Dr. Katie Davis on Digital Media’s Role in the Lives of Differently Wired Kids

gender nonconformity kids

My guest today is Dr. Katie Davis, a researcher on the impact of digital technologies on young people’s learning, development, and well-being, and the author of the fascinating new book, Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up. The world of technology is ever-expanding and its integration into our lives so seamlessly that we often don’t stop to consider what effect it’s having on us and our children. In this conversation, Katie helps us understand what this impact is and what we want to consider surrounding our kids’ use of tech.

Katie and I explore how technology is accelerating the full arc of child development, what the research says about the efficacy of apps that are sold as tools to develop kids’ learning and things like executive function skills and whether or not ADHD symptoms can be exacerbated by technology use. We also discussed gaming disorder and how to support children in their usage of social media while they are developing and exploring their identities. 


About Dr. Katie Davis

Dr. Katie Davis is Associate Professor at the University of Washington (UW) and Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab. For nearly twenty years, she has been researching the impact of digital technologies on young people’s learning, development, and well-being. In her latest book, Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up, Dr. Davis brings clarity to what we know about technology’s role in child development and provides guidance on how to help children of all ages make the most of their digital experiences.


Things you’ll learn from this episode

  • What Katie’s book Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up is about and what she was hoping to accomplish by sharing it with the world
  • How technology is accelerating the full arc of child development
  • What “design abuse” is and how it keeps kids engaged in technology
  • The effects of technology on our kids’ fledgling executive function skills
  • What the research says about the efficacy of apps marketed as tools to support kids’ executive function skill development
  • How to support kids in the usage of social media while developing their identities


Resources mentioned for digital media & differently wired kids


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Episode Transcript

Debbie Reber  00:00

Every student is so different, but traditional schools treat them all the same. That’s why my teen attends Fusion Academy, the world’s most personalized school. Fusion is especially great for differently wired students. Their one to one classrooms match your student’s unique pace and preferences so they can learn better, dive deeper and never get left behind. Fusion has 80 convenient campus locations across the country for grades six through 12, along with a fully online campus, Fusion Global Academy. Fusion has been a game changer for my family. Why not experience the world’s most personalized school for yourself? Fusion is now enrolling for both summer catch up courses and full Fall Enrollment. Sign up for a free one to one trial session at fusionacademy.com/tilt That’s fusionacademy.com/tilt 

Katie Davis  00:50

Let’s say you answer that question saying, Well, this child’s video game playing is interfering with other aspects of their life. So video games must be really bad, then, you know, I argue in the book that probably what we need to be looking at is well, what else is going on in that child’s life that is compelling them to spend so much time playing video games, perhaps that’s a symptom of some other aspect in their lives, that’s not going so well. And perhaps this is actually a good coping strategy for them at that moment, and it’s actually supporting them. It’s providing them some sort of relief from an otherwise very challenging situation.

Debbie Reber  01:32

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. My guest today is Dr. Katie Davis, a researcher on the impact of digital technologies on young people’s learning, development and well being and the author of the fascinating new book Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up. The road of technology is ever expanding, and it is integrating into our lives so seamlessly that we often don’t stop to consider what effect it’s having on us and our children. In this conversation, Katie helps us understand what this impact is, and what we want to consider surrounding our kids’ use of tech. Katie, and I explore how technology is accelerating the full arc of child development. What the research says about the efficacy of apps that are sold as tools to develop kids’ learning and things like executive function skills, and whether or not ADHD symptoms can be exacerbated by technology use. We also discussed gaming disorder and how to support children in their usage of social media while they’re developing and exploring their identities. Dr. Katie Davis is Associate Professor at the University of Washington and Director of the U DUB digital youth lab. Her latest book that we’re discussing today, Technology’s Child, brings clarity to what we know about technology’s role in child development, and provides guidance on how to help children of all ages make the most of their digital experiences. Before I get to that tilt parenting is hosting a special three part live event with my friend Amy Lang, one of the most respected experts on talking to kids about sexuality. And this event is especially for parents and caregivers of differently wired kids, ages nine to 12. And it all starts tonight, July 11. This special series is specifically tailored for our community. So you’ll be learning with like minded people, which is always the best. Over this three week series, Amy will cover what neurodivergent kids need to know, puberty prep for parents of neurodivergent kids, and how to keep differently wired kids safer online. The classes will run for three consecutive Tuesdays again, starting tonight, Tuesday, July 11. And all classes will be recorded in case you can’t attend live. You’ll also get a ton of resources each week. To register just go to tiltparenting.com/sexed, that’s still parenting.com/sexed. Thank you so much. And now here’s my conversation with Katie Davis.

