Tualatin librarian co-authors book on keeping kids positive in the digital age

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Ruth Matinko-Wald is an on-call librarian at Tualatin Public Library and a certified parent instructor.Tualatin librarian Ruth Matinko-Wald has a book recommendation for you.

“Face to Face: Cultivating Kids’ Social Lives in Today’s Digital World” hits the market this month, and it’s more than advice for limiting children’s Internet use or media diet. The collection of studies, essays and discussion prompts is the result of a collaboration between six members of the local Family Empowerment Network, a parenting support group founded by book co-author and pediatrician Kathy Massarie, who was concerned many parents struggled in silence and isolation.

Matinko-Wald, also a certified parent instructor, is one of the book’s contributors. She became involved with the network when her two daughters were in elementary school.

Group discussions were compiled into a book that became “Raising Our Daughters: The Ultimate Parenting Guide for Healthy Girls and Thriving Families” and, later, “Raising Our Sons: The Ultimate Parenting Guide for Healthy Boys and Strong Families,” Matinko-Wald explained.

As social media altered the coming-of-age experience, the group felt compelled to address the dangers of multitasking, information overload and the ways children’s brains are being impacted by increased screen time.

But the question they were really confronting was far more basic, Matinko-Wald said. “We really wanted to help parents decide, how do we get kids to be healthy and resilient? It really came down to talking about their social lives and helping them to be healthy on a social and emotional level.”

A social issue

It’s nearly impossible to talk about kids’ socialization without discussing social media. A 2011 Pew Research study reported 95 percent of American teens are online, and that of those, 80 percent have some form of social media presence. The experience is not always a positive one: 88 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds surveyed reported witnessing cruelty online, with 15 percent identifying themselves as targets of online harassment.

Whether or not technology has exacerbated bullying, it’s certainly enabled it: 19 percent of teens were reportedly bullied in 2011, including in person, online, by text or over the phone.

But Matinko-Wald and her group were especially interested in how increased accessibility, and a culture of daily digital exposure to peers, was altering kids’ abilities to socialize in person.

Among many studies cited, “Face to Face” draws on the work of Clifford Nass, a Stanford communication professor whose 2012 study of more than 3,000 pre-adolescent and adolescent girls showed the adverse effects of multitasking, as well as social media consumption, on emotional and social well-being. The study concluded that such an impact could be balanced by positive, in-person interaction.

Recent studies in neurobiology have shown how important the ages of 14 and 15 are to mental growth, Matinko-Wald added.

“What we see in teens is their brain going through this amazing pruning and processing and growth,” she explained. “We need to realize how much of an impact we can have on our kids, especially in their early childhood, and then in their early adolescence.”

Missed connections?

Matinko-Wald and Massarie joined developmental psychologist and school counselor Kathy Keller Jones, writer Cassandra Dickson, educator Monique Terner and pediatrician Jody Bellant Scheer to author the book, which goes on sale this month. As they sifted through studies in brain chemistry and psychology, the group found themselves returning to the same basic concepts, which would become the six touchstones of “Face to Face,” and which are arguably relevant in any technological age: stay connected, cultivate empathy, create safe havens, take the time, play/create and walk the talk — that is, model the behavior you want your children to emulate.

Some struggles are timeless, and some advice transcends technology.

“One of the things research has shown us is that when a child feels secure, and has a sense of belonging, then that child is going to have the confidence to be more curious and outgoing and have stronger social emotional skills in general,” Matinko-Wald said.

She emphasized the importance of helping kids develop what she called “emotional resiliency muscles.”

“It’s all about rewarding the child rather than rescuing them. We can love our children, we can also be firm with them. It’s that kindness and firmness, so that they have the ability to be strong on their own,” Matinko-Wald added.

Part of that is strengthening deeper, in-person connections. The Pew study revealed that 58 percent of American teens who use social media report feeling closer to another person as a result — a trend Matinko-Wald fears reflects a new standard of shallowness in friendships.

And such shifts in interaction impact more than an individual’s welfare: A 2010 study out of the University of Michigan found college students to be 40 percent less empathetic than their counterparts were in 2000.

But “Face to Face” isn’t about eschewing technology or denying your children access, Matinko-Wald said. Rather, the book aims to empower parents.

“We want them to ask, ‘How do I make sure that the values I want my children to learn stand out from the digital noise they’re encountering everyday, and the commercialism they’re encountering everyday?’”

The Family Empowerment Network is self-publishing “Face to Face,” which is currently in the final stages of a crowdfunding campaign to finance its printing and to support its promotion as supplementary reading in anti-bullying programs.

Go here for more information on the Indiegogo fundraising campaign, which ends at midnight Saturday.

Go here for information on how to purchase a copy of the book.

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