Leading by Example with Charles Roberts

by Chris Tompkins | May 20, 2022

Charles Roberts is the CEO of LiveDifferent, a charity that is passionate about helping others by building homes and schools around the world, and giving youth the opportunity to serve others in a meaningful way. Charles’ commitment to serving others, leading by example, and maintaining a learning mindset is at work in both his professional and his personal life. He and his wife strive to raise their six children with an awareness of their responsibility to care for others with no expectation of anything in return.

Why engaging youth through compassion and service is important

In talking about the purpose of LiveDifferent, Charles outlines the issues that youth deal with, like depression, anxiety, suicide, and feeling like they lack purpose. He explains that helping youth get outside of themselves by caring for others inspires true joy and fulfilment, which helps deal with those issues at their source. The self-confidence they develop while realizing that they can affect change and are valuable, is also pivotal.

“When those things are settled and secure, man, students can do anything,” Charles says. “Youth can do anything. That’s where we try to hit home and then kind of be the launching point for them for the rest of their lives to go and change the world.”

The importance of leading by example

Charles underlines the fact that in order to inspire compassion and generosity in our youth, adults have to model it in their daily lives. Like anything else kids learn, it’s a skill that has to be developed and practised. When kids learn compassion and generosity early in life, it becomes like muscle memory and the more they do it, the better they become at it. To those ends, Charles cites the many people in his life who modelled it for him, including his parents, teachers and even friends he met at camp. When it came to his own children, he and his wife struggled with how to model their values and  incorporate them into their lifestyle after moving back to Canada from being away on a mission trip. They eventually started fostering kids, which the whole family was inherently involved in.

Encouraging your kids to get involved

In Charles’ own experience, Canadian youth have a heart for compassion and service. Parents can nurture that by visiting LiveDifferent.com for details about both their community-focused “Circles” program, which gets kids talking about themes like altruism, generosity, empathy, kindness and values over six sessions; and about their “Builds” program, which sends kids to build houses and schools in either Mexico, Haiti, Dominican Republic or Thailand. Charles, however, stresses that getting kids involved doesn’t have to be through an organization and “can be as easy as picking up the phone and just engaging with a neighbour who might not have any family or might be lonely.” Charles also recommends connecting with other parents to see how they’re getting their kids involved.

Want to hear more of what Charles has to say about leading youth by example? Listen to the Shaping Our World podcast episode at the top of this post.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.


[00:00:12.010] – Chris Tompkins
Well, hey, I’m Chris Tompkins and welcome to the Shaping Our World podcast. My goal is to invite you into a conversation that will leave you more confident in understanding and inspiring the young people in your life. In each episode, we talk with leading experts and offer relevant resources to dive deeper into the world of our youth today. Today we have Richard Culatta on the show. Richard is an internationally recognized leader in technology and learning. He is the CEO of the International Society for Technology and Education, which is a nonprofit that supports education leaders in 127 countries. Before his time at ISTE, he was appointed by President Obama to lead the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. Today, we’ll be speaking to Richard about his book Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World, which helps parents prepare young people to become contributing digital citizens. Richard, welcome to the show.

[00:01:18.780] – Richard Culatta
Hey, thanks. Glad to be here.

[00:01:20.240] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah, it’s great to have you. And I can’t wait to dive into some of the stuff that you spend your life in, but let’s take a minute to get to know you a bit. When you were a teen, what really shaped your world?

[00:01:32.250] – Richard Culatta
The hours that I spent playing SimCity.

[00:01:34.930] – Richard Culatta
I think was the biggest issue.

[00:01:37.090] – Chris Tompkins
Oh, yeah.

[00:01:37.560] – Richard Culatta
I remember that people that are not familiar with SimCity, it was sort of like a really rudimentary version of kind of what Minecraft is today. And it was just a really fun game because it allows you to create and design.

[00:01:50.670] – Chris Tompkins
Well, probably not surprising where your life’s work has taken you to, if that was a heavy influence for you when you were younger. What’s Shaping Your World Today? Tell us a little bit about you.

[00:02:00.990] – Richard Culatta
I mean, the biggest shaper of my world at the moment is my four kids.

[00:02:05.050] – Richard Culatta
I have a daughter who is almost 17, and then another three boys below that. My youngest is eight years old.

[00:02:13.930] – Richard Culatta
And so that’s what I focus on. Boy, they keep me young and they keep me on top of a lot of things that are going on in the world today that I would not necessarily be as attuned to if it wasn’t for them.

[00:02:26.000] – Chris Tompkins
That’s right. And it’s good to know, too, because you have such expertise in the area we’re going to talk about today, but you’re also navigating it in your own home as well, I’m sure.

[00:02:34.760] – Richard Culatta
Oh, that’s right. I share this with everybody, too.

[00:02:37.580] – Richard Culatta
I was like, don’t think because I wrote the book, I’m sort of an international expert on this that we still run into all the same challenges and problems in our home because we absolutely do.

[00:02:48.250] – Chris Tompkins
Well. And I know that I’ve been a youth worker for over 25 years now, and I shrink back to some advice I’ve given parents when it’s real in your own home and you’re like, man, what was I it’s the right things to say. But, man, sometimes when it’s in your own home, as you navigate it, all the expertise in the world goes out the window. So. Yeah, well, thanks for sharing. That help us get a little more of a sense of what are you doing right now that’s shaping the world of teens and young people in your work and your writing and research give us a little insight of where you are today.