Debbie Reber  04:18

Hi there, Katie. Welcome to the podcast.

Katie Davis  04:21

Thank you so much for having me, Debbie. It’s great to be with you.

Debbie Reber  04:24

I am looking forward to getting into your work and your book and all things screen and tech and research and nerd out a little bit. But before we get into that, I’ve already read your bio. So we know your credentials. But I would like to know a little bit more about the person behind the credentials and why you got into doing this work.

Katie Davis  04:44

Yeah, sure. So I’ve been researching kids and technology for almost 20 years now which I can’t believe but before that my very first professional hat I guess, was an elementary school teacher and I really always since the time I was a little kid I will wanted to be a teacher, I always would play teacher and I just loved it. And so that was always my goal to be a teacher and a writer. And so in the early 2000s, I was an elementary school teacher. And it was just a fascinating time because it was really when technology, which was slowly but then very quickly, becoming increasingly central to kids’ lives, both inside the classroom and outside the classroom. And I was just filled with all these questions about how is this going to change, learning and development and just how young people navigate the world. And so I just kept on returning to these questions. And I decided to return to graduate school to study the role of technology in kids’ lives, and development and learning and well being and all those things. And this was around 2005, 2006, right? When Facebook was still very new, YouTube had just come out, the iPhone hadn’t even come out. And so I’ve really been there researching this whole landscape for quite a while. And then in the last six years, it’s taken on an added interest and importance to me, because I’ve now revealed myself. And so all of these ideas that were somewhat abstract for me, have very quickly become very concrete and I need to know these answers to these questions that I have just so I know what to do with my son Oliver. Yeah. So that’s a little bit about me and how I came to this work. And it’s just endlessly interesting and fascinating, partly because it’s always changing. And the tech landscape today and 2023 is so different than in 2005. And a lot of the kids, all of the kids that I was studying back then are now adults, and now they’re looking at this new group of teens and children and thinking, Oh, my gosh, the technology has changed even more. So what’s going to change for this new generation of kids? So there’s always these fascinating questions to be asked and answered. That is so cool.

Debbie Reber  07:07

And as you’re talking, I’m thinking of my undergraduate degree, which was, I will date myself, I graduated in 1991, with a degree in broadcast cable, because cable was kind of a new thing, right? And absolutely. And it’s just so funny to think of how any four year old could probably do on their phone, what I was learning how to do in terms of editing in a production studio. But I can just imagine when you entered this space and what you’ve seen, and it must just be endlessly fascinating. And it seems like it’s progressively speeding up, right?

Katie Davis  07:47

It is. And it’s really even amazing when you talk to families. And if you know, have families with multiple children, the older children will inevitably refer to their younger siblings as an entirely different generation based on their particular blend of platforms that they’re using and the devices they’re using, because it just changes so quickly.

Debbie Reber  08:08

Yeah, so fascinating. The book that we’re going to be talking about today is called Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up. So can you give us the bird’s eye view of this book, why you wrote it and what you were hoping to share through putting it out into the world?

Katie Davis  08:26

Absolutely. As I said, I’ve been researching this area for a long time. And, you know, when I’m talking with my friends, or my family, or just people at a cocktail party, if they want to know about what I do, inevitably, they want to know, okay, so what’s the verdict? Is technology good? Or is it bad for kids? Or when should I get my kid a phone? Or how many video games? Should I allow them to play for how long? And before I became a parent, I would always dutifully respond as a responsible researcher, I’d say, Well, you know, it’s complicated, because it is, you know, sometimes technology can be good, sometimes it can be not so good. It really depends on the situation and the child. I was generally pleased with that and or satisfied that I was doing the research justice, because it is very complex research territory. Then when I became a parent, I very quickly realized that this sort of on the one hand, on the other hand, kinds of answers are not particularly helpful for parents who just want to know what do I have to do now? Or is this episode of whatever TV show? Is this harmful to my kid? Is it helpful? Are they getting anything out of it? Should they be playing video games? If so, what kind? So I really decided that I wanted to write this book so that I could corral all of the research my own but also just all the research out there on technology’s role in the full arc of child development from birth through all the way up through college age and The work could we just steal some concrete guidance for parents and educators and even technology designers, anyone who has a stake in young people’s development. And so this book is really my attempt to make the complex a little bit more concrete, recognizing that it is complex, and there are no easy answers. But what I provide in the book is that I introduce a framework that I think parents can use as their North Star for guiding their decisions around their particular child’s technology use, because one thing I emphasize throughout is that children are very different, and their paths to development look very different. And so it stands to follow that the way they use technology is going to be different, what they do, and so they, you could have two children using the exact same technology, but having very different experiences. And so the framework that I put forward is an attempt to help parents determine for their particular child, is this technology experience good? Or is it not so good?

