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Staying in Touch While You're Gone

Traveling away from family can be tough for everyone. Next time you find yourself out of town, sitting in a lonely hotel room wishing you were back home, think about connecting with your kids in a way that they will truly appreciate. Instead of picking up the phone, try logging on to Instant Messenger. If you have teenagers, chances are pretty good they are already logged on.

It may take a while to get the hang of typing everything out, but your kids will appreciate the time you take to communicate with them in a way that is second-nature for them. Ask them to teach you some of the fun things they do on IM. Try using IMspeak, abbreviations, and emoticons. Challenge them to a game of Wheel of Fortune. If you want to watch T.V. or do some reading—no problem. Stay logged on and send a message every now and then. Before you know it, you will have spent the entire evening hanging out with your kids. Even though Instant Messenger may not be your preferred means of staying in touch, your kids will feel connected and you just may come away with valuable insight into what makes their high-tech world so very exciting.


Webkinz: A pre-schooler's first online steps?

As if hoardes of beanie babies lying all over the house and a laughing Elmo doll rolling on the floor and little  expired tomagachi keychains sitting in a pile weren't enough, we now have a new toy that has hit the "have to have" list.  Its a Webkinz.  And what makes this one different is that it teaches preschool children how to use the internet to have fun and make friends.

A Webkinz is a fairly affordable, actually quite cute little stuffed animal. It comes with a special code that your child can then punch into a website where a whole world awaits.  There is virtual reality, sort of a pre-school version of Second Life, where your child can make money, spend money, and play games.  As part of this online community, your child is given the responsibility of caring for a virtual  version of his or her pet and is able to feed it, take it for walks, take it to the vet, or just play with it in the park.  There are fun little games your child can play in the process, including mazes, treasure hunts, trivia, even short stories to read. 

In addition to hanging out in a virtual world, your child can also "play" with other kids.  There is a very elementary sort of chat function where kids can choose from a list of  canned phrases to share with one another.  Parents can also engage "Kinzchat plus" where kids actually type in their own thoughts and interact with other users.  The conversation is limited, however to the words found in the Kinzchat dictionary.  A child could not, for instance, share his or her name or address.

 So, do Webkinz provide a safe first step for young children as they learn how to live in a wired world? Maybe.  It certainly seems like a sweet, almost benign web environment that also feels well controlled.  What is a bit more troubling however, is the thought of 3 and 5 year olds sitting for hours at a time in front of a computer screen playing with their virtual friends. This age is the point at which young children are experiencing significant brain growth. A two-dimensional world may help activate certain skills, but it may also limit other necessary skills they develop as they run around outside, playing with very tactile and real pets, friends, and toys.

 From my perspective, this may be a first step that needs to be used wisely.  As tempting as it is to leave kids with the new soft and fuzzy and virtual babysitter, be part of the experience.  Teach them about limits.  After twenty minutes or an amount of time that seems adequate, let them know their time is up. Be tough. Help them get good at turning off the computer and moving on to something else. (This skill will become invaluable as they get older.)  Go online with them and be part of the learning experience.  Help them understand the difference between real and virtual.  For instance, after doing something in the Webkinz world, go outside and try the same thing in the real world, then talk about the differences.

Clearly, our kids are living in a technical world.  The thought of a 5 year old knowing more than me about technology is a bit disheartening. But, lets face it.  Technology is part of our kids lives and we need to be the ones to train them how to use it wisely. Beanie babies--move over.  Your new and improved stuffed, virtual buddies are taking over!


They Know So Much More Than Me!

Sometimes it feels like I am always playing catch up.  My kids know so much more about the latest technology than me.  Its easy to give up.  Ah, but before you do, think about the implications of our kids knowing so much more.  A study done by NCH Children's Charities in 2006 highlights the difference in knowledge and the possible implications.  Here are a few of the more interesting findings of a survey of over 1,000 young people and 1,000 parents:

 1% of parents think their kids blog

33% of kids blog

67% of parents don't know what a blog is

13% of 11-year olds are never supervised online

11% report their parents have no idea they are online

More than 1/3 of parents say they don't know how to install any kind of internet safety software and 60% of kids report their parents have never told them what kinds of websites to avoid.

46% of children say they can get around blocking software (including 43% of 11 year olds)

According to the report, "this knowledge gap means many parents are unable to provide realistic advice and support to children who are too young to know how to protect themselves from some of the risks associated with new technology. "

Even though this survey is now a year old, the message is still clear.  As frustrating as it is, we need to keep up.  We need to figure out how to protect our kids and how to help them work through some of the very real issues technology poses to their fragile social lives and emerging identity.  As hard it is to believe, we just may have something to offer our technology-loving, totally wi-fi kids. 


MySpace: Fun, Friends, and Learning About Drugs?