[00:03:22.510] – Richard Culatta
Yeah, sure. So I’m really focused on trying to help create a new, better conversation around digital well being. I spent time I worked for the US Department of Education for many of years. I led the office of Technology there. I was a teacher myself. I have worked in the education, that sort of tech industry. I have lots of experience in tech and learning and families. And unfortunately, one of the things that just became so clear to me a number of years ago was how ineffective the strategies and approaches are that surround what we do to try to help our kids grow up in a digital world. And they’re all well intentioned. Right. These are things that are done. But so many of the conversations are just so completely misinformed. And so what I really would hope to do and hope to do by this book that I wrote is try to create a healthier conversation, one that actually helps kids grow up to thrive in the virtual world that’s all around us. And it’s not going away.

[00:04:32.760] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. And that’s so exciting because that’s what we’re really looking to dive into today. And, you know, this, like so much of the commentary around in the media and in families is around the negative side of the Internet, devices, social media, whatever it is. But we also know that technology and social media, they can be an incredible tool, like in our world. Richard, one of the things we often use and I’ve said this on our podcast a number of times, and it really informs my work with young people is I got this from a mentor years ago. How do we affirm the virtue but also discern the vulnerability? Because with so many of these things, there’s both sides of it. And I think you do a great job with this in your work. But before we kind of go down that road, I know you do. And you even start your book this way, highlighting that there are some vulnerabilities and problems in the digital world and not to just kind of skip to all the good stuff without reinforcing for parents that some of their concerns are valid. And so can you highlight for us what are some of the problems vulnerability that I think you even say, like the dark side of the digital world.

[00:05:45.900] – Chris Tompkins

[00:05:46.220] – Richard Culatta
I call it sort of our digital dysfunctions. Right.

[00:05:51.270] – Richard Culatta
People need to know this about me.

[00:05:53.510] – Richard Culatta
I am not rose colored glasses about this. There are some real, true risks and true dangers that are out there dangers about misinformation. And we’ve seen some of the real problems that not being able to discern true and Calce information creates. There are certainly problems with how we have allowed our kids data to be used to market to them in ways that just go really overstepping. And certainly there are examples of really tragic interactions that happen online between somebody who may really intend a child, a young person harm. And so those are very real, and we can’t pretend they don’t exist. The challenge is that the way that we go about preparing kids to deal with those risks doesn’t really help them. Right. And so we need to be very aware of what the digital dysfunctions are, and yet at the same time take approaches that help our kids learn to be effective, amazing humans in a digital world.

[00:06:59.480] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. I think one of the challenges, as you were mentioning and when I was reading your book, that I’d never really thought about as a parent. I know it’s there, but just that the marketing Avenue that so many people get into our young people’s lives and how their heads are filled with ads through some of this stuff that feels sort of subconscious to so many of us. And that really made me think because I’d been able to discern some of the other vulnerabilities with the digital world. And I think particularly one thing for me is I kind of joke that I think my daughter, she’s a teenager, gets most of her news from TikTok, and her understanding of world issues is shaped through what she gets through TikTok and everyone. So I’m like, I’m not really sure that is accurate or a good representation of what’s going on. So there’s some of those things, but the marketing side, I never had really thought through, and it really gave me pause to think through what that’s doing. Can you even comment on the marketing side of it for a little bit? Sure.

[00:08:02.100] – Richard Culatta
By the way, that’s not unique to your daughter and not unique to young people. So the majority of Americans, older folks like us, get their news from Facebook.

[00:08:11.800] – Chris Tompkins

[00:08:12.260] – Richard Culatta
And so social media, whatever flavor of it, is the primary source for news. And there should be a whole bunch of flags that are coming up around that that we need to do a better job of talking about. But to go back to your specific question. Yeah. I mean, we have decided that we are comfortable with a digital world that is largely funded by advertising. And in the book, I talk about the fact that data is actually more valuable than oil. Wow. Right. Having data on an individual is more lucrative than a whole bunch of other types of investments. Right. And what’s interesting to me is we have not done a very good job of helping our young people kids understand the business model behind the tools and apps they use in a virtual space. I’m not saying don’t use any tools that have advertising. Right. Right. But what I am saying is we need to be very overt about how tools are funded and what data we are willing to give in exchange for some functionality.

[00:09:17.860] – Chris Tompkins

[00:09:18.280] – Richard Culatta
And that should not be a surprise. I Corey, when I hear kids say, well, this app is free, it’s not free. You’re just paying in data in permission marketing. Right. So that’s just such an important concept to understand so that young people grow up knowing that if they are getting something in exchange for their data, it better be a good return on that investment.

[00:09:45.330] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. Well, that’s really helpful. That makes me really think about even how we interact. I remember thinking how even just recognizing the number of ads that we see and that are directed to our kids, even to have open conversations about what some of the messages are that are being communicated through advertising to our young people and helping them discern what the messages are telling them. So they’re not just subconsciously feeding their psyche day in and day out. And so I think that’s a really helpful way to look at the digital world and discern some of these things. So we know there’s a potential dark side. And again, I don’t want to spend a ton of time on that because as parents, I think we recognize that there’s been a lot of news articles and research projects that are enough to heighten parents alarm to it. But talk to us a little bit about just the other side of that. Like, broadly speaking, before we dive into some details, what are the positives or opportunities that parents might be just dismissing when we say, all right, the digital world is bad, so let’s remove you from it.

[00:10:55.160] – Chris Tompkins
What are some advantages for our kids living in a digital world today?

[00:10:59.350] – Richard Culatta
Yeah. And it’s really helpful. One of the things that I always encourage families to do is spend some time with their kids in their virtual spaces.