Debbie Reber  11:08

Yeah, it’s so helpful in that way. And I love that too, because especially listeners of this show are raising very complex neurodiverse, and kids who some really rely on technology for a variety of reasons, and some get really dysregulated through technology, some are soothed and regulated through technology. So I really like that very individualized approach that you have throughout the book. Yeah, absolutely. In any conversations that I have with parents about tech and screen use, we’ve talked about this a couple times on the show, Devorah Heitner, we were talking before I hit record, she’s been on to talk about her book, screen wise. And we’ve done a couple of things together. But one of the things we always talk about is the fact that the landscape is so different, right? And as you said in the beginning, it’s moving so quickly. And I think as the adults in these kids’ lives, it’s very challenging, because it’s so far removed from anything that we could possibly understand. And I’m always thinking about this, rather than fighting it, because we kind of want more control back. But I see this idea of having to surrender. This is the new landscape. And it’s impacting fundamentally how our kids are developing. Right? Can you talk a little bit more about what you’ve learned in terms of how technology is actually accelerating that full arc of child development?

Katie Davis  12:30

Yes, absolutely. So when I look at how a particular child is being impacted by their technology use, there are two questions that I think are really important to answer. The first one is, is this experience self directed, and self directed, is going to look slightly different across the arc of development. And for different kids, those who are neurodivergent, and those who are neurotypical, it’s going to look different. But basically, self-direction is an experience where you’re in the driver’s seat of your technology use, and you’re kind of calling the shots. Now, some kids need a little bit more scaffolding and support to experience self direction. But it’s basically this idea that the agency lies with the child rather than with the technology. And when you have that sort of relationship to technology, that is generally a sign that your technology use is supporting whatever aspect of development that you’re tackling. So for young kids, they’re developing their ability to self regulate, they’re developing their early literacy skills. When you get older, you have older kids and tweens developing friendships and navigating the concepts, complex peer relationships, and identity development. So all of these developmental tasks have across the full scope of development. They require children to exert some amount of agency. And so when it comes to how technology is impacting whatever stage of development they’re at, you really want to zoom in and look at, well, where is that agency? And are they having a self directed experience? And so that’s the first question. The second question, is this community supported? And that’s really what’s the sort of support that kids are experiencing surrounding their technology use, you know, are their parents there to make sure that they’re not spending too long playing a video game or watching endless Netflix? Or if they’re a little bit older, and they’re participating on a social media platform? What sort of community are they experiencing on that platform? Is it supportive? Is it toxic? So really, those two anchoring questions? Is it self directed? Is the community supported by looking at kids’ technology experiences through those two questions? It’ll take you a long way, is what I argue in the book, it’ll really help you understand, is this experience supporting my child’s development? Or is it in some way undermining it or detracting from it?

Debbie Reber  15:12

Yeah. And again, that looks different at every phase of a child’s life and where they are in their unique development. So I want to ask a little bit more about agency. And we’ll do that right when we get back from a quick break. 

Debbie Reber  15:26

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Debbie Reber  15:52

So I’d love it if you could talk a little bit more about the agency piece of self direction. I’m just even in terms of some examples about what that looks like. Was it what they’re actually doing with their finger? Is it I think about sandbox games or Minecraft where you’re building? So what are you talking about?

