, and you’re moving forward. So that’s like one set of problems. And then I think we’ve been talking a lot about the sort of political recruiting and especially for our kids who identify as boys and especially for kids who are white identify like, these are kids who, the far right would love to find your white boy, child or teenager and get them on board with some very intense thinking about women about people of color about immigration. And no matter where you fall, I think on the political spectrum, the idea of your kid being indoctrinated intensively by people online should concern you. I think it’s more evident when it’s really far from your own beliefs. But I think anytime our kids are getting out of context, kind of intense persuasion about how they should act or feel about other people outside of the context of real life. I think that should be concerning to us. Again, no matter where you fall on the political issues that are being discussed yourself. That’s really tricky. I think, for a lot of parents to even understand how that’s happening. Right? Where are they getting this and what is going on?

Debbie Reber  09:45

Well, I actually want to ask you that. You mentioned Discord. You mentioned Reddit. So this isn’t just Facebook, which I don’t know many young people who are on Facebook anymore. I know that is just not their place. It’s the place for middle aged women like me and you, but where are teens kind of hanging out online the most? Maybe you could explain as part of that answer what those spaces are because even Reddit, Discord … those might be words that people know about but they may not truly understand what those spaces are?

Devorah Heitner  10:18

Sure. Well a new Pew study found out and I’ll send you the link so you can include it in the notes because I think this is really helpful that shows where teenagers are like as of very recently and I think since the pandemic we haven’t known like I’ve been kind of as someone who researches this stuff and like waiting for the data. So okay, TikTok is a big place. And again when we talk about TikTok like you could be on booktalk learning about YA novels you could be on TikTok learning how to do your hair or how to clean your kitchen. You could also be on TikTok talking about mental health. You could also be on TikTok talking about all kinds of political issues, right? There’s a huge range and for everything that’s perilous or concerning to us. There’s something that’s positive, right, so like, for all we might worry about xenophobic, TikTok, there’s also anti racist TikTok for all we might worry about problematic gender messaging, or like, Pro Child Abuse TikTok like parenting advice that’s about hitting kids or something really damaging and problematic. And there are those influencers on TikTok. There’s also incredibly positive parenting advice and thoughtful stuff like our mutual friend Ned Johnson, who’s out there explaining really cool brain science on TikTok, and helping adults and young people with ADHD understand themselves and all kinds of stuff. That’s the thing about these spaces. So tick tock is a big place that like 67%, I think is what the Pew study said. I’d have to look at it, as 67% of teenagers are using TikTok. That’s a big number. And it’s the biggest and then YouTube is also huge. And YouTube tends to be even younger, because a lot of parents maybe don’t allow kids on tick tock, but even schools will send your elementary schooler home with a YouTube video about how to do a science thing. And then before you know it, they’re researching everything else. So many kids are on YouTube from toddler years on and YouTube often will, someone will connect to another space.

Devorah Heitner  12:02

So one way that kids have told me they end up on Discord, for example, which is a server based chat app that was initially popular with gamers and is now used for chatting about a lot of things is there’ll be a link in a YouTube comment. So someone will be like, Oh, you want to continue this conversation about this kind of anime come over to this Discord server. And so kids will start out maybe in one place on the internet, as we all do, like as I start out every morning in my inbox and end up by the end of the day, if I’m not careful. And I’m not spending time boxing and doing all the strategies that I need to do as an adult with ADHD to like, keep my time under control. I can also go down rabbit holes on the internet. I think they’re different ones and the ones we worry about with teens. But that doesn’t mean I actually need that tech talk about how to organize my refrigerator like right now. You know, like if my book is due at the end of the day, or if I have another deadline or I have to go pick up my kid like I probably shouldn’t be watching that video right now. So TikTok, YouTube and Discord are big and Discord, again, it’s a voice chat app that a lot of gamers use when they’re on the game. So if your kid is playing a game like Roblox or Minecraft, and you hear them talking to other people, and you hear voices in your home, that are not the people who live in your house, they are possibly using discord, they also very well might be on a Google meet or using their phone with a speakerphone turned on but when kids are talking to other people that don’t live in their home, and you can hear their voices like that’s what’s going on there mediating that contact in one of those ways, probably and then I mentioned Reddit. Reddit is kind of this like online traded discussion forum. I mean, I am a little biased. I’m a little anti Reddit I guess I’m a little biased. Like I don’t find it to be often a very positive place.

