Reflections on Tweens

This page will serve as a place to add my reflections on serving and parenting tweens in today's world.

Item 1: Getting to Calm: Cool-headed strategies for parenting your tween and teen, by Laura S. Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt (2010).

If you're in the midst of parenting tweens or teens, check out this level-headed, practical, ultimately reassuring book. In Getting to Calm, Drs. Kastner and Wyatt provide practical advice and useful tools for how to manage our emotions as parents. I have been stunned by how angry, hurt or frustrated I've gotten with my own child's comments or behavior. I know that I need to remain calm, but what do you do when you reach that breaking point? This book helps navigate these waters, providing ways for me to manage my emotions in the heat of the moment, and then how to steer the ship during calmer waters.
I particularly liked the balance the authors give between current brain research into the behavior of adolescents, and practical experience as parents and psychiatrists. Kastner, 55, is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. She also runs a private practice with a focus on children, couples and families, and has two college-aged children herself.

Throughout the book, Kastner and Wyatt focus on how parents can strike a balance in their parenting. Three key qualities are essential for effective parenting:
- thoughtful control, where the parent uses control judiciously, rather than out of anger or to assert power;
- high warmth, where the parent is appropriately engaged and cares about their child's life, without becoming overly connected with the ups and downs of their child's life; and,
- effective communication, where each person's perspective is considered and respected in a calm, reasonable way.
With headings like "Staying Calm in the Face of Rudeness," "When-and Why- Teens Don't Use Their Heads" and "What Am I, Chopped Liver?", give practical and reassuring advice to parents. Throughout are family stories, such as "Family Story: A Savvy Mom Avoids a Mother-Daughter Tornado", that illustrate the science that is the basis of Kastner and Wyatt's advice.

Item 2: "E-Readers Catch Younger Eyes and Go in Backpacks" New York Times, February 4, 2011

I've been ruminating about e-books for children lately, and would love to share thoughts with other people.

The New York Times ran an article today about e-book sales rising for children's and young adult titles, as e-readers become less expensive and filter down to children. Many publishers are noticing a spike in e-book sales for children's and YA titles. The New York Times reports, "At HarperCollins, for example, e-books made up 25 percent of all young-adult sales in January, up from about 6 percent a year before."

My children have read a few books on our e-readers. The two older children read The Lost Hero, by Rick Riordan, on our iPad. They really liked the experience for many reasons. They liked reading it at night in the dark, as the iPad is backlit. It gave them a cozy feeling, snuggling up in the dark. My fourth grader liked reading it with a slightly enlarged font, so it was easier to read. They both read it at the same time, and found it easy to mark their places. And there is certainly the novelty aspect - it was simply fun to read on a new toy.

I was impressed that they were able to fall into the book with the e-reader, developing the deep concentration that reading brings on. Often when we read on a screen, especially at our computers, we bounce around and our attention is scattered by to many demands. But reading a novel on the e-reader was a very different experience. They were not distracted by the fact that the iPad was also the device that they use for games.

Why are tween and teenagers using e-readers? Like adults, they enjoy getting hot new releases for a significant discount. They enjoy the physical experience of holding a flat device instead of a bulky hardback book. And they enjoy the novelty of the experience. Other tweens and teens, like adults, are enjoying reading classics which are available for free or very little money on e-readers. A young tween in the New York Times had just finished reading Little Women and enjoyed it very much.

An interesting point to think about is that the market for children and young adults is much more influenced by libraries and schools. Children get the vast majority of what they read through school libraries, classroom collections, and their public libraries. My children read too many books for us to purchase every book they read. Libraries are slowly getting into the game of making e-books available to read, but there are still significant issues with compatibility with devices. As far as I know right now, library e-books are only readable on a Nook or Sony Reader.

The last point that I am exploring and thinking about is how younger children will access picture books using e-readers. The iPad and other full color tablets provide a fascinating opportunity for picture rich e-books. But children using iPads want more interactivity. Book authors, illustrator and designers will need to strike an interesting balance, making their picture books interactive, but not overwhelming the essence of the story. I found the Magic School Bus: Oceans e-book a fantastic example of getting this balance right.

Have your children experimented with reading any e-books? What have they thought about the experience? What have you observed about their reading - was it a fulfilling experience, or did they get distracted by the technology? Were they drawn to read more because of the ease of finding the book they wanted?

Item 3. Watching the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards with my tweens, April 2nd

I have to admit that I really enjoyed watching the Kids Choice Awards with all three of my daughters, ages 7, 9 and 12. I loved the humor, I had fun with the celebrities and talking about their outfits, I really enjoyed sharing this with my kids. We laughed and laughed as different celebrities got slimed. We all agreed to fast forward through some of the singers, but we enjoyed others.