Katie Davis  16:07

That’s a great example to Yeah, so I give a lot of examples throughout the book for these, it’s going to look different at different stages of development. So when I was writing the book, at the height of the pandemic, my son was three and four. And so I was really zooming in and looking at of course, well, what does self direction look for these early kids, especially because most of my research has historically focused on older children and adolescents. And so early childhood, I don’t typically touch as much, but I go into this very deeply in the book. And so I pulled out some examples from Oliver’s technology use and different apps that he really enjoyed, particularly during the pandemic. And there are two in particular that I think are a good example of one that is supportive of agency. And then when that is not so much. So the one that is this one is drawing app, Peppa’s paint box, he loved the Peppa Pig TV series for a while. And so he had Pepper’s paint box on his tablet. And when you open this app, it just takes you to a blank canvas. And you can pretty much do whatever you want, create whatever drawings you want, change the colors, use different drawing implements, there’s no sort of nothing that’s propelling you forward in any direction, or moving you to do this rather than that. And so when I observed all of her engaging with this app, he would typically be really involved in it for about 15 or 20 minutes. And then he’d kind of lose interest and move to something else. And typically, it was off of his tablet. And this is the kind of cadence that is typical in non screen based play experiences for little kids. 15-20 minutes of a play episode, and then they’re kind of ready to move to something else. And it’s because they’re in control of their attention. They’re guiding the experience. They’re saying what I want to do now, what do I want to do next? They’re in the driver’s seat. So this is what agency looks like, for young kids when it comes to technology. And the way the technology and that particular app is designed is really key to the experience of agency and maintaining control over your attention. So with Pepper’s paintbox there, there’s no timer that’s moving him at a particular pace. There’s nothing that is telling him to go in a particular direction. And there are now what I talked about in the book, Dark patterns. So these particular features that are there specifically to keep you on the platform and playing. So if you think about, like the most obvious dark pattern I could think of would be the autoplay on YouTube, or Netflix that just automatically advances to the next episode or the next video clip. That’s an example of a dark pattern whose sole purpose is just to keep you watching to keep you going on and on for longer than you would have originally intended. And so there are other dark patterns. And I saw some of them in this other app that Oliver also really enjoyed during the pandemic. And this was Paw Patrol Rescue run. And this was more of your typical video game kind of scenario where he’d go to Adventure Bay and he could choose different places to go and Adventure Bay and different missions that he would go on. But for every mission, it was pretty much the same thing. You go from point A to point B as quickly as you can, collecting as many badges and pup treats as you possibly can. And it’s highly engaging and he wants to keep on playing because he wants more pup treats and he wants more badges and if I didn’t stop him playing he would just keep playing and playing and play much longer than your average play session for a young child. And so there were things like the virtual rewards the pup treats the badges those were keeping him in Age, the music, the timer, all of these things, the difficulty of finding exactly how to get out of this game environment and find your way home. All of these things you can characterize as dark patterns that keep children engaged on a platform for longer than they had intended or their parents had intended. And so in that instance, I would say that, who was calling the shots was the technology, not so much, Oliver, it’s as if his attention was being co-opted by the platform. Now, I’m not saying at all in the book that kids should not play any video games, or they should not watch TV because they’re not in control of their attention. Absolutely not. Oliver is allowed to play a little bit of video games, he loves to watch TV, and I love to just go out on the couch while he’s doing it after a long day. And so that’s absolutely fine. But what do you want to look for? Is that balance between all of my child’s technology experiences and more passive ones? Or are they ones where their attention is being co opted, and they’re not really calling the shots? If all of their technology experiences are like that, that’s a warning sign that you’re not taking advantage of all the good things that technology has to offer.

Debbie Reber  21:18

So interesting, what you were just sharing, it reminded me of a note I pulled out, I had never heard of this concept of design abuse. And you talk about this in the book. It was researcher and pediatrician Jenny Radesky’s research that you shared, it made a lot of sense to me. Is this what you’re talking about when you say the dark patterns?

Katie Davis  21:37

Yes. So design abuses are another word for dark patterns. Jenny Radetzky, at Michigan and my colleague, actually at the information school in the University of Washington, Alexis Henniker, they both have done a lot of work around just mapping out the design abuses. In children’s technology, specifically, they’re in all technologies. So the technologies that we use as well. But when it comes to kids technologies, things like virtual characters who cry when you leave the platform, things that just keep kids compelled hidden ads, where you have to click on something and then a pop up ad comes or you lock some part of the app, and a parent has to give their credit card in order to unlock it. All of these things. Alexis and Jenny characterize as design abuses, which are very much aligned with the concept of dark patterns, it’s just anything that keeps you engaged. And that’s great for the technology company’s bottom line, because the more you’re engaged, the more money they get. But it’s not so great for personal agency or well being when I talk about self direction, this is what I’m talking about. And beware of design abuses and dark patterns.

