Information Overload: The High-Tech Parent Trap

The modern parent’s job description presently sits somewhere between anxiety-ridden manservant, full-time bodyguard, and personal guidance counselor, so it’s only natural for parents to fret over children growing up in the digital era.

Education is especially concerning, with Web-based tools like Weebly and Edmodo transforming classrooms into online communities, and companies like Pearson and Engrade providing plug-and-play portals that offer a real-time window onto children’s academic world. Parents suddenly find themselves with unfettered access to lesson plans, grades, and progress reports. While it’s easy to assume that you can never have too much information, it’s vital to respect the bounds of kids’ and teachers’ autonomy and not inhibit children’s sense of personal accomplishment, independence, and overall growth.

Just as babies learning how to walk must first fall, pick themselves up, and try again, so too must kids be given adequate room to try, fail, and learn from their mistakes. That’s how people learn.

PowerSchool, iParent, MyBackPack … Off-the-shelf remote-learning and classroom-management solutions are suddenly everywhere, and as varied in features and capabilities as schools themselves. All sell a similar promise: leveraging technology, social media, and the Internet’s power to facilitate enhanced learning by putting more data in kids’ and parents’ hands than ever before. Using these online services, families can track kids’ attendance, monitor homework assignments, instantly parse grades or test scores, read transcripts of schoolroom exchanges, and more. Each acts as a one-stop shop from which families can connect, communicate, and keep tabs on kids’ schoolroom experience, with overviews of current classroom initiatives, interactive forums for discussion, and virtual gradebooks. But is more information necessarily better? The answer depends entirely on how we parents choose to use these data.

Given unfettered access to facts and figures, it’s a parent’s natural inclination to begin crunching numbers and immediately put findings to work. It’s tempting for adults, whose previous touchpoints with the educational world were often limited to report cards and parent-teacher conferences, to become micromanagers. Yet, because every child learns and progresses at individual rates, digests information in myriad ways, and engages with peers and educators uniquely, the math doesn’t always add up. Parents can quickly become like skittish day traders who obsess over every dip of the stock market, rather than holding steady and seeing the rollercoaster ride through. Short-term gains often come at the loss of long-term value. And, in this case, it’s your child’s education being gambled with. Kids are not linear formulas whose results can be adjusted just by tweaking one or two variables.

Still, for parents, it’s hard not to see the upside of these tools. Kids can actively track their own growth and progress, using online and Web-based apps as both a motivator and objective source of feedback. Families can see at a glance how curricula and coursework are evolving, monitor progress, source insights from teachers, spot potential problem areas, and even provide proactive suggestions for improvement. Educators enjoy a one-stop solution for sharing information—one that tech-savvy, time-starved families are likelier to engage with. Administrators can also tap into a more effective suite of online, blended, and mobile learning solutions.

Alas, the shadow of helicopter parenting looms large over electronic solutions. Kids are already being railroaded into more structured daily schedules and pushed harder than recent generations, with an estimated 40 percent of today’s schools having cut recess entirely. As kids grow up in an age of global competition, parents’ interest in maintaining greater control over their lives from preschool to graduation continues to grow, to the point it’s even bled over into the professional world, as a recent survey from Michigan State University reveals. There’s a strong potential for parents to overcompensate, turning collaborative tools into cold, hard, and constant reminders of the yoke hanging over kids’ heads.

On the flip side, studies of college-age kids show that children with more engaged parents report higher levels of engagement and more frequent use of deep learning activities, like tutoring programs and training exercises. But while many enjoyed boosts in communications and critical-thinking skills, researchers found no overall improvement in actual grades. So it’s important to remember that platforms and portals that foster enhanced participation are not magic academic cure-alls.

Likewise, though improved access to information can lead to better decisions, it can also prompt more immediate and impulsive ones. Individual grades and performance reports provide single data points, not the broad information sets from which trends are gleaned. Overbearing parents may actually interfere with the learning process by overreacting to these data, or crafting the academic strategies and solutions they feel are best. While it’s important to actively monitor progress and take necessary corrective steps, many parents will instinctively react, to kids’ ultimate detriment, because they can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees.

Independence is also a concern. Just as babies learning how to walk must first fall, pick themselves up, and try again, so too must kids be given adequate room to try, fail, and learn from their mistakes. That’s how people learn. The more time teachers spend reporting, entering data, and fielding parental queries, the less time they have to mentor students and actually teach. Details on kids’ attendance records, homework assignments, and grades are all valuable updates that parents absolutely can and should monitor. However, immediate concerns arise when parents do so too frequently, and react too quickly without taking time to consider the ramifications.

Perhaps the real issue isn’t how much information one can access, but how often one should do so, and to what extent. As we do every day when perusing overflowing email inboxes, parents have to learn how to filter. Maintaining an active awareness of children’s educational activities and assignments is good. But just as our parents did, we also have to invest some measure of trust in our kids. There has to be a better approach than micromanaging schoolwork daily or flipping out over one bad grade.

To achieve positive results, one might consider using online learning tools more effectively. One example is configuring online alerts that let you track kids’ impending deadlines, assignments, and tests by smartphone or tablet and, thereby, quickly verify that the work’s been done. Parents might also schedule regular times to connect with children and/or teachers to discuss progress, performance, and current updates of note. Ultimately, it’s best to skip checking in daily to avoid being overbearing or overreacting, and to foster children’s sense of trust and independence. Don’t forget that online portals are really there to help kids.

Just as you wouldn’t feel comfortable with a domineering supervisor constantly peering over your shoulder at work and questioning every decision, children and teachers don’t appreciate that kind of surveillance either. As a parent, few would begrudge you your right to stay informed, but maybe it’s time we gave kids and teachers a little more credit.

High-tech parenting expert Scott Steinberg is a professional keynote speaker, noted industry consultant and the bestselling author of “The Modern Parent’s Guide” digital parenting series.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.