Parents, kids and gadgets

Managing the upside/downside of technology in the lives of children

 

By Nicholas Dean
● By two years old, 90% of U.S. children have an online history via parents, including sonograms, online photo history from birth, mentions on social network sites, etc. The average age of first Internet use is three years old. By five years old, 50% of children have interacted with a computer or mobile device. cnn.com, 5/21/13
● Between ages 8 and 18, American children spend an average of seven hours a day accessing various media (tv, computer, mobile device). kff.org, 1/20/10
● Young people ages 13-24 spend an average of 16.7 hours a week online, excluding e-mail. nbcnews.com, 7/24/13
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If you have a child and a gadget with a touchscreen or keyboard, chances are the two have encountered each other. In fact, iPads and similar devices frequently make for impromptu babysitters these days. Besides, who doesn’t like to see the smile on a child’s face as he delights in the vibrant, interactive interface of the screen in front of him?

However, Paul Stoute was probably not so amused when his 14-month-old daughter purchased a car on eBay while playing on Dad’s iPhone. Sharon Kitchen likely shared Stoute’s displeasure when her 5-year-old son unwittingly spent over $2,500 in the span of 10 minutes on his parents’ iPad while playing a game he thought was free.

The truth of the matter is that there are many pros and cons, many risks and benefits, of giving children access to technology.

The good
Among the greatest benefits of giving children access to technology are those that occur in the classroom. For students with learning disabilities or who are generally disinterested in school, technology can offer an engaging, incentivizing pathway to learning. Over the past decade, numerous studies have attempted to explore and explain the benefits of technology to students with disabilities.

A recent Learn NC report from University of North Carolina pointed to physical disabilities in particular, saying, “For children with physical disabilities, technology can give access to learning opportunities previously closed to them. E-readers help students turn book pages without applying dexterity, and voice adaptive software can help students answer questions without needing to write.”

Benefits like those would be particularly useful for students with say, cerebral palsy or other musculomotor disorders. Studies have also demonstrated that integration of technology in the educational experience has helped children with autism and developmental delays catch up with other students their age and even be in the same class – perhaps for the first time in their lives.

The potential educational benefits are not exclusive to children with disabilities. Students who are simply disinterested may discover a newfound interest in learning with the cool, fun and engaging activities available through devices like iPads. Moreover, if the same device used for learning also offers a reward, then students will develop a mindset that learning has its rewards. Perhaps eventually, learning can even be seen as its own reward.

The bad
While utilizing technology for educational purposes clearly has benefits for young students, there can be too much of a good thing. If the use of technology is relied upon too heavily and is not supplemented with other, perhaps more “old-fashioned” learning activities, students may grow dependent on or even addicted to the technology they are using. When that happens, instead of helping to make thriving students, the use of technology may create a classroom full of students who cannot focus, have poor memory and even poor social skills. (See “Addicted,” AFA Journal, 7-8/13.)

Another huge risk of heavy reliance on technology has to do with parents mistaking their tablets, computers or smartphones as acceptable babysitters for their children. To be clear, devices do not make acceptable babysitters or substitute parents. Not only will using them as such feed unhealthy relational dynamics between parent and child, but parents may also risk financial loss like the parents introduced earlier. Still by far the biggest risk of making this sort of mistake is the highly vulnerable state in which children may find themselves.

The ugly
This is the part no writer wants to write about, and no parent wants to read about: the victimization of children. When we trust children with a device or the Internet, we are, in a way, entrusting them to the world that shares access to the Internet. And over the past 18 years, the Internet has exploded exponentially, both in terms of usage and content, and it has done so at an incredible pace. Consequently, it is a bit like a brick house that has been poorly built as quickly as possible – it lacks the necessary structural integrity. There are weak points, holes and back doors that can be manipulated by the technologically literate.

Consider the bricklayer trying to meet an unreasonable deadline. He adds brick after brick, but skimps on the mortar between them. So for every brick added, the house becomes more and more unsound. Similarly, we have added program after program, website after website, info page after info page to the Internet. But we’ve done so without providing the security needed for each addition.

This means every app, every program, every website and every info page will have blind spots that can be exploited by identity thieves, government agencies and, worst of all, child predators. According to a video statement by FBI assistant director Shawn Henry, “At any given time, there are an estimated 750,000 child predators online – and they have a key to your house via the Internet.”

With our security-lacking, tech-based world, leaving a child to access the Internet alone and with no safeguards is no different than letting him or her roam a busy mall alone. But for Stu Sjourwerman, CEO of KnowBe4 (knowbe4.com), the issue is even more pointed. “Leaving a child to roam the Internet without proper training and supervision,” he said, “is like giving him a stick of dynamite and a box of matches.”

Tips for parents
Parents should always keep up to date with resources available to them. The widely celebrated Net Nanny allows parents to monitor and limit Internet access. Covenant Eyes, now famous as an online accountability system, and Minor Monitor have a number of similar features. KnowBe4 provides other useful resources. KnowBe4 sponsors a Home Internet Security Course developed in partnership with Kevin Mitnick. While the course does not focus exclusively on children, it will give parents a great deal of useful information. More information about these resources can be found by visiting the websites cited in the sidebar.

These software-based resources are very effective. But there are also a number of practical things parents can do to offset the risks. For example, set curfews and time allotments for using devices and keep said devices in a shared area of the house if possible. Do not allow young children to participate in social media sites, online gaming or any sort of Internet forum aimed toward an older audience. And even if they are geared toward children, monitor them closely. As FBI Assistant Director Shawn Henry noted, “Predators go where children go.”

Perhaps the best thing parents can do, though, is not allow technology to be an aspect of their children’s lives with which they have no involvement.

Parents ought to use technology as another avenue to bond with, and learn alongside their children. Technology can be a great avenue to strengthen a parent’s relationship with a child.

Remember Mr. Stoute whose 14-month-old daughter bought a car on eBay? He has chosen to keep it and restore it as a father-daughter project in the coming years until he can give it to her on her 16th birthday.

RESOURCES FOR PARENTS

Net Nanny
Parental control software unique for its real-time categorization of web content and its smart search monitoring based on the context of words used.

Covenant Eyes
Internet tracking reported to a selected individual provides accountability and supervision in addition to a customizable Internet filter.

Minor Monitor
Free parental alerts on dangerous activity such as potential predators or cyber bullying as well as 24/7 monitoring of Internet activity.

Mobile Web Guard
Protection for mobile devices through a filtered browser app.