Debbie Reber  22:48

Yeah, super interesting. You talk a lot earlier in the book, when you’re talking about younger children about the potential interference of a child’s executive function skill, and their technology use and executive function is something we spent a lot of time talking about in my community. And there’s, I think, probably a lot of misinformation, it can support their development and vice versa. And I’m just wondering, if you could share what we want to consider in terms of the effect of certain technology on our kids, fledgling executive function skills.

Katie Davis  23:21

Yeah, executive function development is just such an important skill to develop. And one of the sensitive periods, of course, is early childhood, but it keeps on developing throughout childhood. And adolescence is another sensitive period for its development. But when it comes to technology, it can be really tricky, because so when we are talking about young children, a lot of the times and I count myself among these parents who have done this, that you just have a situation where your child has lost it or you’re exhausted, and the only thing you can think of to calm them down or just to give you a little bit of a break is to put them in front of a screen. And it often does, the trick is they are automatically soothed, you get a moment to breathe, all good. The danger of doing that too often is that children learn whether explicitly or not, they just their bodies learn that if something’s going wrong with me, I’m going to look to this screen and that’s going to be soothing me, rather than developing those skills that are so hard to develop. It’s so important to soothe yourself. And so again, it comes down to balance. Absolutely. The screen can be one of many tools that parents go to, to navigate these very challenging situations. But if it’s the go to, that’s when there’s a problem because there’s no room in that situation for kids to practice their own fledgling skills of self regulation, self soothing, it all comes down to balance.

Debbie Reber  24:55

I would love to talk a little bit about The increasing amount of apps that are being designed specifically to support kids. There are more and more apps that are specifically being designed with this goal of helping kids learn emotional regulation and learn executive function. And they are designed specifically for kids who have ADHD or learning and attention issues or regulation issues. So I’m just wondering if in your research, what you’ve learned about the efficacy of apps like that, are they effective? And any thoughts on how parents can utilize those?

Katie Davis  25:31

Yeah, so one thing I would really urge parents to do is approach these apps with a lot of caution. Because when it comes to anything that’s geared towards parents or kids, and it’s promising to support their development or their learning in some way, you have to just stop and ask, okay, well, then, where’s the evidence? Where’s the research that’s backing up that claim? As an analogy, there are tons of apps that are purporting to support young children’s literacy development. And they have absolutely zero research backing them, maybe a few focus groups that they’ve done internally, but no peer reviewed research. And it’s really important to develop that evidence base, so that you can feel confident that these apps are actually going to work. As far as I am aware, these types of apps have not yet accumulated that really solid research foundation to show that they do or they don’t work. And so again, if I were a parent trying to decide, Well, should I use these apps? Should I not? I would say, Well, why don’t we give it a try, we’ll give it a try and see how it fits for our family. And see if it feels like we are making this app work for us so that it’s serving our needs. versus you know what this app is calling all the shots, it’s taking me from one situation to another, it’s teaching me how to transition, but it’s not really actually letting me do it on my own. Because that’s the ultimate goal is that technology can be fantastic for giving you that initial support and scaffolding. But eventually, you want to be able to take that away and be able to do it yourself. Again, it comes down to the agency and being in control. And so that’s what I would urge parents, while we’re waiting for the research to come out on these apps, really pay attention to how this app is being incorporated into your family, how you’re responding and how your child’s responding. And if you feel like you’re still in control of things with its use.

Debbie Reber  27:36

Yeah, that’s a great response. And so what I’m hearing is think of these as tools that you can use, but not as a solution.

Katie Davis  27:44

Absolutely. You know, I’m thinking as an analogy to my own recent experience with my son, for the last year or so we’ve been doing a lot of speech therapy. And the speech therapist suggested that we try this app, I think it’s called articulation station. And I thought, okay, great, we’ll go to these speech therapy sessions weekly, and then he’ll just use the app and problem solved. But then I realized, you know, what, I actually need to be a little bit more involved, I need to actually make sure that he’s engaging in it in a way that is aligned with what the speech therapist was teaching him. And, in fact, my role in his engagement with that app is crucial to whether or not it’s effective or not. And so this is what I’m talking about when I say the second core piece of technology that supports development is it needs to be community supported. So often for younger kids, that’s parents providing that support. And in the case of Oliver and his speech therapy, I needed to be very attentive and really engaged hands on with his use of that app.