My kids are done with Miley Cyrus and have never been taken with Justin Bieber, but were thrilled that iCarly won. I was surprised how well this award show appealed to a wide age range of kids. Each of them found something they enjoyed and could connect to.

It reminded me how important funny books, or books with funny moments are to kids. So often, we librarians are pulled toward more introspective books. But really, I need to try to spend more time reading books like the My Weird School series or Big Nate.

Item 4: National Geographic Magazine, April 2011: "Population: Marriage Across Color Lines", page 20

Last week, we spent library time with 3rd, 4th and 5th graders exploring almanacs. The most interesting comment was from a student looking at the US population by race. They noticed that the overall US population was very different than our school's population. We also noticed that the almanac was from 1999, and wondered if the US population had changed at all.

National Geographic notes that when President Obama's parents were married in 1961, interracial marriages were illegal in many states and "fewer than one in 1,000 new US marriages involved black and white partners. Now it's one in 60." The article goes on to cite Pew Research Center analysis that indicates the trend for interracial marriages has spread across races and ethnicities in America. Regionally, this trend is most prevalent in the West. Pew senior demographer Jeff Passel says, "As these couples have children, there will be more fuzziness in how race and ethnic groups are defined."

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we definitely notice this trend. Many children have parents of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

It's important to me to seek out books that represent this reality. I was especially pleased to read The Other Half of My Heart, by Sundee Frazier. As I wrote in my review,
"In The Other Half of My Heart, Frazier raises questions about race, identity and inner strength, in a way that helps children think about these issues without giving them the answers. She bases much of this on her own experiences as a mixed race person, growing up as the daughter of an African American father and a white mother."
I'm also really interested in reading Camo Girl, by Kekla Magoon, which is "a poignant novel about a biracial girl living in the suburbs of Las Vegas (that) examines the friendships that grow out of, and despite, her race" (publisher's summary).

Item 5: "The Children's Book Comes to Life Electronically: Should We Be Alarmed?" New York Times, April 21, 2011.

I feel torn about the media attention given to children's e-books. The thing that bothers me is the sensationalism. But, there are nuggets that prompt further thought. This article acknowledges that we really don't know the impact of digital media on children. As it says, our children swim in an influx of media, daily consuming almost 8 hours of media (TV, music, computers) in 5.5 hours because of constant multitasking. And it acknowledges that children are reading on a daily basis. This is the part of the article I liked best:
"But does digital interactivity engender mental passivity? As fingers flick and flit, making pixels work harder, what do brain cells do? What, I wonder, does interactivity do for the imagination, as reading a book gets closer and closer to watching television?

Maybe the more a book supplies imagination, the less the child has to fill in, and the less benefit she gets. It’s the old argument for radio dramas, which are scarier because the imagination has to supply what the eyes can’t see. For rubbery young minds, in other words, too much interactivity can’t be good.

But it’s hard to know. My bias about e-books comes from growing up in a world without them. And today’s children aren’t old enough to prove or disprove any grand theories about e-literacy and e-maginations."
Really, this article doesn't shed much light on the issue for me. But it indicates that parents are wrestling with these issues, wondering how to encourage their children to read, wondering about the impact that all these technologies has on their child's reading and overall development.

Item 6: "The Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age: Takeaways From the ABC/Bowker Pubtrack Survey" by Kristen McLean, in BookSelling This Week, February 10, 2011

Publishers have long known that the children's book selling market behaves differently than the adult market, but this is the first survey to dig deeply into the influences on children's book buying. I found the survey results very interesting as a school librarian. The key findings are:

1) Books and reading are still very important to the lives of children. (I'm here doing a little happy dance!). Yes, this definitely reflects what I see around me as a mom, talking with other moms, other kids. But it's wonderful to see it verified across the country, across socio-economic groups.

2) The inner circle rules – local influencers are much more effective than outside influencers. Parents, friends, teachers, librarians that directly know the child and her family have the biggest influence on the books that child buys. As librarians, we need to acknowledge that we have an important role in spreading the love of reading (OK, yes, I really am doing a happy dance here!). But McLean also suggests that publishers need to increase their social marketing, as opposed to mass marketing.

3) Bookstores and libraries play a very important role in the children's book market. For tweens, the two most important influences on a parent buying a book for a tween were the child directly telling the parent about a book, and the bookstore recommending a book. As McLean notes, adults need guidance purchasing books for their children. It's a vast market, and is one that most parents don't know the material. Bookstores and librarians need to be proactive, asking if their customers need help and being ready to listen so they can customize recommendations.

