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Obsessed with Technology: How Parents Can Protect Their Children Online

The purpose of technology is to improve our lives. And though some children and teens have struck a healthy balance between “screen” time and real-life activities, many have found that technology is actually making their lives worse.

Experts believe technology overload is leading to increased anxiety, distraction at school, poor grades and sleep deprivation among pre-teens and adolescents. Teachers have expressed concern that texting and “Internet-speak” are leading to a decline in spelling and grammar skills as well as social and interpersonal skills.

The following are a few of the most popular technologies being used by young people today.

Texting

For many pre-teens and adolescents, texting is now their primary mode of communication with friends. According to a report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, two-thirds of teen texters say they are more likely to text their friends than to talk to them by cell phone, and 53 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 text on a daily basis.

Most teens aren’t just occasional texters. The Pew report revealed that half of 12- to 17-year-olds who are texters send more than 50 texts per day, one-third send an average of 100 texts a day, and 15 percent send more than 200 texts a day.

Teens also use their cell phones to send illicit photos or “sexts,” share videos and surf the Internet. According to the Pew report, 4 percent of teens who own cell phones admit to having sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves to someone else via text, and 15 percent say they have received such sexts.

In addition to the possibility that these graphic images will be shared with people other than the intended recipient or posted on the Internet, in a handful of states, teens who sent sexts are facing charges of child pornography and sexual exploitation of a minor.

Skype and Webcams

Skype is a free service that allows users to make voice calls and send video via webcam over the Internet. Skype and similar programs are wonderful tools that allow loved ones to stay in touch from long distances, businesses to operate more efficiently, and people to connect with anyone around the world.

However, these video chat applications have also been used in less constructive ways. Most Skype communications are unregulated and untraceable, and the Internet attracts a frightening number of child predators, scam artists and other unsavory characters that teens may unknowingly come across.

Video Games

When played in moderation and at an age-appropriate level, most experts agree that video games are harmless fun. But for some teens, the appeal of the anonymous online world is difficult to resist. Whether they are drawn to mastering the game, achieving the highest score, creating an online persona or fantasy life, or chatting with other players online, some teens become obsessed with gaming.

The telltale signs of video game addiction may begin to surface, such as playing for hours at a time without regard for hygiene, eating habits, sleep, physical activity or schoolwork. Over time, teens may begin to lose interest in real-life friendships and hobbies and become completely immersed in the online world. According to a poll released by Harris Interactive, 23 percent of gamers feel addicted to video games.

Social Networking Websites

Social networking is one of the most popular ways that teens use the Internet. Most pre-teens and adolescents have Facebook or MySpace pages, but not all are using them appropriately. While social networking websites allow teens to connect with friends, they are also being used to communicate with strangers, share explicit photos, and cyberbully other kids by making harsh comments or spreading rumors on their pages. Identity theft is another serious concern that arises when teens post too much personal information online.

A report by Common Sense Media uncovered the following statistics:

  • 51% of teens check their social networking accounts more than once a day, and 22% check in more than 10 times a day
  • 39% have posted something they later regretted
  • 37% have used social networking sites to tease other students
  • 24% have hacked into someone else’s social networking account
  • 13% have posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves or others online

Keeping Your Children Safe Online

It is not the goal of most parents to prohibit their children from using cell phones and the Internet. In reality, you probably wouldn’t succeed even if you tried. But there are a few steps you can take to make sure your children are using technology responsibly.

Talk About Internet Safety. Your kids probably already know a lot about technology, but they may not know how to keep themselves safe. There are a few basic rules every child should follow when using the Internet:

  • Never give out personal information such as names, addresses, phone numbers, social plans, passwords, school names or pictures.
  • Never assume a person is who they say they are or agree to meet someone you met online in person.
  • Tell a parent or adult if any communication is inappropriate, harassing, bullying or in any way makes you feel uncomfortable.

Monitor Your Child’s Use of Technology.

Especially for children and younger teens, it is important that parents investigate any websites their children would like to use, decide if the site is appropriate and set limits surrounding the extent of use. Keeping the computer in a common area, such as the living room or kitchen, will make monitoring your children’s online behaviors easier and will discourage them from doing anything inappropriate.   
Research shows that parental monitoring has a significant impact. The latest Pew report found that monitoring and limiting a child’s text messaging has positive effects. For example, teens with involved parents are less like to report regretting a text they sent, sending sexually suggestive images by text, or getting into a car where the driver texted while driving.

Use Privacy Settings and Parental Controls.

Software tools can make it easier to track what your children see on the Internet, block objectionable content and limit the amount of personal information your children share online. While these tools can be useful, they also have limitations and should never serve as a replacement for parental monitoring.

Get Help.

You’re one or two people up against an army of technologies, each with its own risks and dangers. If your child is compulsively using their cell phone, video games, social networking sites or the Internet, sometimes the best thing is to remove them from their environment and get a fresh start.

Therapeutic boarding schools are an excellent option for children and teens whose technology use is negatively impacting their academic progress, social skills and family relationships. New Leaf Academy, a private school for girls in Oregon, gives pre-teens and adolescents an opportunity to explore their self-esteem, personal boundaries, and sense of right and wrong before being re-introduced to technology.


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