Talking Technology

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Balancing technology use, safety and normalcy is tough for any parent. Here are tips to help foster parents navigate.

By Kim Phagan-Hansel

Snap … what? Insta … who? If you’re having trouble keeping up with your child’s social media and technology use, it’s time to get in the game. According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens have a smartphone or have access to one and 45 percent say they’re online “almost constantly.”

Regardless of whether you’re parenting a teen or a 2-year-old, screens are a major part of everyday life.

And for kids in foster care, there are some extra layers to consider.

Federal law passed in 2014 made normalcy for youth in care a larger conversation in the foster care community, said Jennifer Pokempner, child welfare policy director at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, who has been assisting some states in developing normalcy policy and practice. The 2014 Preventing Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act required all states to implement a Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standard, emphasizing creating a sense of normalcy for kids in care — and phones and technology are a big part of a normal childhood for most kids these days.

This helped remove some obstacles to normalcy like hiring a babysitter or allowing a child in care to participate in the soccer practice carpool. But where rules vary widely from family to family on cell phone, computer and video game usage, it’s created a larger grey area in some ways.

“There’s definitely issues of normalcy in that the majority of kids today have access to cell phones and other technology,” Pokempner said. “We want to make sure youth in care have access to the same technology as other kids.”

States have inserted themselves into this issue upfront. Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a two-year pilot project that will provide all California foster youth between 13 and 26 a cell phone — most of the time it’s up to the agency and the foster parents to establish the rules. When setting up ground rules for phone and technology use, Pokempner encourages foster families to check with their agency on policies that might be in place.

Beyond that, it’s up to each family to establish guidelines that work for them and sometimes that can be more challenging than it seems.

Marcus Stallworth, a training and development specialist for the Child Welfare League of America, helps families and agencies set those rules as director of Learning and Organizational Development for Welcome 2 Reality, a Connecticut-based company he helped create to help “youth dissect and analyze all forms of social media and advertisement.”

Most importantly, Stallworth says, “You shouldn’t have different rules for our foster children.”

Parents should have conversations about expectations with children who are new to their home or who are just getting started using technology and those should be revisited from time to time. Stallworth recommends parents being open and honest with kids that “part of our job is to keep you safe.”

Here are a few guidelines for families as they navigate technology use in their homes:

  1. Jumpstart the conversation by watching a movie like Screenagers about technology usage together.
  2. Model good behavior. “Kids hear what you say, but watch what you do,” Stallworth said.
  3. Limit and monitor screen time. Have access to their passcodes and check in to see how they’re spending their time online on a regular basis.
  4. Create a contract that all parties must sign. “Create options that you’re OK with, so you have a controlled response,” Stallworth said. Here are a few options: and
  5. Know your agency’s rules and expectations. Some agencies have very clear guidelines for foster parents about posting pictures of the kids in their care on social media, while others are more vague.
  6. Be familiar with all the different social media options, games and apps kids are using. It’s important to be actively engaged in your child’s technology use.

Creating structure around technology usage is an important task for foster parents. Much like technology is a tool, use the tools around you to help navigate technology with your children.

Kim Phagan-Hansel is the editor of Fostering Families Today and the managing editor of The Chronicle of Social Change. She is the editor of two books: The Foster Parenting Toolbox and The Kinship Parenting Toolbox.

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