A photography exhibit currently on display at the Rick Wester Fine Art Gallery in New York features a haunting collection by photographer Eric Pickersgill. Called “Removed” the series captures individuals, couples and families within scenes of routine life all engaged in the act of looking at their personal technology devices. What makes the images so disturbing is the photographer has cleverly removed the devices so the subjects are shown fixatedly staring into empty voids, seemingly  oblivious to their loved ones and the world around them.

As I write this on the family computer, it is Saturday afternoon and the oldest of my three sons is shouting into his Xbox Live head set in the midst of a game with school friends. My middle son is watching back episodes of ‘Parks and Recreation’ (his new favorite show) via Netflix on his I pad. My youngest is at the ball field for baseball practice, his cell phone tucked into his bag should he need to reach me before pick up time.  This scenario, like Pickersgill’s photographs, shows how seamlessly technology has become woven into the fabric of our lives. Evermore we rely on it to enhance our productivity, connect us to one another, and entertain us.

Like anything, there are positives and negatives to this. Some positives: Doing school work on Google Drive has all but made lost assignments a thing of the past in our house; the Internet has made research for school projects a breeze, and I can’t deny the added comfort of a phone call or text from my child to let me know they reached their destination when we are separated. The negatives: Cyber-bullying, over use (hey those games and apps are fun, but addicting), and access to inappropriate material. We’ve all heard horror stories of kids who have made bad decisions regarding the use of social media.

As we know, the tween years are a time of enormous growth and change accompanied by an increasing quest for freedom and independence in many arenas, the ever changing, exciting and sometimes perilous world of technology among them. As parents we must seek to strike a good balance between providing limits, oversight and support and allowing our children the opportunity to develop into the safe, savvy technology citizens they will need to become to conduct themselves effectively in today’s world.

This series will offer advice on how to do just that, with part one exploring Internet safety and how to maintain a healthy, balanced use of technology when it has permeated so many parts of our lives. Part two will focus on the issue of cell phones, how to decide when it’s appropriate for your child to have one and how to teach them to use it safely. Part three will discuss issues surrounding gaming and apps popular among the tween set.

Two things we can all agree on are technology is here to stay and it is always changing. The good news is that during the early tween years the window is still open to maintain the dialogue you are likely already having with your child about technology and its healthy, safe use.

Part One: Internet Safety

Technology has been a part of our tweens’ lives since the beginning. Who among us hasn’t shared an I pad with their toddler to prevent a grocery store meltdown, popped in a movie during a family road trip, or used a computer phonics game to help reinforce early reading skills? They likely don’t remember a time without it. As they’ve grown, so has the sophistication of their skills and their hunger for more access to the wonders of tech. But does being born into this tech driven environment mean we’re raising a generation of overly wired tech robots, content to live in a virtual rather than actual world?

No. Thanks to children’s’ natural curiosity about the world around them and caring parents who share their love of books, museums, the wonders of nature, and the benefits of fresh air and daily exercise, our kids are pretty well rounded. When you think about it, you have worked since the beginning to provide a healthy balance and ensure technology enhances rather than eclipses your child’s experience.

Fortunately, research reflects this.

According to a recent op-ed by UCLA psychologist and researcher Yalda T. Uls, after 10 years of research, studies consistently show that technology is not stunting the emotional or social intelligence of our children. Citing historical examples of past parental panic such as the introduction of the radio in the 1930s and television in the 1950s, Uls’ message is that there has always been new technology that generates fear from parents and experts about how it might negatively affect our children’s development.  She tells us even the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published new guidelines for media and technology use stating quality tech content is more important than time spent, that online relationships are essential for adolescent development, and like every environment children need careful supervision to navigate it safely. Uls counsels, “Let’s help them make the most of this new place they love, while continuing to teach them the importance of face-time, discipline and moderation.”

So it’s clear balance is key, but what other steps can we take to ensure a healthy, safe relationship with technology?

Centralize Location

All experts agree the family computer should occupy a central location and that children should not have access to the Internet behind closed doors.  This ensures that parents can monitor online activity and increases the opportunity for positive communication about issues as they arise.

Add Parental Controls

Check your Internet provider for parental control settings that will block inappropriate content. You can also access controls under System Preferences on Apple computers and on the Control Panel in Windows, which can block specific sites and set time limits on hours spent online.

Make Clear Rules

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, here are some rules for basic Internet safety:

  • Never give out personal information without parental permission.
  • Never share passwords with anyone, including friends.
  • Never meet someone from the Internet.
  • Never respond to messages that make you feel uncomfortable. Alert a parent immediately.
  • Never write something online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in face-to-face conversation.
  • Never write anything hurtful or that could make someone look bad.
  • Alert kids that messages should NEVER contain pictures of people without their clothes on, kissing, or touching each other in ways they have never seen before and if they see such a message or image, tell a parent.

Limit Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to 1-2 hours per day.

Encourage Communication

Communicate with your children regarding Internet use. If you see a news story that involves misuse of social media, cyber bullying or online predators who misrepresented themselves online to commit crimes, discuss the story with your child, not to scare them but to convey realities and consequences of bad choices. Make certain they know that what goes out into cyberspace stays out in cyberspace…forever. When they get older let them know that “sexting” (texts including pictures of naked people or those engaged in sex acts) is considered pornography and a crime and will result in serious consequences.

In addition to openly communicating with your child, communicate with other parents, especially those of your children’s friends to learn what sites are popular among them and how their peers are using them.

Finally, encourage communication on-line as well. If your tween asks to join a social media platform such as Instagram and you allow it, make a rule he or she must ‘friend’ you as well. One parent said, “My kids have to friend my husband, myself and their aunts, uncles and cousins. Not only does it give me peace of mind, but we’re in closer touch with distant family.”

Model Positive Behavior

Pay attention to how you use the Internet when in the presence of your children. Don’t spend too much time on line surfing the web or shopping. Make a family policy of no cell phone use during meals and never text while driving.

Watch for Warning Signs

Be alert for signs of trouble such as using the computer too often, attempting to spend time on line in private, combative behavior when you turn the computer off or falling grades. If you think Internet addiction might be a possibility, speak to your pediatrician.

The role technology will play in our lives in the future will no doubt only increase. As parents we must stay vigilant in our role as guides for our children as they explore the ever changing, exciting technology frontier. These steps will help ensure your tween will grow into a competent, thoughtful citizen of this frontier whose life will be enriched by all it has to offer.

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