Debbie Reber  28:49

I love the design considerations that you suggest in terms of these best practices, to design technologies that support executive function in the minds of young kids. The first of those was to minimize unnecessary bells and whistles, even if they’re intended to be educational, that jumped out at me. I’m just wondering if the popular apps and games that exist for young children today, I’m sure you really know this landscape? Well, how many of them are doing this? Like how many of them are actually subscribing to this thoughtful list of best practices that you share? And how many are getting it wrong?

Katie Davis  29:25

Unfortunately, I think the vast majority are getting it wrong, because if you look at their incentives are to capture our attention and to sell us products. And the more bells and whistles you add, the more engaging it is and we’re excited and both parents and children we are excited by the new and flashy things. And so it’s very easy for us to get fooled by that. But those bells and whistles are really not so good for kids, especially young kids where their information processing capabilities are very limited. So if you’re giving them a lot of input, a lot of stimulus is just going to overwhelm them, they’re not going to know where to focus on what to pay attention to. And also, typically the bells and whistles mean that their eyes are going to be and their attention is going to be pulled to those bells and whistles rather than the core educational experience. And so yeah, I don’t have a percentage to give you of how many apps for kids have too many bells and whistles. But from what I’ve encountered, through my experience, as a parent and reviewing research conducted by people who are really focusing on young kids and apps in particular, they’re not getting it right just yet. And I’ve what I really am really hoping for, and a lot of my colleagues who are researching in this area, what we’re really pushing for is for companies to take some of these design considerations into account when they’re designing technologies for kids. Don’t just focus on this is a literacy app. So I’m going to design a literacy experience. But then I’m going to put all these cool things on it to make it really fun and engaging. No, we want the technology companies to do is really consider what’s going on developmentally for kids, what do they need? What is going to support them and designed for that instead of purely engagement?

Debbie Reber  31:26

Yeah, that makes total sense, as you were answering that I was thinking back to my college days, again, when I was majoring in broadcast and cable, you learned how to do transitions. And there were those students who put every possible transition in the shortest video just because they could. And it wasn’t thoughtful. So I think when you were saying that to just be really thoughtful and intentional about the underlying why you’re including these things. Absolutely. This is not something you go into in your book. But while I’ve got you here, I’m going to ask you this and feel free to take a pass. But you talked about these bells and whistles on the sensory overload and all of this information. And knowing that we have so many listeners who are raising kids who have ADHD, have you found anything in the research about whether or not ADHD symptoms can be exacerbated by technology use?

Katie Davis  32:15

Yeah, so the relationship between ADHD and technology use is very complex. So that’s kind of the number one point to take home here. The number two is that researchers don’t necessarily agree, because I think you know, you can look at a relationship because there are several studies that do show a relationship between greater technology use, you know, including TV watching and video games, and then later development of ADHD. And there are researchers who say, see, that’s evidence that this technology use has caused problems with ADHD. But other researchers say the relationship is far more complex. And we don’t really have the statistical models that can really model that complexity of that relationship. It could be that parents who have kids with ADHD are more likely to turn to screens to help soothe and regulate their children, that might then become this circle of going back and forth between the ADHD and the technology. And again, it really matters how the technology is being used. So sometimes it might be used to help soothe but then other times, it may not be, but if it’s always the go to for self soothing. That’s again, as I said before, something that is definitely a warning sign. And more generally speaking, I would say that, absolutely. For kids with ADHD, parents are going to be even more aware and tuned in to those extra bells and whistles that so many different sites offer and really try as much as possible to seek out those that keep them to a minimum. The good news is there are a lot of researchers, well, I wouldn’t say a lot but more and more who are starting to really focus on designing technologies for neurodivergent kids and involving these kids in the design process right from the beginning, and also their caregivers so that their perspectives are incorporated into the design. And I think we really need more and more of that. And unfortunately, we don’t have enough technologies that have been designed that way, right from the beginning.

Debbie Reber  34:30

Thank you for going there with me. I want to spend a minute just talking about video gaming. We can’t talk about all the concepts in your book, but I really appreciated what you wrote about gaming disorder. I did not know that was a real thing. You said the World Health Organization has determined it was a diagnosable condition. But what you said that I really appreciated is that while behaviors like this warrant attention, focusing on behaviors alone and pathologizing it with the label fails to address the underlying cause and could actually exacerbate the problem. I’d love it if you could just speak to that.