Devorah Heitner  13:36

I think one thing that we see on the internet is when you have the opportunity to be anonymous, you don’t see people behaving in ways where they want to be accountable for and this is something I tell kids when I go to schools and do workshops with students, I talked to them like Thankfully, this app is long, long gone. I don’t think Ask FM is popular anymore. But like seven to 10 years ago, there was an app Ask FM that was all about teenagers connecting anonymously and just being cruel to one another basically because when you remove the accountability of attaching your name to your actions, a huge motivation for that can be unkindness. Now there are people for whom that begets altruism. We all know the anonymous huge charitable gift is an example of altruism. That’s anonymous. But 99% of the time when people do not want their name or likeness attached to their actions, it is because they are up to no good. And I think as parents, we really don’t want our kids to be in places where people are anonymous. So even though there are huge limitations to what sort of nice about Instagram or Facebook or other places. I think the fact that so often our likeness and our name is attached to our behavior is something of a checks and balances against being awful.

Devorah Heitner  14:46

So Reddit and Quora, which are online conversations that are chat based, where people can ask questions anonymously and you know, there’s like an Ask Me Anything on Reddit and people be like, ask me anything. And again, some of those are really positive. Ask me any thing about having a cognitively disabled sibling asked me anything about growing up in Deaf culture asked me anything about living in Brooklyn like some of them are totally fine or innocuous or, or even like really good information, like, we live in a society where it might be hard to ask questions about someone’s disability, for example, and maybe this is a way that someone can ask a question that might be problematic to actually just like, walk up to a person who identifies as deaf and like, ask them a question like, what’s that like for you? But if someone’s putting themselves out there on Reddit and saying, Ask me anything, that’s an opportunity. And you can see where teenagers, especially neurodiverse teenagers might be really attracted to places where, especially if you have kids who’ve been told, like that’s not socially appropriate. Like you can’t say that, where people are drawn to a situation where the rules are being explicitly like, yes, you can ask that or this is a moderated conversation. These are the exact rules. And there’s a lot that’s attractive about that. Unfortunately, some of those conversations just don’t go down a good road. So there’s also a lot of very sexually explicit and sometimes violent conversations that happen on Quora and Reddit, like, there seems to be on Quora often, like a big obsession with like going to prison. I don’t know why. But every time I look at Quora, it’s always like, I’m going to jail. What should I do first? And like all these warnings about sexual violence, I don’t know if I’m just tuning into the wrong channel, like, but I’m seeing these things. And like, I wouldn’t want my middle schoolers reading that if he wants to learn about issues around incarceration, I can think of like five books or graphic novels that would be healthier ways for him to learn about the problem of over incarceration versus like, reading a Quora thread because by the way, we don’t know who that person is. Just like the person giving parenting advice on TikTok like, it could be someone highly qualified, like our buddy net, or a bunch of other smart people on there. Like there’s a lot of great authors on Tik Tok giving really good advice that’s research based and thoughtful. And there’s a lot of people who are like, I’ve got a phone, I’m turning it, I’m pointing it toward my face. And I’m going to tell you that it’s okay to hit your kid. Or I’m going to tell you that it’s okay to sometimes hit someone in a romantic relationship or like other terrible, damaging, problematic advice that we would never want our children to hear, we would never want to listen to ourselves. And so the wonderful and terrible thing about the internet is it’s so democratizing, it’s like everyone has a platform.

