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Bridge The Digital Gap With Your Kids

6:56 AM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
Six-year-old twins Casey (left) and Parker Dowling have used digital devices all of their lives. Their mother, Meredith Marx, says she encourages them to crack open books, play outside and sit down to play board games, as well. (Photo: Edgar Artiga)
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Deborah Méndez Wilson, Special for USA TODAY

Meredith Marx remembers family game night and how she, her brother and their parents gathered around the dining room table to talk, laugh and move game pieces around the boards. It was a fun way to reconnect and unwind.

Try as she might, it's become much harder for the Baltimore-area mom to create similar memories for her 6-year-old twins, Casey and Parker. The exuberant kindergartners have been surrounded by technology all of their lives. They bounced to Baby Einstein CDs, learned Spanish from Dora the Explorer, and are reading at a first-grade level thanks to their Leapster pads. They are adept at getting to games and apps on mom's iPhone and grandma's iPad.

Though she came of age in the "wired" 1990s, Marx worries that all of the gadgets surrounding her daughters are too isolating, and are taking them away from precious family time.

"I had video games when I was a kid, and it was fun, but now there's so much more out there that monopolizes people's time," says the radio traffic reporter, who is in her early 30s. "I don't know if kids today would get by without knowing these things. It's becoming all electronic. The only thing electronic I had was the board game Operation."

Marx is not alone in wondering how our increasingly technology-focused world is affecting her children and other "digital natives." Parenting can seem daunting in the digital era. Smartphones, tablets, apps and social networking have transformed how people work, play and communicate. Parents who don't keep up with the changes can feel like they are standing at the precipice of a widening technological gulf. They don't want to lose their ability to stay close to their children and guide them to a successful, healthy future.

According to a survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010, children between the ages of 8 and 18 spent more than 53 hours a week on electronic media. In a typical day, they devoted seven hours and 38 minutes listening to music, watching TV and movies, playing video games and hanging out online, with many multitasking and using two forms of media at once.

Roles and responsibilities

Scant data exists on the effects of newer digital media on children and adolescents, experts say. The growing ubiquity of mobile digital devices-and the videos, music, games and other online content they provide-seems to beg a re-examination of the roles and responsibilities of parents and children in all of this.

In a clinical report titled "The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families," the American Academy of Pediatrics took note of the benefits social media can have, including socialization and communication as well as enhanced learning opportunities, but it warned that parents may not truly understand this integral part of their children's lives.

Parents "frequently do not have the technical abilities or time needed to keep pace with their children in the ever-changing Internet landscape," says the study. "In addition, these parents often lack a basic understanding that kids' online lives are an extension of their offline lives. The end result is often a knowledge and technical skill gap between parents and youth, which creates a disconnect in how these parents and youth participate in the online world together."

Kevin Everhart, a licensed psychologist and director of the Psychological Services Center for the University of Colorado-Denver Clinical Health Psychology Program, has treated children who have accessed online pornography, and others who are coping with video gaming and other Internet dependencies. He has seen firsthand how unbridled access to such information and activities can disrupt young lives.

"If parents are not aware of the kinds of images that kids actually do access through digital media, what ends up happening is there's sort of a burden for a child for attempting to cope with what they are seeing, along with not telling their parents because they are concerned they'll get in trouble. This is seen with pornography and also seen with violent images, blatant images of violence and death," Everhart says.

In the end, he concedes that no one really knows how free and open access to so much information on the Web will, in fact, affect children and teens over the long run. "We don't know what the verdict is for what this cohort (generation) is going to endure, or what they are going to be like, but we are actually in a place where we are not going to be able to keep our children from some exposure to things we don't want them to be exposed to," the psychologist adds.

The good news is that parents, teachers, and health-care providers can still rely on many of the tried-and-true tactics that worked in the past when it comes to protecting children from the pitfalls of the digital world, including open communication, consistent expectations, positive reinforcement, constructive consequences and values that prompt responsible behavior.

As with anything else, when it comes to technology, "We have to learn it, understand it, and above all, use our moral compass and our values to guide our children as best we can," Everhart says.

