Article at a Glance
• Technology is changing the way our children think and interact with others.
• Parents can better prepare their children for this digital society by keeping up with trends and setting healthy boundaries.
• Giving your children a cell phone can expose them to things like pornography, sexting, gambling, and online predators. Make sure they are prepared and take steps to protect them from dangers that they aren’t old enough to handle.

Have you ever noticed that when you call a teenager on their cell phone, they never pick up? But when you text them, it takes them under 30 seconds to text you back. Or do your children seem to go into shock if separated from their cell phone?

Technology is changing our children in dramatic ways. As parents it is sometimes all we can do to just keep up. It is also making the generation gap seem more daunting than ever.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in a 2010 study that the average child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends more than 7.5 hours each day using some kind of electronic media like watching TV, listening to music, using the computer, playing videos games, or using a cell phone. And forty percent of teenagers multitask between various kinds of media at the same time.

The jury is still out on what effect this will have on developing brains, but researchers are concerned that although it may lead to faster response times, it may also affect the brain’s ability to focus on one thing for very long.

Many children are feeling very overwhelmed by the amount of information they process each day and aren’t really sure how to disconnect. Schools are currently not prepared or equipped to teach our children what they need to know about online safety and ethics. So it falls on our shoulders to keep up with current trends and make sure our children develop a healthy relationship with technology.

Parents have no problem telling their children when to get home and where they are and are not allowed to go, but this digital landscape is such a new concept to many of us that we aren’t sure how to set up limits. However, it is just as important to set up boundaries here as it is anywhere else.

If you are feeling a little overwhelmed, here are a few things to watch for and talk about with your child.

What They Can and Cannot Do
It is helpful to give your children a list of rules and expectations when they are online. The younger you do this, the easier it will be to enforce later. Some good things to cover are:

  • Don’t share your personal information online.
  • Don’t interact with strangers online. People aren’t always what they seem, especially when they can hide behind an online persona.
  • Don’t ever meet with anybody in person who you have meet online.
  • Do be kind to others. Remember that even though you are staring at a computer screen, there is another person involved.
  • Do stand up for others. Don’t allow others to be bullied.
  • Do ask for help if things get out of hand. Let your child know that you are there to respectfully help them resolve any issues.
  • Do use discretion when online. The Internet can keep a permanent record that can come back to bite you later.
  • Do learn how to recognize inappropriate sites.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Social media has dramatically changed the high school experience. According to a study published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in November 2011, 95 percent of teens (ages 12-17) are online and out of those 80 percent are using social media sites.

According to the study, most teens report that their experiences with social media have been positive and have made them feel good about themselves and closer to others. A full 69 percent say that their peers are also generally kind to others.

But it isn’t all good news. Teens are still having bad experiences and 88 percent of teens reported having seen others be cruel online.

At its worse, children sometimes become subject to cyber-bullying—when somebody under-aged is harassed, embarrassed, threatened, or targeted by another minor via the Internet, cell phone, or other digital technology. It can wreck havoc on a child’s self-esteem and lead to depression and desperate behavior.

Watch for the signs of cyber-bullying—depression, stress, and anxiety. You may notice that your child is avoiding using the phone or dreads going to school.
Parents should let their children know that they can talk to them if they or somebody they know becomes a victim of cyber-bullying. They should also know that cyber-bulling is unacceptable in your family.

Handling Cyber Addiction
Studies have found that receiving texts on our cell phones or posts on our Facebook wall can become addictive. It causes our brains to release a burst of dopamine; the neurotransmitter that controls our reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also plays a role in many other addictive behaviors. Overtime, we become hooked to this stimulus.

If you or your child have to check your phone or Facebook page every night before you go to bed or every morning when you wake up, you may be suffering from cyber-addiction. If so, make sure you set time aside in your day to unplug. Find another activity you enjoy and turn off your phone. If you are spending time with somebody and find that you keep checking texts instead of paying attention to the conversation, turn off your phone. Some families have set up cyber-free zones (like in the car or kitchen) so that they can have time to communicate with each other. Many parents find it helpful to turn off cell phones at night and to keep all technology out of the bedrooms.

In April 2010, the Pew Internet and American Life Project did a study on how teens used their mobile phones. One of the things they found was that teens prefer sending texts over talking, particularly if they were communicating with their friends. They like texting because:

It isn’t as obtrusive: Unlike a conversation, you can text while doing something else at the same time. It makes it easier for people to multitask. It is especially helpful if you just want to send a quick message about something without having an entire conversation.

It also allows people to communicate where a conversation might be inappropriate, for example in a movie theater or in class. It also allows us to keep conversations more discrete, without others in the room knowing what is being said.

It acts as a buffer: People like to avoid confrontation. Texting allows us to deliver bad news without having to deal with the reaction. It is hard to cry, yell or lecture via text. It also allows you to have more time to think about your response in a difficult situation.

It helps us stay connected:
Teens receive a lot of their self-identity from their peers. Texting allows them to stay constantly connected to what their friends are saying or thinking.

Texting has definitely changed the way children communicate with each other, and even how parents communicate with their children. Researchers worry that texting so much may make it harder for children to learn how to be alone or how to create space between them and peers or parents.

They also worry that texting is interfering with our development of social skills, like the ability to have a meaningful conversation or how to read vocal or facial cues.

If you are worried that your children are texting too much, it is okay to set up boundaries. Talk to your children about some of the disadvantages of texting and some of the ways you can help them disconnect.

What Are Your Children Ready For?
Cell phones definitely have their advantages. They are a great way to stay in contact with our children and for some children it is an important part of their social life. But handing over a cell phone to a child can also expose them to things you would never dream of showing your child. It opens up a whole world of online dangers like pornography, sexting, gambling, and online predators. Even a simple phone can receive things like pornography via text messaging.

Are you aware of the dangers and how to protect your children? Did you know that many phone companies allow you to turn off things like sending pictures via text or to limit the times your child is allowed to use the phone? Do you know what your children are doing when they are using the phone?

Are your children prepared for the dangers? Have you talked to them about what is out there and how to avoid it? Are they developmentally ready to deal with what they can access on their cell phone?

Many experts suggest that children should not receive a cell phone until they are at the very least ten years old. If they need one for a medical issue, find a cell phone that will only allow them to make calls. You can even purchase plans that limit the numbers your child can dial on the phone.

Keeping Up With Technology
Although it is overwhelming, parents should actively work on keeping up with technology. It will allow them to more readily identify the dangers that are out there and how to teach their children to deal with them.

It may also allow you to better connect with your children. Technology has changed the way our children are thinking and interacting with others. Understanding how our children think and use technology will make it easier to understand them and what motivates them.

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Bridging the Digital Gap

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