Debbie Reber  17:18

That is terrifying. And what you just described, it seems like it’s just too easy to access. Like you said, I wouldn’t want my middle schooler to stumble upon this. But it seems like it’s just one click away for so many of our kids. And I don’t know if it is possible to set up some kind of controls around access for things like Reddit or other things in terms of even the type of content that they can find on there.

Devorah Heitner  17:44

Within those apps, it’s pretty hard. I mean, there are ways to prevent kids from downloading apps, depending on what kind of phone you have, and what kind of app store like and there are ways. You know, if you have an apple, you can use screen time to some degree to like, make sure that they have approval before they use the app store. But I even think those only go up to 13. Like a lot of the sort of assumptions that are built into tack are not really about keeping kids safe or what’s developmentally appropriate. But about like, who is who are you allowed to track for advertising. So the idea of 13 an app, it’s not like oh, 13 is exactly when I want my kid to access hardcore porn, or exactly when I want them to be able to like buy weapons on the internet or something. But 13 is when the apple folks think that you don’t need to control the App Store for your kid because that’s when they’re allowed to use more apps like Instagram, for example, or TikTok because they’re being COPA compliant, which is just about advertising. But again, that’s not to say that your specific kid should be on TikTok at 13. And then again, within TikTok, within Reddit within Discord, there’s huge variance on what’s going on. So like a Discord, that’s a moderated discord at the local public library for kids to play Dungeons and Dragons on and everyone has to use their library card to log in, is going to be a really different kind of space. And it’s not that your kid won’t necessarily run into a troll or another kid in the community who isn’t nice to them. Like it’s a big bad world and even kids who go to your same library, it could be unkind, but there’s a huge level of accountability that you know that someone could get booted out of the group. If someone comes in and is spewing hate or using racial slurs, they’re probably gonna get booted out of that discord because it’s moderated by a librarian who’s checking in every day and that behavior won’t be tolerated. And there’s some consequences attached to acting in such a way. Whereas if you’re looking at a sort of quote unquote regular discord where there’s nobody in charge, or there’s not a clear moderator in a known community, the way there would be with like a library moderated server, you’re in a world where maybe anything goes or maybe maybe there’s Great Moderation but if the moderator is also high school kid, is that moderator going to be on at 3am to deal with the situation is that moderator going to be on during school hours you kind of hope not. If that if your kid is the moderator I kind of hope there or taking off from a tattoo to go to school or whatever. There’s a lot that’s one click away. And I think we need to just be in dialogue with our kids. And this stuff hits our kids’ lives just as developmentally, they’re pulling away from being in dialogue with us as much.

Debbie Reber  20:13

Yeah, and I just want to mention for listeners, too, you mentioned porn earlier accessing porn, and I did do an episode with Amy Lang about that, actually two episodes about what to do if you suspect your child has stumbled upon porn, like how to navigate all of that. They’re both really good conversations. So I’ll include links in the show notes, because I think that’s one potential harm.

Debbie Reber  20:38

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Debbie Reber  21:29

I want to talk about the pros and the cons, right? But I’d like to start with what you think some of the other real dangers are here, we’re coming off of a couple of years right of COVID, where young people have spent probably more time online than they have in the past, many may have been exploring their identity and really doing that self discovery work, much more plugged in online than they would have in the past. And so I’m just wondering what you can say about the way our kids’ worldview, their brain development is impacted by the way that they’re engaging with potentially toxic content?