[00:11:08.990] – Chris Tompkins

[00:11:09.730] – Richard Culatta
Just take a ride with them through a tour of some of the things that the activities that they’re doing. So the digital world is a highly collaborative space. And so they are engaging with people with young people from all around their community. They are able through technology to be able to engage with experts around the world on pretty much any topic that they want. The idea of a young person today not knowing how to do something. Right. Not having somebody that can show them how to do something, just it’s sort of uncomprehensible, whatever it is, whatever the topic, they know they can go to any DIY site and they’re going to get somebody who’s going to explain to them how to do it.


[00:11:53.820] – Richard Culatta
The idea of being disadvantaged because they are physically in a remote area, they’re not physically colocated with an expert or an opportunity is an idea that just doesn’t compute in kids minds the way we did growing up in my school. Growing up, you got to take classes based on whether there was a teacher in the small town that I lived in that could teach it. And that’s just a concept that is so foreign to a kid who can regularly engage online through games with kids from all over the world, all speaking different languages, all being translated in real time so they can communicate the barriers of language, of distance, of time. They just don’t add up in kids minds the way that they did for us. They’re seen as sort of false barriers.

[00:12:43.290] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. And we’ve seen, too, even the relational opportunities. I’m not sure we would have survived the pandemic the same way we did from connectivity and relationships, even schooling and education. What we were able to do from a learning perspective, it might not have been ideal in a lot of ways, but the fact that our kids could still learn through a pandemic where we were in our homes and where we were in Ontario, it was for a long period of time. And that’s been a huge advantage. And I would say to Richard, just to add, I think we have to recognize and I know you would agree with me on this, our world is digital as well. And so for career opportunities for kids and how they’re going to navigate the world as adults. My daughter did a project and I can’t remember grade eight or grade nine and created a website. She created it for like a Taylor Swift concert or something. And I was like, Holy smokes. Like her graphic design skills and her ability to create a web page is like a million times better than mine. And so her competency at 1314 in this area where all of a sudden there are these growing fields that weren’t there when I was a kid.

[00:13:55.920] – Chris Tompkins
And so helping our kids navigate the digital world right now is also setting them up for career success because that’s the world we’re going to live in.

[00:14:04.400] – Richard Culatta
That’s right. And let me actually build on that for a second, because what’s interesting is if you think about technology can give kids a voice in a way that they never had it before. You know what I mentioned? I was a teacher, and we used to always say student voice matters and we care what you think. But we really didn’t. Right. It was really kind of a lie because they didn’t have any way that they could really make an impact. They didn’t really have a way that they can’t vote. They didn’t have the ability to organize. That is not true in a digital world. In the book. My book is called Digital for Good, Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World. One of the things that I do in the book is I talk about examples of young people who have solved real tough problems in the world. Right because the technology is a bit of a megaphone, and it can actually help them spread ideas that matter to them. So they really can have a voice, they can have an impact. And that isn’t only about things outside of the family. Right. It can actually help increase engagement with our family.

[00:15:10.760] – Richard Culatta
We’ve used technology to help our kids learn more about the history of our family.

[00:15:16.380] – Chris Tompkins

[00:15:17.250] – Richard Culatta
Look, I am notoriously bad. I go on a family vacation, and I will not have taken a single picture the whole time. I’m not guy. Right. I just never remember.

[00:15:24.630] – Chris Tompkins
So am I. My friend with me.

[00:15:27.790] – Richard Culatta
One of the agreements that we have with our kids is part of the norms, part of the agreements of our digital culture. And our family is that they need to help us capture family moments on their devices.

[00:15:39.160] – Chris Tompkins

[00:15:39.520] – Richard Culatta
And sometimes they do that through pictures. Sometimes they do that, they all have a notepad on their phone.

[00:15:43.370] – Richard Culatta
And if somebody says something funny.

[00:15:45.170] – Richard Culatta
As often happens in a family with four kids. Right. And then they write that down.

[00:15:49.020] – Richard Culatta
And then periodically we get together and we review our photos and we review the funny things that people said.

[00:15:54.380] – Chris Tompkins

[00:15:54.750] – Richard Culatta
Those are all ways to use technology to increase the engagement, the connection between our communities and between our families.

[00:16:02.660] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. I love that idea. And going back to, like you said, if a kid was interested in a cause before and set up a lemonade stand, it would only be the people in the neighborhood that would come by and hear about it. Right. And now that voice is amplified across a much bigger audience, like you said, I love that. I can tell you that when I read your book, that was my favorite part of the agreement. I love that idea of having kids capture family memories is get your phones out. Absolutely. On a holiday. But here’s what we’re going to use them for. And even taking it further, I was thinking like, yeah, not even photos. But again, with all of the tools kids have from technology, put a family video together with music background, I’m useless. My wife and I think we had three photos from our honeymoon and they all got deleted. We’re not those people as well, but my daughter is. She loves taking photos. So I just love that. So let’s dive into it for a bit because we’ve talked about how we can benefit from recognizing sort of the darker side and being aware of that, but also leveraging the benefits of the new world that our kids live in for you.

[00:17:16.000] – Chris Tompkins
You talk about creating digital citizenship. So can you tell us what that means to you? And generally speaking, how do we create digital citizens?

[00:17:27.260] – Richard Culatta
Yeah. So digital citizenship is this idea that we are not just individual tech users. Right. We are members of a virtual community. And anytime we step in and we move back and forth between the virtual world and the physical world many times a day. But anytime we step into the virtual world, we are part of a community of other people. And anytime you are part of a community of other people in physical spaces or virtual spaces, there are certain norms that we have to agree to for the greater good. And so that’s what digital citizenship is. It is teaching these ideas, these principles of how to be an effective member of a virtual community and how to create inclusive spaces for others, how to leverage the relationships and information there to improve your life and how to really address and solve important, tough problems of our world. Look, if you think of any tough problem that we have today, you name it. Whatever tough issue we’re dealing with as a global community, the solution is going to have, at least in some part of it code. It’s going to have a digital element to it.

