Not so long ago, my two sons were content to play with train sets and Tonka trucks for hours on end. Flash forward a few years, and suddenly we are inundated with what I call the “iWants.”
What are the “iWants?” They are the seemingly never-ending requests for the latest and greatest gadget, including but not limited to, the iTouch, iPad, and most recently, the iPhone. Then, of course, there are the “iTunes” gift cards that must accompany these devices, lest your child “accidentally” download $200 worth of apps. “But Mom, I thought they were free!” Don’t get me wrong. I am not averse to technology in general, or to kids occasionally unwinding with age-appropriate video games. Having recently been turned on to the maddening and addictive Candy Crush, trust me, I understand the appeal. What bothers me about this virtual playground in which our children freely romp is much larger than simply crushing candies or catapulting birds. What bothers me is that they open doors that I don’t think my two sons, ages 9 and 11, are ready to walk through just yet, or, perhaps more accurately, that I am not ready for them to walk through just yet. Specifically? The world of online social interaction via texting, “Facebooking,” chatting, “instagraming”… the list goes on and on.
I hear firsthand horror stories from friends whose children have been the target of online bullying via social media. Smart phones are like weapons in the hands of a child who can instantly upload an image and destroy a life in mere seconds. Think that’s an exaggeration? Ask the parents of 15-year-old Audrie Pott, the young lady who killed herself after photographs of her alleged rape at a party went viral. Bullying aside, there are other aspects of cyberworld that I find hard to swallow, namely the fact that it is killing one-on-one communication. At the risk of sounding old, I remember when “hanging out” involved a large group of friends, lots of chatter and plenty of laughter.
Now, I see kids “hanging out,” and the silence is punctuated only by the “ping” of text message alerts. Teens message one another to ask for a date, and they speak in abbreviated terms. I actually had one friend’s child tell me, “OMG that was so funny I LOL’d.” And who hasn’t witnessed a family “eating” together, each one bent over an electronic device without ever exchanging a word?
My sons were among the last in their classes (or so they repeatedly told me) to get a coveted “i” device in the form of an iTouch. Of course, that was only the gateway drug. This past Christmas, we relented and purchased an iPad, based on a rather persuasive argument that it would make summer reading much easier to accomplish while on vacation. Clever, those 9-year-olds! We are still holdouts on any type of cell phone, simply because our lifestyle doesn’t demand that our children need one yet, and any form of social media is forbidden.
In addition, a list of rules and restrictions accompanied these devices, including but not limited to:
Parental approval of any app downloads and/or songs
Parental approval of any “friends” with whom you can play an interactive game
No electronic devices at the table or in restaurants, period
We know it is a matter of time before the smartphone will rear its ugly head. In fact, the need for the oldest son to “get some numbers” in order to ask young ladies to school dances next year is already a hot topic. (“Mom, I can’t just write them down! How embarrassing!”) In preparation, I have asked friends what rules and guidelines they have in place for smartphone and social media usage and here are just a few:
Set up your child’s account in such a way that all texts come to your phone as well as his or hers.
Make sure that your child adds you as a friend on any and all social media platforms, and check them frequently.
Set parental controls on all devices, including the home computer.
Dock all phones and electronic devices (including those of guests) in your room at a designated hour, especially in the case of sleepovers.
While all of these rules are important, perhaps the most important is an open line of communication. Explain to your child how one seemingly harmless mistake can have far-reaching consequences, and that posts, texts and photos sent into cyberspace are hard if not impossible to retrieve before the damage is done.
The website www.commonsensemedia.com has media agreements divided into age groups that can help families navigate the bumpy terrain of cyberland. Use them as conversation starters, guidelines or binding contracts between you and your children. And remember, you lose credibility when you tell your child to put his device away at the table as you quickly respond to that “one last work e-mail” on yours. Children learn by example, so practice what you preach.