Devorah Heitner  22:05

Yeah, I mean, I think I think it’s really tricky. I mean, I think kids doing this identity work online, you know, need to be supported and need to need to have adults to kind of be checks and balances in their life, you know, and that sort of early days of the Internet, there was a lot of sort of fantasy about, like, oh, we can all have different identities online. And this, you know, we’ll all be cyborgs. And this was, you know, 20, 30 years ago, like, even in the beginning of like, when I started my PhD program in media studies in 2001, there was still a lot of sort of idealization of like, the internet is going to be this incredible place, it’s going to be like a feminist utopia, because we won’t have bodies, we’ll just have our brains and instead, instead, we get like violent pornography. And instead, we get all kinds of other things. And even for kids, for all the liberatory potential, say, for like queer kids exploring their identities, I think there’s a flip side of there’s huge benefits to exploring identity and an IRL community to and having that kind of support. And we know that that’s not available to every kid. But it can be really challenging to figure out who you are in terms of gender and sexuality in terms of your political identity in terms of how you identify in terms of being differently wired, all of these things are challenging, because the internet wants to sort everyone into a category. The Internet wants to be searchable, the internet wants a hashtag. And I think we all want our kids to be more than a hashtag, we want to be more like as an author, and as someone who’s like, has a public presence like thinks about things like branding, I also reject that, like, I’m just like public, no personal brand is BS, like we should all be able to be complicated. And I think that’s where the internet, at least the internet that I know. And these spaces I’m talking about, like TikTok and discord kind of fall apart because it’s hard to be complicated and be searchable by a hashtag. And we want our kids to be able to be complicated. And to be able to embrace their identities and to be able to also evolve, not have to feel like they have to kind of label themselves to be found, and to find community, but that the best friends we have aren’t always the friends just with the shared interests. They’re the friends who really love us for who we are. And those relationships can grow even as interest in self presentation and other things change. And I think it’s really important that our kids experienced that. So I probably lost the question.

Debbie Reber  24:19

No, I love that you went there. I think that you answered it. I was just asking if there’s brain science that you’re aware of about what is happening to our kids as they’re developing their worldview as their brains are actively the prefrontal lobe is actively developing, if they’re also consuming potentially harmful content, right?

Devorah Heitner  24:39

Well, we know that kids are very reward sensitive and teens are very reward sensitive and that and that the newest brain research suggests that it’s not that they can’t predict consequences, or that they’re sort of dummies like they can’t see the you know, possibilities of of harm that might come if they post certain things, for example, because they’re actually very astute. A lot of times they can tell you like in terms of sexting can It’ll be like, Yes, I know, sometimes, you know, naked images get passed around. But I still did it because I’m really in love, like they can really identify that they know that that harm is possible, but they will still make the choice to do something that is risky, because risk is activating. And this is all really positive for adolescents, because we want them to try the hard calculus course or learn to skateboard or ask someone out for the first time, like all of the developmental things they need to do are risky. And so it makes sense that they’re going to be primed for risk that they’re going to be focused a little bit more on the rewards of a risky choice than the downsides. Even though intellectually, they actually do get the downsides. Again, they’re no dummies, these kids, and that’s really important, but extreme rhetoric is going to be very attractive to some kids. And especially, the worry I think we have for our differently wired kids is that extreme rhetoric may be really attractive to those who have been left out to those who have not been included and to offer an explanation for that. And to say that you haven’t been included. But I’m not only am I going to include you, but I share your anger and frustration that being left out. And these are some people who it’s their fault. And you can externalize, I think all of us are prone to externalize. All of us are prone to being like, my keys aren’t here. Who moved my keys, like I think all of us have had those moments of frustration. And it’s like, oh, I put my keys in the wrong place. But I think a kid who’s been through a rough couple of years, a kid who has been bullied or left out at school, a kid who’s had to maybe move schools because of social situations, a kid who has had people say unkind things about their difference, or about their appearance or about other aspects of their identity. That’s a kid who may be more vulnerable to a group or a set of a way of thinking that’s like you’re included. And let us tell you all the reasons that other people are wrong for not Understanding you. And let us give you a roll here.