[00:18:37.560] – Richard Culatta
And so if we want our kids to be our future problem solvers, they have to understand that that is one of the key competencies of being a digital citizen today. And that takes practice. We have to teach it. We have to practice it over a long period of time.

[00:18:53.660] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. And I love that idea of practice because for us around technology and your whole idea around citizenship is about stepping in and practicing how to be a good citizen rather than just saying, like, here’s all the things not to do. And I loved in your book, the example about learning. It just has stuck in my head, Richard, like the idea of we don’t teach kids how to play the piano by telling them what not to do.

[00:19:18.620] – Richard Culatta

[00:19:18.750] – Chris Tompkins
Right. We help them learn how to play the piano. And that has just stuck with me around this idea of citizenship because we so want to focus on what we can’t do rather than really accentuating how to step into things and learn and utilize the tool.

[00:19:35.220] – Richard Culatta
And Chris, that’s part of this big shift that I’m trying to get people to understand around how we think about technology. Digital citizenship is a complex skill. This is not the online world that we grew up in. Right. This is a highly complex virtual space. And like any complex skill. Right. Playing the piano, learning a language. I used to be a Spanish teacher. Playing a sport, any complex skill takes lots of practice. And you can’t learn to do something by being told the things not to do. Right. You can’t practice not doing something.

[00:20:09.170] – Chris Tompkins
Right. It doesn’t work or being removed from it entirely.

[00:20:12.910] – Richard Culatta
That’s right. That’s part of the challenge. As I was doing research for the book and talking with parents and teachers, the number one approach to preparing kids for the virtual world is what I call the list of don’ts approach.

[00:20:25.850] – Chris Tompkins

[00:20:26.830] – Richard Culatta
Don’t share your password. Don’t spend too much time online. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t play that game. It’s just don’ts. It’s all these don’ts. And we don’t do that with any other important skill. Right. We don’t say learning to read. We don’t have anti illiteracy campaigns. We need to get up to read. We don’t have anti laziness campaigns where they tell them all the ways to not be physically fit. We teach them to be active. And likewise, the sort of anti cyber bullying or these don’t list of don’ts approaches is not helpful. We need to be instead saying, here are the skills and you have to practice them. And you have to practice them over many years with guidance, with structure.


[00:21:04.860] – Richard Culatta
And if you do, then you walk out. And Interestingly enough, Chris, most of those dysfunctions that we talked about before, they just kind of go away.

[00:21:12.300] – Chris Tompkins

[00:21:12.780] – Richard Culatta
When you have built those solid foundations and principles and have practiced principles of digital citizenship, that’s what we want to do. We want to stop trying to solve all these tough online problems. Just let’s have them not happen in the first place.

[00:21:27.000] – Chris Tompkins

[00:21:27.720] – Richard Culatta
That requires an approach where we say practice the types of skills we want young people to have.

[00:21:34.000] – Chris Tompkins
So one of the types of skills and I want to start with the first one you mentioned is about finding balance. And I love in your book, you talk about how screen time is not the most helpful way to manage the digital world. Why not? And what does balance mean to you as kind of a contrary idea to that?

[00:21:52.120] – Richard Culatta
Yeah, that’s a big one.

[00:21:53.480] – Richard Culatta
So some parents that are listening to this might need to sit down for this part.

[00:21:57.910] – Chris Tompkins
That’s why I went here. Richard, you’ve got so many helpful things. But I know this is the one people are going to zero in on.

[00:22:03.720] – Richard Culatta
So the biggest thing that I get, the number one question that I get when I’m talking with families is my kid is blank years old. How much greenhouse do they have in a day? The problem is that question leads to some pretty significant dysfunction. And the reason is because when we talk about mediating tech use and we absolutely should mediate tech use when we mediate tech use based on the clock, we are teaching that all digital activities have the same value.

[00:22:29.430] – Chris Tompkins

[00:22:30.090] – Richard Culatta
And nothing could be farther from the truth. Right. It’s a little bit like sometimes I compare this to eating. We teach our kids to be healthy eaters and we don’t have food time. And imagine we had food time. It’s like from six to seven, you have an hour of food time and you can shove Twinkies into your mouth as much as you want for the full hour as long as you’re done at 701. We would never do that.


[00:22:51.240] – Richard Culatta
We teach kids that some foods are healthier than others and that it’s okay to eat lots of broccoli. And you know what? You can have a Twinkie every once in a while, but probably only one and probably only after you’ve eaten some healthier food. And we teach them that they need to know that it’s time to be done eating, not when the clock goes off, but when they’re full.


[00:23:10.710] – Richard Culatta
Need to recognize for themselves that it’s time to move on to another activity. And so that is the same idea that we need to be thinking about in the digital world. We need to think about balance, what activities are appropriate to do given a particular day and the other activities that are happening around us. Right. An activity that might be appropriate for one kid may not be for another, an activity that might be appropriate on a rainy day when there’s not really much going on might be very different than a beautiful day when everybody’s outside playing.

[00:23:45.350] – Chris Tompkins

[00:23:45.830] – Richard Culatta
And so that’s the big shift we have to make is stop talking about screen time and start having this conversation about when are we balanced and when does our tech use start to become unbalanced. And that’s what we have to have a discussion about with our kids and adults. By the way, many adults have this problem, too.

[00:24:03.440] – Chris Tompkins
Well, we’re going to get to that. I love this idea, too, because my daughter is getting a little older, and I’m thinking about how do I prepare her when she goes off to University as well when I’m not got the clock running in the background and there isn’t me to say time is up.

