Born In The Internet Age

If your child was born in the 21st century, the things that make up her everyday life are markedly different from the things you grew up with. The phone is no longer tethered to a wall, but can be carried all over the house, or all over town. And it's no longer just for talking, but for sending text messages and photos, playing games and surfing the Web. The television is not a big black box, but a movie-like screen on the wall - or a handheld device loaded with your favorite shows.

While these devices are now a staple of adult life, young children view them more as sophisticated toys. That's not a bad thing: It fosters a comfort level with technology that many adults struggle to achieve. (Remember how many people had 12:00 perpetually blinking on their VCRs?)

Double-edged sword?

All those gadgets - with their constant presence and fast-paced streams of information - are taken for granted by the youngest members of the household. So much so that we often don't realize how much screen time they are getting: a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report estimated that children age 6 and younger spend an average of two hours each day with computers, TV and video.

That level of exposure can have a profound effect on a child's development. Some experts believe the rapid-fire images of visual media can lead to attention disorders later in life. Other studies link too much screen time to childhood obesity.

Despite the potential dangers, some educators note that technology can improve cognitive and relational skills. Trusted resources such as PBS Kids can do a great job of introducing the Internet to children in a familiar context.

At home and on the go

Not only is technology a part of the home lives of our children, they are increasingly part of life away from home. The laptop - with either a wireless modem or built-in DVD player - lets us bring the Internet or entertainment on the road. Our children don't understand the concept of waiting to get home to use the phone - it comes with us. And video games - which we parents played on a home television or - gasp! - at an arcade - are portable enough to tuck into a backpack or hoodie pocket. And as wireless devices offer more connectivity, chances are that exposure will increase, across all age ranges.

What we should understand, from our own experience of growing up with the hot new things of our youth, is that technology doesn't go away. It's our responsibility to manage our children's use of tech devices. Some tips:

  • Set limits on computer, television and video game use. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one or two hours a day for young children.
  • Set a good example. Think about your own use of cell phones and other wireless devices: What example are you setting?
  • Resist peer pressure: Your second-grader may want a Nintendo DS, but is it the right time? Can he take care of expensive gadgets, or will he break it or just leave it on the school bus?
  • Stay a step ahead: Keep current on technology and the latest gadgets, so you know where the dangers lie and can make informed decisions.

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