Devorah Heitner  26:50

And I mean, this is what happened, like I’m going to share, or I’ll share with you for the show notes, that article that I shared with you from 2019 and the Washingtonian about my 13 year old join the alt right. And in that case, there was sort of a happy ending, right. So this is an anonymous tale by a mother written about a kid in a progressive community who was treated poorly in a situation and felt really misunderstood and was kind of pushed out of his school situation. And then was very attracted to these kind of Reddit spaces and became a leader. And this is what’s really interesting is these are spaces that will give kids a leadership role very quickly. And that’s very attractive to young people, because the thing is, young people are ready. And this is what we need to look for. On the inclusive side. Like why why schools and communities and volunteer organizations need to, you know, say to 13, 14, 15, 16 year olds, like, yes, you can have a leadership position with a lot of autonomy and like, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Because these other organizations will do it, and they’ll make your kid feel really valued and really needed. And that’s what happened with her kid in that situation, her kid that went to a rally where the people that he’d been talking to online, were quite hateful, acting quite hateful in public. And he recognized the dissonance between what he had thought was this loving, accepting group, and the ways people were acting. And he was able to say, I need out like, this isn’t right. For me. It’s scary that it got to that point. But I think that’s what was the wake up call. But I think it’s really important to understand that anyone who’s been excluded or left out is going to be especially vulnerable to someone who has an explanation for that, and has someone to blame for that, and also offers you a place where you’re needed and wanted and encouraged.

Debbie Reber  28:31

Yeah, I think that’s the scariest part, for a lot of our listeners whose kids may have been excluded, who have always felt like an outsider, like they didn’t belong. And if they can find that sense of belonging, it can be, as you said, very attractive. And I’m also thinking about, there are a lot of adults who went down rabbit holes and continue to go down Q anon and other rabbit holes. And so I imagine that there are parents who’ve been modeling this very same behavior of getting kind of sucked into this echo chamber. And so that must be even more challenging for kids who are in those households.

Devorah Heitner  29:08

The thing is, a certain amount of skepticism all the way up to a conspiracy theory is going to be very attractive to teenagers, because teenagers are just at this moment to where they’re like, well, now I know about climate change. What else haven’t you told me? Like, what else have you guys screwed up and left me to deal with and like, to a certain degree, that feeling is justified? I think climate change is a good example. Like I think of Gen Z kids are a little PO’d at the adults in their life to be like, Oh, thanks. Like we’re supposed to solve this like now that it’s 110 degrees. That’s legitimate. Right? And there’s a lot of things about adolescence where you start to really put together like, Oh, these are the things that haven’t and that’s why actually learning really critical history or it looks like lies my teacher told me or there’s some other really great books that are like critical histories of like, what didn’t you know, like what didn’t you know when you were a little kid celebrating Columbus Day or whatever, are really attractive to teenagers because teenagers are ready to do that critical work? My son’s school is putting on Peter Pan. And I’m like, not happy about it, it is a really problematic play with some very racist scenes. They won’t even show the Disney version on Disney Channel anymore for the last few years. And one of the things I’ve said to the teacher is, I hope that this is an opportunity for the kids to grapple with this historical text. Because I think they’re so ready, right, these eighth graders are going to be so ready to be like, let’s look at the racism in this and how it’s been staged in different places, and what the critical response has been, as opposed to just, let’s not do it, which might have been my first choice, but it’s happening. So I’m like, okay, but I think they’re so ready. The challenge is, when they turn that sort of critical conspiracy vibe onto you, and everything you or their other parent believes is a conspiracy. That’s a problem. And so, if your kid is going down a road of very problematic beliefs, I mean, like not just like, they’re obsessed with anime, and they want to make their hair look like anime, and they want to dress like anime. And you’re like, This isn’t how I pictured my kid looking in ninth grade, like I’m talking about, like, actually harmful, like, because I think it’s really important that we don’t sweat the small stuff, you know what I mean? Like pick a different battle. But if it’s really something that your kid is obsessed with, that is problematic, where they’re getting in touch with people who are dangerous, where they’re espousing views, that sound hateful, misogynist, right, et cetera, homophobic, like these xenophobic, like all of these, then I think as many people in their life as you can enlist, to get support that are not you because developmentally, they are programmed to think that you’re over protective, you’re wrong. You don’t know anything, and that is just adolescence. But if their coach or their you know, youth group leader or someone they trust is able to open up like not go in and bash their beliefs, like head on, but kind of go from the side and like, ask them some questions. That’ll be some good information. First of all, are there any actual internal doubts? Like, is your kid really hook line and sinker into this idea? Or are they curious about it, but also maybe doing it to piss you off? Like that would be good to know? Et cetera. I mean, there’s a lot of detailed information. I mean, if you need to actually deprogram a kid from a hate group, that’s a different scenario. But there’s many places that kid could be that would be concerning before, they’re actually leaving home to kind of enlist themselves in some kind of extremism and violence.