Dana Lauren Berry of Centennial, Colo., has seen the benefits of digital technology in her children's lives. Her sons, Connor, 5, and Lawson, 2, each own an iPad and navigate their way easily to apps and educational games that have improved their ability to recognize letters, spell, rhyme and match images.

"Kids today seem so much smarter," says Berry, a public relations manager for a hotel in Denver. "Technology is so portable, it makes it easier for learning on the go."

However, Berry and her husband, John, limit the time their children watch TV and use their iPads, and encourage them to do puzzles, read books, and play games like Candy Land and Memory.

"As adults we spend so much time in front of screens. I feel children should get to be children," Berry says. "Regular play and physical activities come first. We spend a lot of time at our neighborhood park."

Technology always scrutinized

As quaint as it seems now, transistor radios worried post-World War II parents. For the first time, teenagers could listen to what they wanted when they wanted, without their parents' input. Transistors supercharged the rock 'n' roll era, and the career of a swivel-hipped singer named Elvis. With each passing decade, technology-from television, movies and music to video games and the Internet-has been scrutinized for its effects, both good and bad, on children and adolescents.

That scrutiny has since turned to smartphones, tablets, laptops, MP3 players and other digital devices that enable people to communicate with each other 24/7 by text, voice, photo or video. Children and adolescents can access the Web anytime, anywhere and without "PLOS"-parents looking over their shoulders-and they do, sometimes with embarrassing and tragic results.

In addition to peer pressure, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy, families now have to contend with "Facebook depression" when children feel their Web personas don't measure up to the real world, cyber bullying and sexting-the sharing of nude photos and videos via mobile devices.

"The adolescent brain is not fully mature until age 25 or so," says University of New Mexico professor of pediatrics Victor C. Strasburger, author of Children, Adolescents, and the Media. "Our job as parents is to limit the damage."

Both traditional media and newer digital technologies have the power to affect virtually every concern parents have about their children, including aggressive behavior, sleep, obesity, early sexual activity, drug taking and academic achievement, Strasburger says.

"Parking your kids in front of the TV set, the computer screen or iPad screen has risks. They are not very good electronic babysitters," he says. "In the day-to-day hustle and bustle of raising children, parents completely forget about that. They think their kids are safe in their bedrooms watching TV or online, and they are not."

Challenges of social media

Social networking, perhaps more than any other issue, is raising new questions for families. Facebook, Twitter and other sites are drawing disparate networks of people into our physical and online lives. Relatives, friends, classmates, co-workers and acquaintances are intersecting and colliding, and everyone is negotiating a new sense of what is public and what is private. At the same time, children and adolescents are pushing the envelope of self expression, and parents wonder if they should intercede publicly, or step back and allow their children to forge their own identities and make mistakes in public, however painful and embarrassing.

In the past, homes and schools provided relatively safe learning grounds for children as they figured out who they were and how to interact with teachers, family and peers.

Now, "all that experimentation is being done online," says Michele H. Jackson, associate professor of communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. "They are working out how to flirt and how much sarcasm is too much sarcasm."

Of course, it's not all bad, experts concede. Technology is opening up new worlds of creativity, innovation, and communication in education, science, medicine, business and the arts. It is driving social and political revolutions and exposing people around the globe to new narratives, perspectives and ideas. People are solving problems, collaborating, learning, and communicating better.

To keep children engaged in the positive aspects of our connected world, experts advise parents to establish guidelines for what is and isn't acceptable in their own family, and talk to their children about the consequences of risky behavior. Parents should also model good online protocols for their children, learn as much as they can about the technology their children rely on, and encourage their children to talk openly about their experiences without fear of severe retribution or consequences.

Technology can enrich our lives, says psychologist Everhart but "that's not going to change you wanting to have a hug at the end of the day," he says.

For hands-on parents like Marx, it's something to keep in mind as she encourages her daughters to crack books, play outside and sit down to play board games.

"It's all about raising kids with good judgment," she says.

This article was excerpted from USA TODAY's Guide to Kids' Health magazine, available through USA TODAY's online store. The premium publication features articles on kids' wellness, nutrition, fashion and more.



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