[00:24:17.940] – Richard Culatta
That’s right.

[00:24:18.710] – Chris Tompkins
She needs to become a lifelong learner rather than just a rule follower.

[00:24:23.440] – Richard Culatta
That’s right. That’s absolutely right. And so my worry is that if you have parents, that all they do is just teach their kids to use a device until the timer goes off, when the time is for them to leave the house. We have not set them up. We set them up for failure because we’ve not taught them to how to find that balance. Another thing is I was talking to a parent the other day and they said, yeah, but I was meeting with my kids physician. Right. There was a doctor and they said, no, there is research that shows that certain by a certain age, you have to have a certain amount of screen time. That research. And I go into this in detail in the book, if anyone wants to see it was largely based on TV watching from the 70s.

[00:25:02.680] – Chris Tompkins

[00:25:03.560] – Richard Culatta
And that is not the same as the types of digital activities we’re doing today. And so, yes, you absolutely should be talking about limiting TV watching, whether it’s on an actual TV, if anybody has those anymore, or on a smaller form like a mobile device, but that we can’t overgeneralize the research around watching passive TV shows to encompass our whole digital environment. And the World Health Organization and other organizations have now changed their guidelines for parents specifically because of that.

[00:25:37.160] – Chris Tompkins
So how do we do it if we move away from the screen time and create balance. I know you have a few ideas that you can share with us around a variety of activities and different things like that. How can we create balance as parents?

[00:25:50.770] – Richard Culatta
I mean, one of the things that we have to do is we have to start talking with our kids about the types of activities they do. And so I’ll give a couple of examples. So one is simply reframing some of our language. So instead of saying, hey, don’t play that game, your brain is going to turn into mush or whatever for so long. Instead, flip this. This also gets back to the pitching it as a positive just state the activity that is being short shrifted. So you might say, hey, I don’t have any problem with that game. It’s a fun game. My concern is that you haven’t spent time with your family much saying, we love you, too.

[00:26:22.160] – Chris Tompkins

[00:26:22.620] – Richard Culatta
And so when you spend some time with us or you don’t have any problem that you’re watching that video or that you’re talking with your friends online, but you have a big test tomorrow. And so let’s make sure we have balance there. And by the way, studying for that test likely will still happen on a device. So meantime, it’s just a very different activity that is more imbalanced given the constraints.

[00:26:47.130] – Chris Tompkins
Well, the other night, just to jump in for a second, my daughter was studying for a test with a group. She was FaceTiming the group on her phone and she had her notes on her computer. Right. And they were actually studying together, like replacing we’d all meet up at the library or whatever. Right. And so for me to just say, hey, it’s late. You should be off your devices and study. That’s not even an appropriate thing to say in that context.

[00:27:13.050] – Richard Culatta
Right. So that is a statement that just makes no sense to kids. I’ve heard parents say, stop, get off your phone. You should be interacting with people. And they’re like, wait a minute, I am. That’s what I’m doing. So we got to watch those statements. There are some other things, though, that are important to know. And the principle that’s important here is what we want to teach our kids to do when it comes to balance is use technology on their own terms. And so one of the things that I highly recommend that parents do this is a simple thing that you can do is decide that there is going to be a charging station where all the phones live at night or all the devices, whatever they are, and they don’t sleep in a kid’s rooms with them. That’s a very simple thing that can be done. And 90% of the time when I share this, a parent or a kid will say, I can’t. And I say, why? And they say, because I use my phone as an alarm clock.

[00:28:05.660] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah, I’ve heard that said before. Yeah, right.

[00:28:09.150] – Richard Culatta
And actually, I got to tell you a funny story.

[00:28:10.500] – Richard Culatta
So I was working with Harvard on the publishing of this book, and I tried to work out we couldn’t make it work, but I tried to work out that in each book there would be a coupon for an alarm clock, because that’s my point. It’s like, go get an alarm clock. That’s totally fine. We use Alexa. The little Alexa Dots is another way you can do it. So there’s lots of ways to have an alarm clock without having a phone. And then one more that I want to share around balance is turn off notifications. There’s no reason that a device should be sending constant notifications to a kid. If they want to go and look at TikTok or look at another group where they have their friends, as long as it’s appropriate for the kids based on their age and their maturity, that’s great. But don’t do it because there’s an alert going, look at me, look at me. Come back, come back.


[00:28:58.310] – Richard Culatta
And it’s so easy to do, just go turn off all the notifications. And it’s shocking to me how few families do that. And so it costs nothing. It’s simple. It takes 30 seconds. You go in and turn off all those I mean, maybe text messages and phone calls you leave on. Right. In case you need to be communicating.

[00:29:12.090] – Chris Tompkins

[00:29:12.350] – Richard Culatta
But all the other stuff, just turn those notifications off. Super simple.

[00:29:15.100] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. Well, I can remember picking up my daughter’s phone and looking at the lock screen and the number of notifications that are right there. Right. You’re like, oh, my goodness, I’d just be overwhelmed if that’s what the response requirement we put on ourselves is there. Right. People are talking to you all the time.

[00:29:33.030] – Richard Culatta
It’s exhausting. Again, part of what you do, you don’t just do this to kids. You do this with them. So you talk to them and you say, hey, this is about you having agency. I love that word agency. Right. This is about you having agency. And I don’t have any problem again, as long as their responsibilities aren’t getting out of balance. I don’t have any problem if you use these tools and apps. But do it when you want to. And let’s not have it be manipulated by an app developer who makes more money when we come back more often. And so that’s just a very simple thing. And there’s like ten more examples, little tips like that that I can give that help create a much healthier balance in our families.

