The Online Mom and Time Out Kids

The Online Mom recently spent some time with Time Out Kids Assistant Editor Julia Israel outlining some practical tips for controlling the impact of technology on younger children.

Read the Feature Article from the December issue below:

Time Out New York Kids / Issue 38 : Nov 25–Dec 30, 2008

Kids and technology

Struggling over when and how to give your offspring electronic gifts? Time Out Kids presents some ground rules.

By Julia Israel

The Yuen family are hanging out in their East Village loft one weekend afternoon when mom Artimesia’s iPhone rings. She picks it up but has trouble retrieving the call. As the iTunes jam, the applications run and the icons dance, she frantically turns and taps the screen trying to regain control—performing what she calls the “iPhone hot-potato freak-out dance.” From the corner of her eye, she spots her two preschoolers laughing at her. Once again, they have gotten to the phone when she wasn’t looking and somehow reprogrammed it.
One of the great mysteries of modern life is young children’s affinity for technology. A generation ago, parents marveled as their little ones deduced how to set a VCR’s blinking digital clock. Today’s preverbal set seems to have evolved in unison with our electronic gadgetry—tiny hands now rise out of bohemian-patterned slings to snatch at adults’ iPods and BlackBerries. Like many parents in this city, however, Artimesia has opted to keep beeping, push-button diversions out of the toy chest, preferring more “natural” playthings. At some point she’ll give in; the question is when.
Many New Yorkers choose to raise their families here because of the developmental and cultural advantages they can bestow upon their kids: tickets to Broadway shows, dim sum brunches, scavenger hunts through the Rubin Museum and twice-weekly trapeze classes. But when asked to add technology to the list of benefits, even the city’s biggest yessers sometimes say no.

Chief among parents’ concerns is their children’s health: Music played at high volume through headphones, especially earbuds, can permanently damage hearing; mobile phones emit radiation. Sexual predators and bullying are two well-publicized hazards of social-networking applications. And now that phones have all the bells and whistles of a desktop computer, parents must be especially alert. Take camera phones: Although there’s little peril in letting tykes take pictures around the house unheeded, giving them the means to send those images to friends once they trot back to their room can be dicey.

“Camera phones require a level of maturity—kids don’t necessarily think about the pictures they’re taking,” advises Monica Vila, who founded, a website that doles out technological advice to parents, and cofounded the gadget trade show Digital Life. Very young kids may photograph “their private parts,” she explains. “They’re running around thinking it’s the funniest thing, and parents don’t know where the images might end up.”

Another reason parents are unplugging the television, shutting down the computer and speed-walking past the Apple Store is their dismay at the proliferation of junk entertainment and sophisticated advertising. Like adults, city youngsters are bombarded with media every time they walk down the street, hop on the subway or take a cab. As a result, parents here cling to the few ways in which they can control the barrage of content.

While the list of tech dangers may be daunting, don’t go moving to Amish country just yet. Many parents have discovered common-sense ways to indulge and protect their kids at the same time. Vila has managed to raise a daughter who lives an active, balanced life in spite of her mastery of a preponderance of gadgets. Samantha, 9, has a Nintendo Wii, a Nintendo DS, her own user account on the home PC, a cell phone, an iPod nano and an inexpensive digital camera. She’s allowed to use the products for one hour on weeknights, and longer on weekends in the presence of her parents. The key to success, her mother says, has been establishing codes of conduct for using each device.

“When I gave Sammy an iPod, I said, ‘This is how you’re going to care for it,’” Vila says. “Each time parents consider a purchase—for gaming, music, laptops or cell phones—they need to lay out the rules clearly.”

Follow the tips below and your plugged-in munchkin should be a-okay.

Act like a child
As a general rule, parents and young kids should play with new gadgets together. “Just as most parents want to know about the books their kids are reading, they should understand deeply what their children are thinking and feeling as they play with technology,” says Cornelia Brunner, deputy director of the Center for Children and Technology, an education development organization in Manhattan.

Listen in
To safeguard little eardrums, encourage kids to plug iPods into a speaker system when listening at home. “Even if you as a parent have to hear Hannah Montana a hundred times a day, it’s worth it,” says Vila.
Cover their ears
Away from home, have youngsters use bone-conduction earbuds. These sit in front of the ear rather than inside it (Alljoy has a set that sells for $60; Audio Bone’s versions begin at $189). Though adults have complained about their sound quality, children won’t notice the difference. Parents can also lock the volume on an iPod. Loretta Radice, who owns the Techno Team, a technology education center on the Upper West Side, suggests setting the sound to “about halfway or slightly above.”
Block bad vibes
Insist that cell phones be used only for emergencies until middle school. Even then, says Vila, to protect developing brains from radiation, have kids make emergency calls on the speaker-phone setting. A tween who wants to chat at home should use a landline.
No pictures, please
Have kids use a cell phone that’s camera-free until they reach sixth grade and have begun to comprehend propriety. You can also guard against your children accessing inappropriate content by having them store and charge the phone in a communal space at home—no Web-browsing in bed.

Keep it clean
Make sure every video and computer game your child plays has an E (for Everyone) or E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) rating. If he’s heading over to a friend’s house, it’s not out of line for you to call the parents in advance to make sure they follow the same policy. “Going outside the ratings in video games is the number one no-no, yet a lot of parents allow it anyway,” says Vila. “If a rating says T [for Teen], it’s there for a reason.”
Take control
All personal computers should be kept in a communal space where you can casually monitor activity. In addition, activate parental controls until your kid reaches high school. Both Apple and Microsoft Vista come with comprehensive programs; Apple’s can even be accessed remotely, so you can see what your darling is doing from another room—or another state.
Teach self-control
That said, don’t count on parental controls to serve as magical protection from the Internet. Even with the fanciest programs up and running, it’s wise to sit down and talk to your kids about sites that are safe to visit and those they should avoid, what porn and spam look like, and other ways to determine a website or program’s appropriateness. “You can’t block everything,” says Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology. “It’s far better to help your child develop perspective on different kinds of content. There’s just no [software] solution to this world we live in.”

Whether your children embrace various forms of technology today or in the future, “at some point,” says Carla Fisher, a children’s technology and game developer and an education researcher, “they have to learn how to deal with it.” That’s why taking these outlined steps—while time-consuming and perhaps more than a little intimidating—is worthwhile. Plus, says Brunner, kids can acquire real benefits from playing with gadgets. “Technology is a patient playmate. It doesn’t mind repeating things,” she says. “And it enables kids to become involved in a rich, imaginative fantasy world.”
Best of all, it’s exactly what they want for the holidays.

This article is reproduced with kind permission of Time Out New York Kids
Copywright © 2000-2008 Time Out New York Kids

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