The Burnaby School District recently launched information nights to educate parents on building healthy digital habits with their children. The sessions aim to provide guidelines for safe and healthy technology use among children, regardless of technological advances. 

Three sessions have already taken place at several schools in Burnaby, with the last session scheduled for May 13 at Burnaby Central Secondary from 6:30 to 8:30pm. More than 250 parents have attended the first three sessions where topics such as creating a digital plan at home, sleep hygiene, social media, online games, applications such as Discord, and online relationships were discussed. The sessions also tackle the effect of technology on mental health. 

Lucky Saini (right) and Nick Christofides (left) speak at a parents’ information session at Burnaby South Secondary on May 6. Photo: Dana Bales/Burnaby School District

Good digital citizenship is not new in the Burnaby school system. According to Lucky Saini, district principal for education technology, his team created curricula for each age group focusing on four key areas: relationships and identity, privacy and security, digital health and wellness, and media literacy. For the younger children, teachers use a story approach, which focuses not on using technology but more on the ideas around technology use. For older students, the strategy is multifaceted. 

The parent sessions have sparked conversations around safe technology use and mental health among parents and educators. 

“In the mental health realm, we’ve been looking at sleep, we’ve been looking at screen time, we’ve been looking at responsible use socially online, and we’ve been weighing in on that type of education for about a decade as well,” said Nick Christofides, director of instruction at Safe and Caring Schools. The Safe and Caring Schools team’s role is to support administrators, staff, students, and parents in maintaining mental wellbeing and safety in Burnaby schools. 

Christofides added that the school district is not trying to scare parents away from allowing their children to use technology but to educate them on the safe use of technology. Christofides said of recent reports about children becoming victimized by criminals online, “That’s always a reminder that it’s important to be teaching how to use these tools responsibly.” 

When Saini started working with parents and students on technology use more than 20 years ago, the focus was on digital literacy and teaching students how to use computers, navigate the internet, use spreadsheets, word processing applications, and design tools. However, as the technology changed, so did Saini’s focus. 

“The switch happened when kids were able to post content online, whether it was positive like a blog post, or early instances of Twitter, places where now you have to be really thoughtful with what you put online,” Saini said. He added that the content “would act as a digital footprint or digital tattoo; things that last forever, and what kids post online would start to be shared and of course started becoming its own entity.” 

Both Saini and Christofides emphasized the importance of having open communication and conversations around technology with children from an early age. 

Digital poster about the initiative to help students create healthy digital habits. Photo: Burnaby School District

“A lot of it is knowing your child, having good conversations with your child, you know their level of maturity or responsibility that they’ve shown in the past, not necessarily with digital tools, but with other things as well,” Saini said. “We use the notion of barriers, boundaries, and gates; the idea with barriers is that with some things, we put a hard line, non-negotiable, we’re not going to allow this.” 

Saini added that with boundaries, children may be allowed to access something subject to specific rules and restrictions, while with gates, they must ask for permission every time they access them. All content must be age-appropriate and often depends on a child’s maturity level. 

Saini and Christofides agree that this looks different for each family. Christofides gave the example that historically, with Saturday morning cartoons, there was a built-in understanding that the content was safe and age-appropriate. Now, it is more difficult for parents to know what content their children consume online. 

“I think parents being curious and just understanding that at any time kids could be accessing different forms of media, games and chats,” Christofides said. “It’s very difficult to have an understanding of what young people might be consuming. At 10pm, they’re in their room, they’re on their phone, that might be OK, but it’s important that there’s a conversation about what kind of content is being consumed.” 

Both emphasized the importance of creating a digital plan at home for children to ensure their well-being and responsible technology use. During the sessions, Saini and Christofides educate parents on how to make a digital plan and model healthy technology use to their children, including good sleep hygiene, limiting technology use in social gatherings or at the table, and other healthy habits.

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