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Technology and Your Kids: How Much is Too Much?

By C.J. Renner

Our parents had it easy... the television was the only brain-warping device they needed to pry us away from (and frankly, the shows weren't that good anyway). But today, we as parents have a bigger arsenal of exciting technology to contend with; not only the maniacal sponges and pre-teen rockers of kids' TV, but thrill-a-minute video games, mp3 players worn all day, cell phones ringing off the hook (with the latest rap ringtone), and now texting - texting in the car, texting on the couch, texting at the dinner table - Whew, so what's a parent to do?

You've got a feeling that the techy side of your child is out of hand, and you're hearing more and more horror stories (cell phone bills with five-thousand text charges on them, MySpace pages with inappropriate pictures posted on the internet, and video games teaching skewed morals). But the kids are always quick to point out how normal their tech usage is.

So how can we battle back, get our kids outside for a little fresh air, convince them to just talk to their friends tomorrow at school instead of texting from the bathroom? Okay, first off, take a breath... Even if it may seem like it sometimes, children aren't using their cell phones, IPods, and video games just to get under our skin. Kids use them because they're fun (and even sometimes because they're practical). So instead of seeing this as trying to keep your kids from doing what they want to do, try to look at it as figuring out what kids are using the technology for, and helping them achieve that without denying their non-virtual selves.

The question becomes, how can we as parents become more tech-savvy for our kids' benefit? The first (and sometimes difficult) step is to understand, at least at a rudimentary level, the technology your kids are using - How do you send a text message? What's the difference between a Nintendo Wii and an Xbox 360? What exactly does an IPod do? Don't bother going to the library to find this stuff out, just ask your kids.

Once you have a basic knowledge of these technologies, it's time to figure out how your kids are using them. Dave Kust, the Academic Technology Coordinator at Breck Lower/Middle School in Golden Valley, MN, and father of a pre-teen, a tween, and a teenager, suggests that parents look at the low-tech side of the situation: By limiting his kids' screen time (a term he uses for time spent in front of a TV, video game, or computer) and putting the computer in family area, as opposed to a child's room, he is able to keep an eye on what websites they're viewing or games they're playing. He believes that by being firm but understanding, parents can go a long way to keeping their kids from becoming screen addicted.

Low Tech Tips:
• Consider the location of personal computers
• Make a plan for amount of screen time per day - ask for your kids' input. Should they get more time on weekends? What if they have a school project that requires typing or internet research?
• Be able to say "no." Cell phones, computers, and video games are a privilege.

Getting to know your kids has never been so easy and fun. Do you think your daughter would give you the eye-roll if you asked what her favorite music group is? Then check out her MySpace page, not only will she have her favorite bands listed, but you'll be able to click on their names to be taken to their MySpace pages where you can sample their music. Imagine when she brings that Coldplay CD into the car and you can say "Let's listen to track five, I like the piano on that one." If she doesn't have a MySpace page, ask if you can listen to her IPod sometime, maybe she could recommend a couple songs you might like on it. Are you pretty convinced your son doesn't like to read? Check out his MySpace page (or blog) to see what his favorite books are. It'll show his favorite movies too. And while you're at the computer, head over to www.imdb.com and type in his favorite movie. You'll be able to see a list of trivia about the movie - so the next time he throws in "Star Wars," you can tell him that originally the producers wanted Christopher Walken to play Han Solo.

Tips for internet use:
• Inform your kids that once they post something on the internet, it's "out there." If your son puts an embarrassing Halloween picture of himself on his MySpace page, anyone can download it or print it out - just because you took it down, doesn't mean it went away.
• Consider using education-only search engines (such as www.nettrekker.com) for school projects.
• Ask where your kids are going on the internet, sit and watch which games they're playing or which blogs they're visiting.
• Don't assume that telling your kids rules about internet use once will stick - keep a running conversation with them about how they're using the internet.

What makes much of this technology so addicting to kids is its social appeal. If your teen is eager to chat with his/her friends via text message or E-mail, you should think about initiating a conversation in those mediums. Writing correspondence can be a less intimidating (although your kids might say "less dorky") way to communicate for kids.

If you know the techy side of your kids, you'll put yourself in a position to make informed judgment calls about how and how much they should be using their cell phones, video games, computers, etc. And hey, if you have questions or need advice regarding your kids' use of technology - google it!

Categories: School-Age, Tweens, Teens, Children,

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