My son is in front of the computer. For an hour, he has been typing furiously and clicking madly through various screens in what has become the computer corner of our kitchen. But Henry's not playing games. He's hard at work completing a 5th-grade science assignment to visit specific websites that explore the human senses.
"Watch this!" Henry calls to me. I step away from the laptop I'm using to follow a recipe for tonight's dinner. As my daughter bops in, chatting on her cell phone, my son types his name onscreen and a website quickly converts "Henry" into its Braille equivalent. Ping! My attention is diverted by an instant message popping up on my laptop: It's my mom in South Carolina.
Whew! Technology has certainly changed family life in the past few years. From the way we communicate, educate our children, and socialize with friends, to the way we tend our personal business and entertain ourselves, it's a bold new world. The family computer, now prevalent in 62 percent of U.S. households, is almost as common as the microwave oven. Millions of cell phones keep parents and their children connected. Kids tote portable video game systems in their pockets and the Internet is fast becoming the tool of choice for checking the news, ordering flowers for Grandma, and paying the electric bill.
This whirling, swirling wonderland of information and entertainment offers families amazing ways to connect, learn, and grow. But as parents, we know a blizzard of challenges has come along with this trend. Technology has saddled us with a new realm of responsibility for guiding and protecting our kids that we did not have to consider until recently. We struggle to find a balance when it comes to limiting screen time, are confused by the "netlingo" kids use, and are scared by news reports of sexual predators online. Concerns over virus protection, obesity associated with a sedentary lifestyle, privacy theft, and pornography leave many of us reluctant to fully embrace the new digital universe.
Ping! Here's the good news: You don't have to be a gadget guru or computer nerd to join in and manage your family's tech habits. To teach safety and to benefit from technology's wealth of resources, you can use the same parenting skills that work in other areas of life — trusting your intuition, seeking out reliable support, and setting behavioral expectations. These are the main components to raising kids in the technological age. Whether you've just mastered the art of text messaging or you have yet to allow your kids to surf online, you can get plugged in.
At my house, all chewing gum, plastic swords, cell phones, and portable game devices are deposited in the kitchen before we sit down at the dinner table. The video game console is put away during summer months and the bikes and bathing suits are pulled out of storage to make sure the kids spend more time outdoors. Our family computer sits in a main, high-traffic area of our home, just like our television, so I can keep tabs on what's onscreen.
Applying these kinds of basic parental tactics to technology is a smart starting place for incorporating digital doodads into family life. They'll help you feel less overwhelmed and intimidated by this new area of parenting. In fact, good ol' limits, consequences, and supervision may be even more important than computer filters and security software when it comes to keeping kids safe and teaching healthy tech habits. Here's why:
- Setting limits on the amount of your child's daily screen time (TV, video games, and computer usage combined) is just like setting limits on desserts or snacks. It's a basic technique that teaches the importance of balance. Here, it's the balance between technology and other activities. You may want to follow the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend that parents completely restrict screen time for children under 2 years old. For older children, 1-2 hours a day, depending on age, is the ceiling. You can adjust when needed, like when homework requires more time on the computer.
- Establishing boundaries and consequences helps your child make responsible choices. Much like walking to school alone or taking care of a pet, using technology requires common sense and trust. By defining your expectations and boundaries ahead of time, you help your child learn to manage his behavior. Irresponsible behavior — such as using inappropriate language in an email, for example, or sneaking extra video game time — should result in a consequence (losing electronic privileges is one idea).
- Supervising your child, as you do when he first learns to walk, use the stove, or ride a two-wheeler, is the key to monitoring behaviors and being able to offer guidance when necessary. How do you do this with technology? By requiring that all electronics be used in the main areas of the home, where you can track time limits and monitor online activities. As a bonus, it will allow you to connect with your child's interests and behaviors. You can monitor your children's computer usage when you're out by using filtering software that records online activity.
As the world changes, however, new tools for helping you raise and guide your children in a digital world are emerging. Rating systems and Web sites offer up-to-date strategies for and insights into managing the unique nuances of technology that children are exposed to at every age.
Exploring these tools and resources and finding reliable ones that match your family values can provide you with another level of support.
- Rating systems. Video games, television shows, and even the music industry have rating systems and guidelines to help parents decide what is appropriate for their family. While these are helpful, each family is unique, and industry ratings do not always match your own values. Decisions about what is appropriate content for children vary from family to family, and sometimes child to child, depending on age, maturity level, and family beliefs. Understanding the rating systems can help guide your decisions, however, and ultimately you have the final say when it comes to what's right for your kids.
- Tech tools. Designed specifically to help you manage appropriate content, these are handy assets you may already have without realizing it. Parental controls on your computer, for instance, are often a standard part of your operating system, as are parental controls for cable television that allow you to block channels and shows using a code that you enter. The V-chip, a tool built into every television manufactured since 2000, can be programmed to coordinate with TV parental guidelines.
- Resources. Other independent rating systems and review sites offer even more insights into the technology our kids are using. CommonSenseMedia.org, for instance, has its own red, yellow, and green light system and offers detailed information on content so that you can decide whether a game, television show, movie, and even some Web sites fit your children. Plugged in Parents is an online resource that offers monthly tech tips on topics from cell phones to internet browsing. ConnectSafely.org has a forum for parents, teens, and experts to discuss social networking issues, as well as safety tips on creating blogs, posting video, and communicating online.
Tackle Tech Together
Like it or not, today's parents are pioneers, challenged with monitoring, managing, and guiding our children through the electronic forest. While it can be tempting to avoid dealing with this reality before your children have scratched the tween years, in truth, holding out may cause you to miss a valuable opportunity to teach digital life skills at a crucial learning stage. Just like teaching manners and respect to your child when he's little, laying a foundation in tech habits and safety is a lifetime lesson. Without it, your child may learn his values from peers.
Take the time — early and often — to explore what's happening online, tinker around with text messaging, or play a few video games. That will allow you to beat the learning curve and be better prepared when your child asks for an email or instant messaging address, begs for a blog, or sets out to explore the internet on his own. Early, supervised exposure to technology also offers another big benefit for families — you get to play, learn, and connect together! Try some of these suggestions for setting a good example and having fun:
- Start a family blog. Blogs are like journals you keep online. They can be shared with the general public or made private for only those you select. Try searching for a free blogging tool on the internet -- there are plenty.
- Hold a video game tournament. Why should kids have all the fun? Even if you're not a super-savvy "gamer," encouraging a family tournament will allow kids to see your interest, boost everyone's enthusiasm, and serve as a great activity for all ages.
- Talk tech to your child. Send a text just to say "hello" or email an e-card wishing him luck on his science test. Communicating through your child's tech choices lets him know you're watching and that you care.
- Create your own family rating system. You can reinforce the rating systems for TV, video games, and movies (currently, there is no universal rating system for websites) by coming up with your own. That will help your kids learn to be choosy consumers and identify red flags. Make it fun, like "C" for "Cool" or "I" for "Icky."
- Mix some tunes. Kids love digital music. Creating a personalized mix of songs and making a playlist or burning it to a CD is a fun family activity. Give one as a gift.
Approaching the use of technology with knowledge and practical management, as in many other areas of family life, lessens anxiety and offers big rewards. There's no way around the huge role technology plays in our children's lives, so when we embrace it without fear, we embrace the future.