Katie Davis  35:03

Yeah. So again, this is another area where there’s so much debate and controversy, a lot of researchers don’t think the world health organization should have classified this gaming disorder as a diagnosable disorder. And then many do agree with that, where I come down is whether or not it’s a diagnosable classifiable disorder or not. What’s more important is to really tap into how is this child’s experiences with video games affecting them? And is it interfering with other aspects of their development? Or is it supporting their development. So for one child, you might have them playing games, and actually, it’s a very rich social experience, they have a Minecraft server with their friends, especially during the pandemic. This type of thing was really a lifeline for a lot of kids and a great opportunity for social engagement. And actually, in my book, I have a section talking about Minecraft servers specifically devoted for Autism, and how that has been a really important community for many kids with autism and and their families. So with respect to video games, whether or not it’s an actual disorder or not, you really have to look at how a particular child is interacting with this particular video game. Are they having opportunities for socializing? Or are they not? Is it getting in the way of their academics? Is it not? And then, even if you answer, let’s say, you answer that question saying, Well, this child’s video game playing is interfering with other aspects of their life. So video games must be really bad, then, you know, I argue in the book that probably what we need to be looking at is, well, what else is going on in that child’s life that is compelling them to spend so much time playing video games, perhaps that’s a symptom of some other aspect in their lives, that’s not going so well. And perhaps this is actually a good coping strategy for them at that moment. And it’s actually supporting them, it’s providing them some sort of relief from an otherwise very challenging situation. So saying, there’s a gaming disorder, that means too much video games is bad. What I’m arguing in the book is that that has the danger of missing the full complexity of what’s bringing a child to playing video games so much.

Debbie Reber  37:32

That makes so much sense. And we talk about the Iceberg Theory and focusing on the external behavior just completely ignores all the underlying things. So as you’re saying that, I’m thinking just like with younger kids, as you talked about earlier, you could have the same external behaviors, gaming behaviors, engagement, and it’s going to be different depending on the individual behind it. So there’s the Qantas kind of look at this checking all these boxes, and then that means x because that’s not necessarily the case. Okay, that’s super helpful. Before we wrap up, I did want to just spend a moment talking about the reality of adolescents and young adults and tweens as well doing their identity development online, and dealing with feedback and cyberbullying and all of that. And a little side note, I am a reality TV consumer. And this is something that comes up a lot. These reality TV stars, if you will, didn’t know what they were signing up for in terms of the hate that they are getting, if someone doesn’t like their story arc or whatever. And suddenly, they’re just receiving so much vitriol online. I don’t know if that’s the norm. But I’m wondering if this whole generation is growing up feeling like I just have to have a thick skin. This is a part of living in this world today is accepting that I’m gonna get abused by people I don’t know, online, would you say that’s a fair assessment? Maybe that’s too dramatic. And I’m just wondering what’s happening.

Katie Davis  39:02

I don’t think you can overdramatize how stressful it is to be a teen today. And growing up and doing all that identity work and friendship work in a social media saturated context. It’s just a tremendous amount of stress and pressure and crazy dynamics that inter weave in very complex ways with offline dynamics. And it is so public and so persistent. And so Absolutely, it’s very challenging for teens. And we have seen over the last 10 years white concerns spike in mental health challenges among teens, particularly girls, and LGBTQ plus teens. And there’s a lot of mounting research that’s at least showing that social media is implicated. We can’t yet draw a very straight line from one to the other and it wouldn’t make sense to just say social media is causing these problems without taking into account everything else that young people are experiencing today and all of the challenges. But I’m pretty convinced by my research and the research of a lot of other scholars that social media is implicated, and often for some teens more than others. So some teens who are particularly prone to comparing themselves to other people, and actually reacting poorly to those teens who are experiencing low self esteem or body image challenges, all of these things are amplified online, and can be tremendously damaging when you factor in all the other stuff that’s happening in teens lives. So yes, it’s something that I am very concerned with, I think we shouldn’t say, all social media is bad for all teens. But there’s definitely something going on there that we need to pay attention to. And we really need to, I think, approach this from many different angles. So one, one that I as a researcher am trying to address is, well, could we design these social media platforms better, there are some features on these platforms that are not so great, the idea of being able to infinitely scroll through an algorithmically curated feed, that’s just showing you stuff that it knows is going to keep your eyeballs there, whether or not it’s good for your mental health, that could change, it doesn’t have to be that way. So in our lab, we are exploring different designs and how to make social media better. Now, there’s a whole how to then translate that and transfer that into the tech industry as a whole other can of worms. But there are other things that we can do. And there’s a lot of great work that different organizations like Common Sense Media, and schools are doing to support teens, and just bringing to bear a particular stance to social media, and trying to frame it for them so that they can understand, you know, what the stuff that’s on here was designed to keep you there and to make you not necessarily feel so great about yourself, and what you’re feeling is totally normal. And it is really stressful. And just to help them validate their feelings, and to perhaps help change the way they interpret what they’re seeing, and even give teens strategies like How about unfollow certain accounts and follow more positive accounts or mute certain people, and then go for the people who are actually affirming and making you feel good. So developing strategies like that can also be really helpful. And then, of course, families, I think, have a really important role to play of just being there to engage teens in these conversations in as non judgmental a way as possible. And that’s really hard. Because, you know, as adults, we think, Oh, they’re just online, they’re just scrolling through their feeds. What I’m doing is important, I’m doing work and things like that. But I urge parents to think of their teens socializing and identity expression as their job. That’s their developmental job right now. And nothing is really more important, of course, their education. Absolutely. But developmentally, this is what they’re supposed to be doing. And so if you can approach the conversations, taking what they’re doing really seriously, and not just dismissing it as just idle, wasting your time that I think can go a long way in helping you to really connect with your child around these issues.