Debbie Reber  32:25

Well, I really appreciate that advice, too, to get the support of other people, not just because this is an age where a lot of kids might be pushing back and not trusting you or you, they don’t want to share those things, and they would feel safer. But because this is also overwhelming for parents. So just to know that you’re not in this alone, because I think if you feel that your child is going down this road, it can be scary and overwhelming, because the internet is a big place. And the thought of our kids being exposed to things that would really run counter to the values that we have as a family, the child that we thought we had, and that we knew, and it can just be very scary. So I love that advice. I wanted to ask you, I always love this question like, what don’t we know? We’ve been talking about certain things here. But what do parents not know about what’s going on with our kids and the way that they’re accessing content that we should know?

Devorah Heitner  33:20

I mean, I do think that the amount of talking kids are doing about mental health, if you’re not aware of that might be surprising, like kids are very open. And I think that’s a boundary that in many ways, I’m going to say as a positive change that the young people are leading a change in our culture, we’re talking about mental health is normalized. So think about Simone Biles, think about you know, examples where someone has really come forward and been supported and think about how young people felt about Biles and like rallied around her and supported her. That’s not to say your kid will necessarily get the same treatment like in their high school if they sort of come out about mental health stuff. But it’s worth understanding that kids are changing those boundaries that said, what if if you have a child who’s struggling, especially with something like maybe depression, for example, or an eating disorder, you don’t want them spending all their time online in the company of other people with that shared diagnosis kind of reinforcing it. I think that’s also really important. So the openness, I think, is a good thing. That de-stigmatization is really good. And we want to make sure that kids who are really struggling like if your kid has been an inpatient if your kid is doing intensive outpatient therapy, like that’s not a kid who should have tons and tons of online unstructured time to just be wherever I would work, like say you had a kid coming home from the hospital, I would work with their team to figure out a safe reentry plan for tech, including just managing the flood of getting back on track if they had their phones sort of away taken away during this time because that’s a really intense experience to come back to 3000 texts or whatever, if you have a kid who was really plugged in beforehand. And so, again, it’s not to say that we want to remove all these sources of support and our kids may express as these you know, mental health spaces or other connected spaces online, again, maybe it’s a Discord server, or maybe it’s a social media group they’re on, maybe it’s just a group text with their besties as really supportive, and that may be the case, but we still may want to help them balance that with some other pursuits, again, especially if they are in crisis or coming out of crisis.

Devorah Heitner  35:21

I think for kids who are not in crisis, and are kind of just weathering the ups and downs pretty well, you still want to make sure to be like helping them remember to unplug at night, making sure they get that habit of turning off devices at night and getting some sleep because that’s so crucial for mental and physical health. And all of these things are so stimulating, like being in an intense conversation on a group text is stimulating. So it’s not what you need to be doing at three in the morning.

Debbie Reber  35:46

Yeah, I’ve always talked about using brain science as a way to help our kids understand themselves better, right. And so I’m always looking for resources that we could share, or watch or read or view with our kids that would help them understand the actual brain science of what’s going on so that they can feel like Oh, this isn’t just my parent telling me to stop doing this because they think it’s bad, but really have a deeper understanding of the harms are what’s really going on how they might be rewiring their brain. Do you have any favorite resources on this topic?