[00:30:07.310] – Chris Tompkins
So I want to talk a little bit about this because so many of these things go into what you would talk about, like a device use agreement. Tell us a little bit about that. And how can you kind of encourage parents to think about what that would look like for their own homes or even youth leaders in their programs or different things like that.

[00:30:26.520] – Richard Culatta
Right. So anywhere where we have technology use with young people, whether it’s school, whether it’s homes, whether it’s a summer experience, like what you provide, right?

[00:30:36.220] – Chris Tompkins

[00:30:37.000] – Richard Culatta
It is critical that we have norms that we establish for effective tech use. That’s part of how we teach kids to be good digital citizens. And again, it’s not a list of don’ts. I actually in the book Digital for Good, I include a copy of the one for our family and it’s different for every kid.


[00:30:54.920] – Richard Culatta
We haven’t aligned it to their needs, but so it includes things like when is it appropriate to use a device? And we talk about the roles and responsibilities. So one that we include in ours is that you are expected as part of having a device in our family to help capture family moments. Right. That’s an example. Another example is that you are expected to use your device to help support your learning. And I don’t just mean homework, I mean learning. We want you to become learners. And so you’re going to do that. We also have some things where we say, especially for our younger kids, we expect you to only engage with people that we know in person right now that might change as kids get older. And I recommend that once a year you update your device use agreement. We do it like on our kids birthdays or when back to school comes around. And what you want to do is you want to just gradually give more and more autonomy to kids using their devices. And we have had this happen as all normal human children have. Sometimes we give access as part of our device use agreement, we say, yes, you have the ability to participate in these sorts of activities and we find it’s too much for them.


[00:32:08.390] – Richard Culatta
And so we revise it. We come back and say, hey, this isn’t a punishment. We just need to develop a little more trust first. And so we’re going to modify it and we’re going to say, hey, we’re going to only send pictures that you’ve shown to a mom or dad first in order to make sure we’re developing good habits there. Right. And then over time, if we see that they have consistently recognized when it’s appropriate to send a picture and when it’s not, we might change that device use agreement. So those are the sorts of things you include. And also it’s important that parents follow them too. So in our device use agreement, one of the things that we say is there are times where we want to have our devices take a rest. One of those is at night in our rooms. Like I said, another one is at meal times.

[00:32:52.040] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah, we have the same.

[00:32:53.700] – Richard Culatta
In our device use agreement, we say it is not a punishment to take a break from using your device. I really worry about families that I see where the only time the device is taken away is as a punishment.

[00:33:07.030] – Chris Tompkins

[00:33:07.460] – Richard Culatta
That is a dysfunctional relationship to set up. And so we talk about that in our device use agreement. We say there’ll be times when you can say that you need a break and you can come give us your device or we may decide that you need a break. And that’s not a punishment. It’s just us feeling like your technology use has gotten a little bit out of balance. And so we’re going to help by having a little break and you set that all up in advance and we sign it. Everybody can sign those. And it means that there are norms and structure that’s created to start to build this really healthy digital well being to prepare them to be healthy digital citizens.

[00:33:40.050] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. Oh, man, that was so helpful. And those listening parents, I just even to pause and take a deep breath just to kind of summarize a few things that I’m hearing from this. I love what you’re saying, too. A device use agreement is not just about the things that we can’t do, but an invitation into how we’re going to use. Because I think as default, so many parents are just like, oh, this great, we’ll have an agreement. You can’t use it here. And I love the reframing like you’ve talked about, and then add into an agreement what are the positive things that we should be using devices for? And I love that calling that out and having that as just as important in there. And the second piece is parents and all of us listening. And this is for me, too, is we’re included in this as well? This is not just a device use agreement for kids. And I’m mum and dad, don’t ask me, I can have my phone at the table or my work is really important. So here’s I think an invitation for us to be part of a device use agreement as a parent just creates greater accountability for us and a way to be an example for our own children and the young people that we are trying to model positive behavior for.

[00:34:54.430] – Richard Culatta
What’s fascinating is if you involve kids in this process as a family, you talk about these things. It is remarkable how insightful they are about a lot of this stuff. Right? There are a lot of things in our device use agreements that I never would have thought to include, but our kids did. They said, hey, this is a struggle for me when I’m working on homework. This is really distracting. Can we include something in our agreement about what types of technology I can use during homework time or whatever?


[00:35:17.900] – Richard Culatta
Yeah. Those are really thoughtful ideas that they will include if you involve them in the process. It’s not something you do to them. It’s something you do with them.

[00:35:27.280] – Chris Tompkins
Right? Yeah. I love that I can just imagine as people are listening, they’re pausing it, they’re sending it to their partner or whoever and like, okay, we got to sit down and put this together. That is such a helpful insight and an invitation for us to really help young people navigate the digital world. I want to transition a little bit. We often have this idea in the digital world that it doesn’t build or deepen, like real relationships. And we’ve heard people say that. And so how can connecting with people virtually really translate into real life benefits? Like, how are the new way of interacting with people online really reinforcing relationships for us?

[00:36:12.130] – Richard Culatta
Yeah. I think at this point, if anybody in a post coveted world still says that technology doesn’t help build real world relationships, I want to know what cave they were living in for the last three years. Right. We’ve seen this. This is how our kids stayed in touch with their family during COVID. Most of our family doesn’t live around us. And so we would do family councils once a month with our family from all over, and they come together, the aunts and uncles, and we would just sort of get updates. It’s a way that we probably a number of you have participated in weddings and bar mitzvahs or birthday parties or things that you would normally not have been able to do because somebody had a virtual opportunity to participate. You already mentioned that. One of my favorites is these homework groups, right? Almost every kid that I talk to, I say, hey, when you study, where and how do you study? And they say, yeah, we have this group, we have a text thread or some other tool that we’re using, and we studied together in virtual spaces. Those are all real relationships. And to be clear, some of these moments are some of the most important life moments that we have.