4) The majority of children’s book purchases are still impulse driven; therefore, presentation and exposure are very important. I find this very interesting, partly because I am not a visual person and so find displays difficult to organize. But also because it reinforces one of my habits as a school librarian - putting out different books to show each grade level. I don't have a standing display of books on a theme, but rather have stacks for each grade level. These books for browsing are handpicked for the audience (age level) and kids are often attracted to them as "impulse" check outs. Public librarians have a more difficult job, setting out displays for a wide range that comes into the library. But this finding emphasizes how important displays are. McLean also notes the importance of brand characters and series in this market; consumers are driven by a series more than an author. As children's librarians, we know the importance of knowing the "hot" series that children are into.

5) It is not an “either-or” between gaming/digital/online versus reading: kids are omnivorous. High reading households also have a high incidence of technology. I definitely see this in my house. My daughters' computer time does not take away from their reading time. Their eBook reading does not diminish their appetite for print reading. Once they have been hooked on the habit of reading, it's an escape. But I know that I'm lucky and they have cultivated that habit. Other families have a more difficult time.

6) Contrary to conventional wisdom, teens are not universal adopters of digital technology – they pick and choose what is useful to them. This was very interesting, and goes along with much other research on the social nature of tweens and teens. It was particularly interesting that teens were most interested in technology that enabled them to communicate with their inner circle, not with authors or fan sites. McLean predicts that teens will continue to love paperback books, reading them, carrying them around and sharing them with friends. They will see eReaders as necessary tools, but not as appealing as dog-eared paperbacks they share with friends.

Overall, I found this survey fascinating and hope it will continue. It reminds me of the importance of the connections between our school library and our local bookstore. Yes, even though I direct business to Amazon on my blog, I am definitely aware of the importance of our local independent bookstore. I direct a lot of business in my local community there and shop there a lot both for our school and my home library. And interestingly, I know that my blog has directed local customers to the bookstore. As this survey found, it is our local circle of influence leads to more purchases than mass marketing.

Item 7: Charles McGrath, "Teenage Wastelands: Young Readers in Dystopia", New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2011.

I'm torn by this article. On the one hand, I think - is this really news? Is it really news that dystopian novels are taking over from vampire novels? Tweens and teens have long been attracted to dystopian novels. After all, The Hunger Games reminded me so much of The Lord of the Flies, a classic tween novel if I've ever read one. And the article refers to The Uglies as a prominent example of the typical dystopican tween/teen novel. Interestingly, both Twilight and The Uglies were published in 2005.

On the other hand, this article did have some interesting comparisons between dystopian novels written for a young adult (YA) audience and those written for an adult audience. I had not really thought about these before, and I think they are worth noting.

While many adult dystopian novels focus on a protagonist alone in a world falling apart with no social order, YA dystopian novels often focus on a teenager struggling within an oppressive society. As McGrath writes, I Am Number Four and Matched are examples of these typical teenage dystopian novels "in which everyone is an alien, or feels like one, in a false, stage-managed world run by adult authority that is remote, controlling and unfeeling." This is also similar to The Hunger Games, The Uglies, and Nomansland which I read this month. Teens are struggling to establish their own identity in the face of social pressure. At first, tweens start becoming more aligned with their social groups, doing anything to fit in. But as they enter the teenage years, they start distinguishing themselves from the group. Throughout, they are becoming keenly aware of the pressure of society.

McGrath also notes that YA distopian novels often have a stronger moral tone to them, "a certain element of earnestness, even preachiness, and the moral is pretty transparent: be yourself." I wonder if teens like this or not. My daughter (age 12) is currently caught up in reading Gone, by Michael Grant, a compelling dystopian novel. I think the clear moral conflict and the fast moving plot are exciting to her. Tweens and teens want some uncertainty, but many want a clearly identified "bad guy". They want to feel like they're right there with the protagonist, fighting for their individuality and their survival. While McGrath says that this earnestness is preaching to teens by adults, I wonder. I think teens enjoy books with that help reinforce the morals they wish society would be enforce more clearly. It's satisfying to read a novel with a clear novel, and I think that's also something that appeals to tweens as they read dystopian novels.

Item 8:  Tina Barsegian, How Does Media Multitasking Make Kids Feel? It’s a Mixed Bag., KQED Mind/Shift website. March 15, 2011.

Barsegian reports on a fascinating study by Stanford professor Roy Pea and Cliff Nass. Pea presented some of their findings at the Digital Media & Learning Conference. Pea and Nass surveyed more than 3,400 girls age 8 to 12 examining how “video use and media multitasking correlates with … social well being and friendship.” While many studies have examined different aspects of multi-tasking, this study was unique for examining the social/emotional impact of media use, especially multi-tasking media use. As Barsegian reports,
"The survey asked questions about how many hours per average day the respondent participates in one of those media, whether they engage in different media at the same time, and how they feel while they’re engaging in each of these medium about the number of friends they have, their feelings of normalcy, whether they sense peer pressure, and how much sleep they get."
The results are fascinating and bear further study. According to Pea, the girls felt worse while they were watching videos and listening to music. They felt less social success, less feelings of normalcy, and more exposure to friend their parents think are bad influences. These same negative outcomes were also found higher when they were multi-taking with media. In contrast, the girls felt greater social success and less peer pressure when they had face-to-face interactions.