Devorah Heitner  36:19

There’s a great YouTube by Daniel Siegel, whose book brainstorm is really great, but he has a really nice, YouTube, I’ll send you a link that’s about five minutes that really talks about myelination and the process adolescents go through and coming of age, and how this is a time to really focus on what you love, because what you love is really getting reinforced and what you specialize in. So if you think about like, I love dance, and I also love TikTok, but what do you want your brain to grow toward? And some people might say that dance and TikTok go together. But hopefully, their response would be at least to balance those things like that, it wouldn’t be all to the TikTok or you know what I mean that you’d want to balance your brain growth. And this is a time where the brain starts to specialize. And he does a really nice job talking about it. And I think what I especially like is, it’s such a positive take on the changes of the teenage brain. And I think teenagers are very sensitive to being maligned. And to the idea that this is like a negative time or that 10 brands are only half formed. And there’s a lot of that kind of talk, but I think it’s really, I think it’s really good to counterbalance that. And the videos are short, and it’s on YouTube. So it’s very accessible, like you can give your kid a great book on the brain, but only some of them will sit and read that.

Debbie Reber  37:24

Yes, that’s great. All right. So listeners will have the links to that in the show notes as well, before we say goodbye, Devorah. First of all, this has been fascinating. As always, I’ve taken pages of notes on this conversation. So there will be a lot of resources in the show notes and links for everything that we brought up. But are there any last thoughts, last words of wisdom, best practices, something that you want to leave listeners with? If this is something that they’re either dealing with or are concerned about what to prevent?

Devorah Heitner  37:51

Yeah, I think one of the other things to do is to not shame our kids if they ever get sucked into misinformation, because the misinformation campaigns are very sophisticated. And as you mentioned, a lot of adults have been sucked into some misinformation. And so actually to acknowledge the times where maybe you felt like, oh, I shared that story on Twitter without really reading it. And later, I realized I had shared misinformation. And I was sort of stuck in with the horror, you know, but really talk with kids about that so that they don’t feel ashamed or like they can never backpedal. We don’t want our kids to feel like I must double down because somewhat than otherwise, I’m admitting I was wrong. And that’s shameful. We want to really let kids know that we’ve probably all shared something on the internet that we later like, should I have shared that or amplify that. And to really give kids a lot of credit for being discerning when they are being discerning as well. And anytime they come to you about anything. A friend just told me a story where her 14 year old son came to her about some concerning information about a social gathering she was about to attend, and like the first thing she did, which is so great. It’s just like telling me with such great judgment, you have such great judgment, that really helps me trust you, you know, and just really reaffirming for our kids, when they do share with us. And if they open up to doubts not be like, That’s why I told you not to follow those websites, but to be like, Yeah, it’s really tough when people share it misinformation in such a like, sophisticated way can be really, like draw you in, you know, and just get like give them that sympathy and respect as much as possible, as opposed to like, head on confronting, like, how could you be you know, because no one wants to hear how could you be taken in by that? Or how you know, because what they hear is, how could you be so stupid. And we never want to be saying that to our kids. It’s really important that we try to not approach it that way. You know, we can freak out privately later with our friends or with our partner and keep it cool in front of our kids.

Debbie Reber  39:40

That’s great advice. 100%. And that just helps keep the conversation going and not shut it down. That’s great. Wow, super interesting. Thank you so much for everything that you shared. I know this is going to be very helpful for so many of our listeners. So thank you for that and tell us where people can connect with you and tell us again when your book Growing Up in Public is going to be out to the world.

Devorah Heitner  40:04

So I’m at devoraheitner.com. And I’m on all the social places, Instagram and Twitter. And my book will be out next summer in August 2023.

Debbie Reber  40:18

So exciting. So listeners, I will have Devorah back to talk about that book. I’ve gotten a sneak peek behind the scenes and it’s going to be great. And I’m excited for that. So thank you Devorah. As always, it is a pleasure to chat with you and we’ll see you on the show soon.

Devorah Heitner  40:33

Thank you. Take care, Debbie.

Debbie Reber  40:38

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