[00:37:23.360] – Richard Culatta
We used to live in a world where all of our most important life moments happen in physical spaces. And virtual spaces were kind of for ancillary things like entertainment things. But now some of our most important life moments happen in virtual spaces. Our kids are going to be working no matter what they do, they are going to be working on teams where not everybody is together physically and frankly, where not every person is even human.

[00:37:48.060] – Chris Tompkins

[00:37:48.400] – Richard Culatta
On their team. Those are the relationships that we have to learn to build and cultivate and leverage, because in the world that they are growing up in, some of their most important relationships will be virtual ones.

[00:37:59.930] – Chris Tompkins
Right. I love that. And as we all know, some of the most significant relationships that young people form are even within the family. And it may not seem immediately intuitive that the healthy youth of technology in our homes can actually strengthen our family relationships. And like, we know video chatting for people outside. But how have you seen how the digital world can contribute to greater connection even within families and strengthen the bonds of the people that we are closest to.

[00:38:32.770] – Richard Culatta
Right. Certainly one example that I just gave is staying in touch with extended family members that wouldn’t be able to connect otherwise. But others are things like, so I travel a fair amount for work.

[00:38:46.760] – Chris Tompkins

[00:38:47.510] – Richard Culatta
And I love the ability to be able to keep in touch with my kids when I’m on the road. And there’s some fun things that we get to do together. Right. Even when I’m not on the road, they’re in school during the day, I’m at work during the day. And so the ability to have an ongoing conversation is really powerful. And again, that’s a habit that I want to build now because when they leave, I don’t want it to be awkward for us to figure out how to engage in virtual spaces.

Right. Yeah.

[00:39:12.560] – Richard Culatta
We do some fun things. Right. So sometimes we’ll do challenges to say, what’s a way that we can help make somebody’s day better in a virtual space. And you have to post a comment to somebody or something like that, and then you take a screenshot of it and share it back to the family. So it’s like a little challenge and a little leaderboard challenge in our families to help make the virtual world a little bit better place. And we do some funding. So this is really silly. My kids will be embarrassed that I’m sharing this. But in our family, whenever we Peel an Orange, you know how the Orange has a kind of funky shape on the Peel when it sits there? We take a picture of it, and it’s kind of like a Rorr Shack test. You have to say what you think it looks like. So we take a picture of it and send it to our family thread. And then everybody comes in and says what they think it is. Those little moments. Right. Those are special kind of tender moments that build connections with us that are only possible because we are learning how to use virtual platforms to communicate.

[00:40:05.010] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah, that’s fantastic. I’d also add to a lot of families, I think, in the pandemic, even for us, like, playing games together was really significant. There are a lot of great online and kind of digital based games that are a lot of fun to play as well.

[00:40:21.900] – Richard Culatta
Sure, absolutely. I mean, I don’t know how many people play Wordl, but we’ve got the competition in our family and there’s many others. Right.

[00:40:27.060] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. And now what’s great with Word is we have a family group chat. You enter your Word in every day.

[00:40:33.050] – Richard Culatta
Right, right.

[00:40:33.650] – Chris Tompkins
Of course, you’re connecting in on that. Again, that’s a great idea and a way to just continue to reinforce the relationships we have. And I love that idea of like, these are real relationships. We are just engaging in them in a new and different way. And that’s the part of digital citizenship that I love about your focus is like, let’s continue to practice this and not just let this happen to us, but help navigate for ourselves and our kids what it means to use the tools around us. I do want to just focus in on one thing before we kind of wrap up. So I think a lot of DAREarts they get, okay, this is great, but I’m still like, how do we encourage kids to become more autonomous and learn how to use it? But I’m still concerned about safeguarding them from some of these risks, interacting with the wrong people, bullying unsafe content. Can you just even maybe add a little bit to speak to those parents that are just still a little like they’re like, this sounds great, but what about these dangers that I’m really concerned about?

[00:41:40.940] – Richard Culatta
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it turns out there’s a handful of things that you can do that eliminate, like 90% of the risk. One of them we already talked about.

[00:41:48.470] – Richard Culatta
Which is don’t have devices in bedrooms at night.

[00:41:51.210] – Richard Culatta
Right. That’s an easy one.

[00:41:52.250] – Chris Tompkins

[00:41:52.830] – Richard Culatta
Another one is just a really simple rule that we have. It’s part of our device use agreement, which is if you need Privacy, we teach Privacy. We have young boys. We’re reminding them, like, please go into bathroom when you want to change. Right. Privacy is good. But whenever you’re in a moment where you need Privacy, that’s also a moment where your device does not belong.

[00:42:11.490] – Chris Tompkins

[00:42:11.940] – Richard Culatta
Sometimes parents inadvertently create a false sense of Privacy by saying, I won’t look at your phone, that’s your private space. And that helps kids think that what’s on there is really private.

[00:42:22.220] – Chris Tompkins
It’s not.

[00:42:22.950] – Richard Culatta
It is very easy to get onto any phone, any device. Right. So we just want to establish that right off the bat, if that’s okay. You can share stuff, you can do stuff in virtual spaces. Just know that it’s not really private. And so if you ever need a private moment, your device doesn’t belong there. And so that simple rule of if the door is closed, devices don’t belong takes away just a huge amount of risk. Almost all of the stories that I read and I researched, a lot of really tough stories of kids that had really challenging things happen to them pretty much happened because a phone was left in a room overnight or you was behind a closed door and then layer on top of that, not having the conversations that we have, not establishing the ability for kids to come and talk to parents when something goes wrong, we hear these stories where it’s like, oh, somebody reaches out to a kid and the next thing they know, it’s this horrible cyberbullying or really terrible situation. None of the situations that I studied were like that. They all happened over a long period of time.

