Digital Wellness for Students and Parents

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the ways in which children and parents/caregivers interact with technology. Liz Kolb, clinical associate professor in the U-M School of Education, and Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical professor in the U-M School of Information, join Michigan Minds to talk about those changes and share digital wellness tips with families. 

Liz Kolb and Kristin Fontichiaro

Kolb and Fontichiaro both began their journeys toward this work by being classroom teachers. They realized during the pandemic that there was a sudden shift in the rules regarding how often and in what ways kids engaged with technology. 

“For all of us during the pandemic, we had our own moments of finding joy through technology. Families had talent shows, dance parties, quiz shows… and so it really has made us more aware that some of the old rules don’t fit; and maybe there are new ways to think about what it means to be healthy online,” Fontichiaro says. 

Kolb has spent the last 10 years working on digital literacy and wellness issues in Ann Arbor-area middle schools. She has found that middle schoolers really enjoy talking about what they are doing online when there is an environment for them to do so that is safe and non-judgmental. 

“[An environment where] they’re not going to be scrutinized or punished for the choices that they are making online. They just want to be able to share what they’re doing, why it’s important to them, and why it’s meaningful in their lives,” Kolb says. 

They encourage caregivers to listen and rather than tell students what they should and shouldn’t be going, try to meet in the middle to come up with ways to work together in online environments so it is safe but also allows for socialization. 

“Make sure students do understand issues around wellness — recognizing when they should be taking breaks from screens and devices, when they should be making different choices about who to friend or follow, or how to engage in conversations online.”


Kolb and Fontichiaro focus on the middle schoolers, ages 10 to 13, because that is the average age when students are getting their own personal devices and starting to use text messaging and create social media profiles. 

“In middle school, you start to open up your spectrum of friends and people, and you tend to start following and engaging with people that you’ve never met in person. So this is a beautiful time to start being proactive in these conversations and talking with students,” Kolb says. “It’s a wonderful time to start having these conversations and for them to start recognizing the permanency of their digital identity and the choices that they’re making online. Once you get to high school, it’s not that it’s too late, but it’s that you’re having to be a little more reactive.”

Fontichiaro emphasizes the importance of parents and caregivers acknowledging that many of them are “first-generation citizens of the internet” themselves. Some parents, she explains, might not have considered certain impacts or opportunities for reflection. Additionally, the pandemic rushed a lot of parents and caregivers into decisions about how and when their kids use technology.

“It’s important to look at the type of online engagement,” Fontichiaro says. “There are three questions we can ask: Are we playing a passive or an active role? Is the engagement social or isolating? How do we feel?”

Kolb adds that parents should interact with their children and their digital devices similarly to how they read to them. “Do it with them, even if it’s not your thing, because it allows you to see the environment. It allows you to see what they’re doing and how it works — safety features, potential pitfalls. You can really have some deep conversations.

“Make sure you are modeling what you would like your child to be doing, both verbally and physically.” 

She explains that she always asks her children for their permission before posting their pictures on her Facebook page or anywhere online, placing an asterisk stating that it was posted with their permissions. 

“Teaching your child that they have a right to consent, and that they should have control over their [digital] footprint — we want to make sure we are modeling those good habits.”