Technical difficulties: the challenges of raising tech-savvy kids.
Like many moms, Lisa Bates had only good intentions when she gave her son, Adam, a cell phone for his fourteenth birthday. "He had been wanting one forever, and he was out with his friends more," explains the mother of three from Midway, Pennsylvania. She figured that adding an extra $20 line to the family calling plan was an affordable way to keep track of her teen--especially in emergencies. Soon, however, triple-digit bills began rolling in as Adam chatted away day and night. Although he promised to cut back and pay the surcharges, the behavior continued. Lisa and her husband pulled the plug alter one month's tab topped $600. "You'll thank me for this one day," she told her son, who responded by hurling his phone and breaking it.
Forget the generation gap. What vexes most parents today is trying to bridge the digital divide between them and their tech-savvy offspring. Computers and other electronics have put the world literally at our children's fingertips. And we, hoping to give our kids an academic edge, keep them safe, keep track of their whereabouts or just keep them quiet, happily indulge them with the latest gear. According to a recent survey by Knowledge Networks/SRI, a media research firm, two thirds of children ages 8 to 17 have a TV, more than a third have a video-game player and 17 percent have a computer.
The cutting edge can be a perilous place, however. Children may stumble onto pornographic web sites or fall prey to sexual predators and cyberbullies who troll chat rooms and instant-messaging sessions. They may use cell phones to snap risque photos or engage in phone sex. Health hazards abound as well, from eyestrain and "text-message thumb" to short attention spans and obesity.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Many experts worry about the impact of this wired world on young brains. By interacting with parents and peers, "kids learn how to regulate their various rhythms--sleeping, eating, impulses, moods, behaviors," explains Marilyn B. Benoit, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Such relationships never form, Benoit says, if children "hide" in their technological caves, otherwise known as their bedrooms, staying up all hours sending instant messages on the computer or chatting on the phone.
Her advice? "Parents need to limit and monitor use of current technologies so that they are aware of the potential pitfalls. It's like anything else: movies, dating, driving, drinking." But where does a parent draw the line? The answers often depend on the child. If your daughter completes her homework and comes home at the appointed hour, chances are she can handle greater electronic freedom. Not true for a lonely girl who retreats into video games for hours on end. "This is really about common sense applied to the computer age," says Ilene Berson, Ph.D., a professor of child and family studies at the University of Southern Florida who has interviewed teens about their online activities. "It's all about the conversation. It's not only about learning the technology."
POINTERS FOR PARENTS
Following are a few simple guidelines to help parents navigate today's electronic arcade:
Get the 411. Before springing for that high-speed Internet service or cool new pager, parents need to know what their kids are doing or can do with these devices, says Douglas Levin, an education analyst at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. That can be as simple, he says, as chatting up a salesperson at an electronics store such as Best Buy or Circuit City.
Better yet, ask your child. You may discover that the cell phone you thought was only for talking also beams text messages, retrieves E-mail, downloads Jay-z rings, and sends photos. Ultimately "you have a technology-management responsibility," says Ralph Bond, consumer-education manager for Intel Corp. and coauthor of The PC Dads Guide to Becoming a Computer-Smart Parent (Dell). "Parents have no choice but to stop, pay some attention, and learn some basics."
Establish ground rules. Your parameters may be as simple as homework comes first, with penalties for misuse. Or they may be formal media-use contracts, such as many schools now enforce. Include such safety essentials as teaching your child not to divulge personal information like home address, age or name online. As Bond puts it, "Street smarts don't stop at the sidewalk."
Monitor use. Is your teen posting saucy photos of herself on the Internet or playing online games with strangers into the wee hours? You'll never know if the door to her room remains closed. That's one reason Sherry Petrie, who runs the Los Angeles chapter of Mocha Moms, a support group for Black stay-at-home mothers, put the computer in the dining room of her home so she could see what all five of her children are doing. Petrie also reviews video games, purchasing nonviolent ones such as chess that even her 8-year-old son can enjoy.
If you're suspicious or think your child's safety is endangered, you should certainly give yourself permission to screen your child's calls, computer messages or anything else that you find especially troubling. There is software that can record and forward your youngster's instant messages to your work screen. And cell phones increasingly include global positioning systems that will let you see if your child really is on that school field trip. (Federal law requires that by the end of next year all wireless phones should have such devices to locate 911 callers.) Services like Ulocate (ulocate.com) and AT&T Wireless Find People Nearby (for mMode plan users) will beam your child's location to yore phone or computer screen. And Wherify Wireless offers a separate tracker, with an uncuttable wristband.
Plan viewing. Instead of channel-surfing, use program guides and ratings to choose shows or videos t0 watch. And watch with your child. That way you can click off violent scenes, explain the difference between staged dramas and reality, or point out stereotypes. Or tape shows for later viewing.
Limit time. Security lawyer Parry Aftab, author of The Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace (McGraw-Hill), says one and a half horns seems to be the tipping point between teens getting into trouble online and safe surfing. Parents can also install software that shuts down the computer after a certain time limit. And nothing quashes cell-phone chatter like prepaid calling plans, which operate much like phone cards. By forcing their high schooler to buy her own minutes, Barry and Chyenita Sydnor of Washington, D.C., instilled responsibility and avoided surprise bills.
As Lisa Bates discovered, sometimes it's easier to just turn off the technological tap altogether. When her son broke his computer, she didn't have it fixed. Nor has she rushed to repair the PlayStation. Her son does have a cell phone again--but it's Lisa's clunky old model, while he still yaks away on occasion, most of his "anytime minutes" these days are productively spent elsewhere.
TECH FACTOIDS * Nine out of ten youngsters have access to computers. * Roughly 40 percent of kids ages 11 to 17 have cell phones. * Nearly three quarters of teens 12 to 17 use instant messaging. * Sixty percent of girls 13 to 16 have shared personal information with someone they've encountered online.
SOURCES: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Yankee Group, Pew Internet & American Life Project 2001, wiredSafety.org.
To learn more about technology and your kids, check out the following Web sites:
Syndicated technology columnist Larry Magid operates this site, which features Internet, chatroom and cell-phone safety tips. wiredsafety.org
Lawyer Parry Aftab's comprehensive Internet safety site has special sections aimed at tweens, teens and parents.
Is your child addicted to the Internet? Take an online quiz from the Center for Online Addiction.
The Parent's Guide to the Information Superhighway: Rules and Tools for Families Online, a booklet developed in conjunction with the National Urban League and National PTA, is available on this site.
Children's Privacy and Safety on the Internet: A Resource Guide for Parents has links to safe-surfing software and video-game ratings.