[00:43:26.380] – Richard Culatta
And if there had been any amount of engagement and open dialogue with the parents, there would have been so many opportunities to intervene.


[00:43:34.170] – Richard Culatta
And so for each of the chapters in my book, I end each chapter with ten questions that are conversation starters. There are conversations to start having with your kids, to get comfortable talking about things that happen online and not to freak out if something bad happens. Right. It’s okay. Bad things happen, but serious bad things generally only happen when there is no ability to have a trusted, ongoing dialogue about our tech culture. So if we can do that, if we can build that, if we can start having those conversations, have our kids know they’re not going to be in trouble, if they want to run into a problem. And in fact, we’re here to help them. If they ever get into a situation that’s a little bit tricky. If we can build that level of trust, it’s very hard to imagine a situation that would happen that would cause serious harm to any kid.

[00:44:21.340] – Chris Tompkins
And I think something you said a lot earlier in our conversation connects to that as well about going on a journey with kids, with technology as well, spending time learning about the apps and the tools that they’re using and engaging in conversations about where they spend their time online and what are some of the risks that can come up. And having ongoing conversations about that, again, not only helps them become better digital citizenship, but just enhances our relationship with young people as well and our kids. So that to your point, when those moments come up where they do want to or need to talk to us about something, we’ve already been on that journey through that world. We know what they’re talking about. And we can have stronger bonds because we’ve gone on that journey with them to be able to navigate the difficult situation that might have come up.

[00:45:10.900] – Richard Culatta
That’s right. And being open when we run into trouble.


[00:45:14.220] – Richard Culatta
We all do this. We have trouble. We posted something online somewhere and somebody took it the wrong way, or we saw somebody who was feeling like they were having a really rough day. And we chose to make a post in a virtual space that sort of uplifts them and complements them. Those are the sorts of things that we need to actively be sharing with our kids so that they can see that we do these things, too. We are in the same digital world. Yeah. We may go hang out in slightly different places, but we’re in this together. And it’s part of what our family norm is. What our family culture is exists, whether it’s in our home, whether it’s online, whether it’s our kids, whether it’s the adults, those are who we are in a digital space. That is something we need to have an ongoing, continuing dialogue about.

[00:45:57.220] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah, I love that. So obviously, we’re kind of wrapping up our time, and I always want to provide really good resources. So obviously, and I think people are already writing it down to pick up your book. There are so many practical tips. We’ve covered, so many in our conversation. But where do you go to find helpful resources and tools beyond your work? Do you have any other tips or practical places for people to go to help them learn more about the digital world our kids are living in?

[00:46:29.180] – Richard Culatta
Sure. There’s the Digital Citizenship Coalition, which is a group of organizations that have come together to try to help create a healthier narrative for parents around the use of technology, and that has some good resources. There’s also a great event that the nonprofit that I lead puts on every year called Dig Sitcom. And that’s a great thing to participate in. It’s free to learn good practices, reaching out and finding these resources that are helping build the skills, as opposed to taking this hyperbolic, bury the devices in the backyard approach. That’s what you need to look for. We need to look for ways to help build these competencies.

[00:47:12.970] – Richard Culatta
And there’s lots of great resources out there that you can find for that.

[00:47:15.690] – Chris Tompkins
Perfect. And then maybe two final things. What would you say to parents who are like, Richard, this is all great. We’ve gone too long without any of this stuff. I don’t know how I’m going to get my kids to follow along right now. That number one. And then maybe even just wrapping up. Any final thoughts, words of encouragement for parents who are listening today or youth leaders or whoever who are just feeling kind of overwhelmed and helping kids navigate the digital world that we live in today.

[00:47:46.180] – Richard Culatta
That’s right. And I actually think they go together. And so what I would say, the saddest comment that I ever get when I’m talking with parents or meeting with teachers or youth leaders is somebody who says, this is exactly what I needed ten years ago and now it’s too late. My response to that is it is never too late. Yes, it’s better if you can start building these practices earlier on, no question. But it’s never too late. And this goes to the second part of your question, which is you don’t have to do everything at once, right?


[00:48:15.920] – Richard Culatta
Pick one or two things that you feel like are most needed in your family. Pick an area, a thing or two that you might include in the device use agreement that feels like it’s. What is most relevant for your kids. And just start there. Starting as simply as describing how we want to respond online when somebody is not being treated kindly, just having that conversation, just deciding simply that we’re going to turn off notifications or turn off autoplay. That’s another tip that I give in the book. Turn off autoplay on our devices. Those are simple things that anybody can do, even if you haven’t been talking about this as long as you should. And so start there and then after that, then add some other things to it. This is a marathon, not a sprint. This happens over years and so don’t feel overwhelmed. Don’t feel like you have to do everything at once, pick one or two things and then build from there.

[00:49:06.170] – Chris Tompkins
Very encouraging. Very helpful. I really appreciate our conversation today. Richard, thank you so much for joining us and really thankful for the work you’re doing and the insight you provide. And maybe we’ll have to have you back for another conversation and deepen this, but really helpful. I learned a lot today and so I’m sure all of our listeners have as well. So thank you for your time. Really appreciate you.

[00:49:28.020] – Richard Culatta
Oh, thank you. Great to be here with you.

[00:49:30.080] – Richard Culatta
I appreciate it. Great conversation.

About the Author

Chris Tompkins is the CEO of Muskoka Woods. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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