As I watch tweens in my daughter's social circles or tweens walking down the street, I do wonder about this study. Tweens definitely like hanging out in real time with each other. They are learning to navigate the social norms, learning how to "hang out" with a large group as opposed to the more intimate, active "playdates" of their younger years. I'd be fascinated to study the emotional impact of media multi-tasking while tweens and engaged in face-to-face interactions. It drives me nuts to see a group of tweens walking down the street, with some on the phone, some texting, some chatting. How does this impact them emotionally, I wonder? Pea did find that non-face-to-face social interactions, like the ones I just talked about, were associated with more peer pressure, but also greater social success.

I wonder if this is getting to the difference in the impact between mass-marketed media (watching music videos) versus using social media to connect to your intimate circle. I would posit that when tweens watch mass media, they have unspoken feelings of uncertainty: will I ever look like that? will I be able to act like that? As young adolescents, they're comparing themselves not to other tweens, but to older teenagers or young adults groomed for mass media to be completely alluring. And yet, there is incredible social pressure to watch these videos and TV shows to be cool.

Item 9 & 10: Alex Williams, "Quality Time, Redefined," New York Times, Sunday, April 29, 2011 and Rick Marin, "Sleep Can Wait. The Birds Are Angry." New York Times, Sunday, April 29, 2011

I thought it was fascinating that these two articles ran side-by-side last Sunday. On one hand, the New York Times reported that families were engaging in a new sort of parallel play in their living rooms, with each person hooked to their own device, living in their own virtual world. On the other hand, the Times talked about how dads and kids were playing the same video game, addicted to Angry Birds and competing against each other.

Both articles reflect some of the social changes that are affecting families as personal electronics become ubiquitous in our daily lives. Yes, we each enjoy different activities and are sucked into our personal digital devices in different ways. I could relate to the scene of the living room where each person was occupied doing their own thing. It actually reminded me of driving in the car - no longer are we all listening to the same story, but now each person has their own device to occupy them. Perhaps that means we don't have the same communal experience, but there is something to be said for having individual choice.

And yet, there are shared experiences around different media. Whether it's a dad and his two sons each vying for the best Angry Birds score, or a mom and her daughter playing word games like Words With Friends on their phones. It's also evident on the playground as kids talk about the different games they enjoy playing, or connect at home through virtual worlds like Moshi Monsters.

I actually think that children feel this tension, between personal electronics isolating everyone or creating shared entertainment. My tween daughter has complained that it's boring when her friends get together and everyone is using someone's phone to text or play games. But I also know that she loves her screen time and wants to be "in" on the latest games.

Item 11: Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd, Tweeting Teens Can Handle Public Life, The Guardian, 15 February 2011

Tweens are in a position of needing to learn how to manage their digital presence, negotiating the public aspect of sharing private thoughts. I found the article by Marwick and Boyd interesting, especially in the way they examine the different ways teens are using different social networking sites. My particular interest is in how tweens make this transition, learning how to negotiate these sites. Marwick and Boyd don't directly address this, but it's the question in the back of my mind whenever I read this.

Marwick and Boyd open their article by noting that the UK Press Complaints Commission has found that people, including teens, cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they post to Twitter. How do teens negotiate this, how do they use Twitter - is it different from other social networking sites?

Teens use Twitter in different ways. Some use it as a version of People Magazine, following celebrities, catching glimpses into the thinking and lives of actors and musicians, hoping for an interaction. Others use it to talk to a smaller group of immediate friends. "Who teens imagine reading their tweets very much shapes their style of participation."

I was surprised by Boyd and Marwick's findings that teens see Twitter as more intimate that Facebook. They note,
"In an age where virtually every young person has a Facebook account, many teens are "friends" with hundreds of classmates, as there's heavy social pressure to accept friend requests from people they know. Twitter's more casual approach to "following" means teens can choose to follow only their friends without too much recrimination."
This was the opposite of my experience on Twitter, where I followed many people I had no connection to and was followed mostly by complete strangers who were interested in my thoughts on children's books. But I can see their point that you can choose to use these social networking sites in different ways, depending on your needs.
"What matters is not whether or not teens are speaking in public, but how we support them as they try to learn how to responsibly navigate the networked public spaces that are central to contemporary life."
This is the key question to me. How do we, as teachers and parents, help children learn to negotiate this? I think the first is to create a sense of dialog around it, a chance for kids to talk about how they act online and for parents and teachers to reflect their learning curves with their children. Another important step, I feel, is to gradually introduce some of these social networking sites to tweens. At home and at school, we need to create the space and time to talk about how we navigate these public spaces.