Debbie Reber  43:32

What a great answer. Thank you for that. And there’s so much more we could talk about, I want to say thank you again, for everything that you shared. Because the book is so rich, you cover so much research, I can tell that you’d love this work. And it’s super interesting. As a way to wrap up. Is there anything that you would want to leave parents with something that we didn’t get to?

Katie Davis  43:54

Yes, so I would encourage parents to embrace the concept of the good enough digital parent. And this is an idea that I explore in the book. It comes from a really old concept from the middle of the 20th century, this pediatrician named Donald Winnicott wrote about the good enough mother. And so I’ve updated it to the good enough parent and the good enough digital parent for 21st century setting. But the basic idea that when I caught was putting forward was as parents, if we’re perfect if we’re there for our children 100% of the time, we’re actually doing them a disservice because we’re not giving them space to develop their own resilience, their ability to navigate complex and tricky territory to get themselves on board when they’re feeling bored. And so actually being good enough is great. It’s the best, it’s what you what you’re aiming for. And so I think this concept really translates well to the digital realm. Parents, there is no one way to parent with technology. As a researcher, I know that we have not figured it out. out yet through research. And so it is more of a trial and error, really paying attention being as engaged as you possibly can. Adjusting if things are not going so great based on your observations, but giving yourself a break to know, you know what I’m doing my best. And that’s probably going to be great. We’re both going to be learning a lot as we fumble our way through this landscape and ever changing technology territory. Yeah, embrace the concept of a good enough digital parent, both when you are thinking about how you monitor and mediate your children’s technologies. But then also, with your own technology use, we’re absolutely prone to slip ups of our own and not being completely attentive to our children when they’re making bids for our attention. And we want to try and minimize that, of course, but also be kind to ourselves if we find ourselves slipping up, because these technologies have been designed to keep us engaged as well. And so if that happens, when it happens to me, as it often does, I will try and use it as a teachable moment for all of her and I’ll say, You know what, my attention has just been pulled to my phone or my computer. Let me put that away. And we continue playing and where we were and so I would really encourage parents to embrace good enough digital parenting, feeling confident that good enough is really great.

Debbie Reber  46:24

Love that perfect note to end this conversation on. Thank you for that. That feels really good. listeners. I’m going to have a link to Katie’s book in the show notes. Where should parents learn more about you and engage?

Katie Davis  46:35

Yeah, so I think the best first place to go is my website because they can sign up for our newsletter and get a free sample from the book. That’s Katie Davis research.com. And that has all my social handles, usually Instagram and Twitter at KT BDA. But everything’s at my website, Katie Davis research.com.

Debbie Reber  46:57

Awesome. So listeners again, definitely check out Katie’s book, I have links to that in the extensive show notes page. It is a fascinating read. And for all the research that’s in there, it’s not a hard read either. It’s very digestible, so well done. Thank you. And thank you again, for everything you shared today. Really enjoyed our conversation.

Katie Davis  47:17

Thank you so much. It was fun.

Debbie Reber  47:22

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