A recent study commissioned by the Caron Treatment Center examined what kids talk about while they sit at their computers, typing away.  They may look innocent and sweet, but the study suggests about 1 in 10 messages posted to online social networking spaces has to do with drug or alcohol use.  What does that mean for parents?  It means that, just when you thought you had talked to your teen about stranger danger in a way that should make them freaked out about getting connected with stalkers and predators, we have something else to worry about.  It might not be WHO they are talking to, but WHAT they are talking about.

The first part of the study looks at where kids are holding these discussions. Unfortunately, most of the MySpace conversations about how kids use drugs are not held on individual profiles. That means parents will have a much harder time finding out when their kids are engaging in conversations about drinking, drug use and sex.  Most of the conversations are held on MySpace message boards. These discussions ensure anonymity and allow teens to ask questions and post comments with a quicker turn around and larger, more diverse audience.

The second part of the study analyzes topics of conversations.  Some of the most prevalent topics include questions about the best ways to use drugs and stories about how much fun teens had while drunk or high. One of the most concerning and prevelant topics has to do with things teens like to do while drunk, much of which include sex or other self-destructive behaviors.  It should be noted, however, that one of the most prevalent topics also included questions or comments teens had about how to help someone with a drug problem or where to go for help. 

Quite honestly, the study is disturbing.  It means our teens have the potential to get caught up in drug-related conversations in a way that can be informative and motivating.  Before we unplug the computer, however, we need to keep a few things in mind.  First, kids have been talking about drugs and sex for a long time. Whether it be at weekend parties, behind the bleachers, or at the mall, when kids are into drugs, they will find places to talk about it, get information, and try things out. MySpace may make that process a little easier and a little more anonymous, but it is still filled with conversations about things kids like to talk about. While this particular study brings some of the specific topics to light, keep in mind it is primarily focused on forums dedicated specifically to discussions about drug and alcohol use. What needs to be further studied, therefore, is whether or not online forums have a greater influence on kids than what they might experience in their every day face to face conversations.

The second thing to keep in mind is that parents are still the best anti-drug. Just because some of the underground behavior happens online, open conversations about drugs and sex, between parents and teens, are important and effective. 

There is no doubt, MySpace is full of garbage, pornography and easy-to-access information that can hurt our kids. We need to keep the lines of communication open.  We need to ask about what is important--both online and in real-life.  We should also keep a watchful eye out for evidence of online problems.  If your teen quickly closes a screen every time you walk by or is typing away, in private, late into the night, that may be a clue that you need to have a talk.  Teens can get into trouble in lots of different places, with a little dilegence we can help them make wise choices as they spend time online.


MySpace: To snoop or not to snoop

We've logged on.  We've created a profile.  We've found our kids' site.  So now what?  Michelle Slatalla has written a very fun article in the NYTimes entitled "OMG! Mymom joined Facebook!" (see reference cite to access the article) where she approaches the issue of teenage privacy. 

It's quite a precarious balance.  On one hand, we are protectors.  Much like a fanged mother grizzly, we are there to protect our cubs from those nasty wolves who are just waiting to eat up our innocent offspring.  On the other hand, our kids our growing up.  Just like we needed space when we were growing up, feeling entirely violated if our parents went in our room, read our journal, or listened to our phone calls, our kids need room to grow. On one hand, you and I both know MySpace and Facebook are very public spaces--our kids are writing things that lots and lots of people can see.  On the other hand, it feels private.  And not only does it feel private, but it feels like a place where they don't have to worry about being  what their parents want them to be.  On one hand, we can't be naive; our kids can get into big trouble online.  On the other hand, our kids need us to train them and, ultimately trust them to make their own choices. OK, I'm out of hands.  What's a parent to do?

From the way I see it, there are a few factors to keep in mind--maturity level and past experience.  Should we let a naive 14 year old wander around the pornographic halls of MySpace unsupervised? Are you kidding? No way.  Luckily, when they first start out, they have usually begged us for permission to have a MySpace or Facebook page. We need to make sure we use that leverage.  In exchange for access, it's easy to negotiate pretty strict rules about how it can be used and how often we will monitor the site. (The trick is to remember to keep checking their site. Quite honestly, for us middle-aged parents, it can be easy to forget) After looking at their site, it makes sense to talk about it.  Get them used to talking with you about their online life.

As kids grow up and mature, it makes sense to give them a few more priveledges--maybe checking their sites less frequently. Just like when they first get their driver's license (OMG! what a lessen in blind trust and complete loss of control!) we need to give them increasing levels of responsibility and space.  That doesn't mean we don't keep talking about it, but it does mean we stop putting comments like "hi, sweetie, hope you're having a great day, love you bunches pumpkin-buns" on their Facebook page. 

Ultimately, we want kids to have the internal tools to make good choices about what they do online. Balancing the role of protector and empowerer can be quite a tricky lesson in parenting.

(Thanks to the Savvy Technologist, Tim Wilson, for the heads up on the article)