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Your kids and technology: Parents' coping tips

A Walnut Creek father, author, and expert on the impacts of new technology on culture offers tips on coping with our kids' use of texting, Facebook, and MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.

The IMHO Series examines the intersection of technology and culture. The first book in the series looks as what it means now that our world has become so wired.

Courtesy of RJ Lavallee

A teenager’s thumbs glued to a cell phone keypad. A child’s nose inches from a PSP or Nintendo DS. A teenager sitting in front of a computer theoretically doing homework while, on the computer, one window displays an online game, one window an instant message, and another window the student’s actual homework: oh yeah, and there’s a cell phone in the student’s hand.

All of this is very overwhelming to a generation of parents who grew up with everything from the end of the rotary dial phone to the introduction of Pong, and eventually the Atari home video game system. While we can comprehend the compelling nature of Saturday morning cartoons, we have a hard time understanding the allure of always being connected, of posting your every move on MySpace, and broadcasting your every emotion through text messages, picture messages, or videos instantly posted to YouTube.

Interestingly, sociologists look at what’s happen and say that this is nothing new. One PhD, danah boyd [sic], who looks at these issues found that the Byrd Society in the United Kingdom published a report showing how the radius a child could travel from his or her home went from close to 6 miles three generations ago to 400 meters today. In extreme cases parents will not allow their children to leave their front yards. With everything we hear in the news media, how are parents supposed to feel safe allowing their children to travel the distances away from home that we did when we were young?

danah is also a contributor to one of the greatest resources of research being conducted on the Internet and life augmented by cell phones and websites: the Pew Internet and American Life Project. In November 17 of 2008 danah helped author Online Threats to Youth, a document for the Internet Safety Technical Task Force convened by the US Attorney General's Office. 

So how do these relate? The research shows that there are real online threats to children, and “online” today also means that ubiquitous cell phone. Important to note, however, is that the same kids who are threatened online are typically at the greatest risk of experiencing the dangers in real life. This is why sociologists think this is nothing new. And this relates to the Byrd Society research because by restricting where and when our kids can physically travel they need some place to do the same stuff we did as kids: exploring, creating a sense of identity, building autonomy.

So how do you keep your child safe in this place that’s new to us, but nothing new to sociologists? Ironically, the oldest tools that we carry are the ones that will keep you sane, and your kids safe: open communication.

The following steps will lower your blood pressure, and help you make sense of what your child is doing:

• Educate yourself. The Pew Internet and American Life Project is a good place to start.

• Spend time understanding what online social networking is all about. Open a MySpace or Facebook account to understand what social networking sites are all about, but don’t try to friend your kid! If they ask you to be a friend, that’s one thing, but definitely don’t pressure them into it at first.

• If your child is an online gamer check out a free evaluation copy of the game or games he or she play; you want to know what kind of world(s) s/he’s playing in. And any popular game your child is playing is going to have other resources on the Internet to peruse in order to learn more about how players behave in the game, which is often more important than the content of the game.

• Communicate. Talk to your children. Let them subtly know you know about the places they are playing and socializing in, but do not infringe on their space. We’ve taken so much from them in their ability to create autonomy, but you want to let your child know that where they choose to go online is still their sandbox. You also want to let them know that just like back in the days of pre-school, if something happens in the sandbox that makes them feel scared or unsafe that you are right there to protect them.

• Be a parent. Remember you still set the rules. The same way that our parents limited how much time we spent talking on the phone, or watching TV, we as parents today not only have the prerogative, but we are compelled to create rules and boundaries that limit a child’s time online, playing video games, or using cell phones for either talking or texting.

The rules for every family will be different. Educate yourself. Talk to your kids. The answers will become obvious.

RJ Lavallee is the author of IMHO (In My Humble Opinion): a guide to the benefits and dangers of today¹s communication tools, for which there is a
companion documentary film scheduled for release Spring of 2009. Lavallee also teaches a course on parenting and technology for the City of Walnut Creek Recreation Department. You can contact him through his
website and purchase his book online through Barnes and Noble or  amazon.com