above the fray 2By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff

What is the warning most parents give their children when they hand them a cellphone? According to Thomas Dodson, founder of the nonprofit, Above the Fray, it goes something like this:

Don’t do anything stupid and don’t go over the data plan.

Dodson, a father of two girls, ages 8 and 10, first became aware of the disconnect between the expectations for “good behavior” and the actual oversight and communication parents provide, when a friend came to him about sixteen months ago.

His friend was doing tutoring work and said, “I got to tell you things are just crazy with kids online. Body images, bullying. It’s just insane.”

Dodson knew a lot about the power of social media. He made a business out of using it effectively in his PR firm, which he started after ten years in television news. And he was aware of what he calls “scare straight” programs when a DA or sheriff speaks to a school community about a topic, often after an incident has already garnered attention.

But what about something proactive, he wondered.

What he and his team have created is a program called Above the Fray. They offer a one-hour discussion designed for parents, and the topic is broad. It’s not limited to bullying, or sexting, or one aspect of the digital, social-media world kids have been born into. It’s all of it. And their primary source of information, Dodson says, are the experts: young people.

Working with Dr. Shawna Malvini Redden, an Adjunct Professor at California State University, Sacramento, Dodson and his collaborators conducted focus groups interviewing a group of 11-14 year olds and a group of 15-18 year olds.

Dodson, who is forty, said he thought they’d be talking about social media in a linear sense, such as Facebook and Pintrest.

But that wasn’t the case, he told me, when I interviewed him over the phone this week.  Every part of the children’s lives have been affected, they discovered.

“For a young person who has grown up with these devices…the convergence is real.”

Dodson says he wants parents to develop what he calls, “digital empathy” and understand the importance that these devices and online reality hold with young people.

In the focus groups, and with an online survey of teens the group has posted to its website, Dodson says the biggest issue is that parents are not talking to their kids about what’s going on. They have a “hands-off policy.”

“It’s the equivalent of handing the keys of your car to your child without teaching them to drive,” he said. He added, “We as parents have to create a loving, safe place to have these conversations. Parenting online just like offline.”

Dodson says the one-hour presentations for parents from Above the Fray don’t have a political or religious agenda. He sends parents home with this sentiment: Now go home and talk to your children about this.

Visit the Above the Fray website to learn more about their work, or to book a speaking date.

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