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An involved parent is not a spy

March 07, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

There once was a woman who had no problem with her child's use of the Internet. She had been online, and saw nothing objectionable to shield from her child.

Problem is, her child had pulled a bait and switch on her, enabling parental controls to bar the mother from seeing nasty destinations the child was checking out.

Georgetown University psychology professor Sandra Calvert chuckles after recounting the story. As director of the Children's Digital Media Center, an alliance of four universities with the goal of studying and improving how children use and learn from technology, Calvert says there is one sure way for parents to avoid being mowed down on the information superhighway.

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"Be an educated parent about what's available online," she says. "Many times, children know more about what's online than parents do."

As technology becomes more prevalent, parents and adults inherit an increased responsibility to monitor the use of high tech gadgets by children.

The challenge is to keep tabs on computer use without appearing oppressive, stunting a child's growth while fostering feelings of resentment by kids viewing their elders as hyper reactive watchdogs.

"Technology allows us to access many different things in a more efficient way," says Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "But it's in how you use it that makes the difference."

An assistant director for research at the Center for Children and Technology, Katie McMillan Culp says step one should be to strip computers of their unique status. Too often, the machines are elevated above television and other toys, when the same rules governing other media usage apply to PCs.

"I think a lot of what we try to do around technology is to encourage teachers and parents to sort out what's special about technology," Culp says.

Instead, take the stigma away by talking to children, setting ground rules for use. And the time to start is early, since teens can be light years ahead of their parents in terms of computer savvy.

Talk about the computer, the Internet and their uses. Calvert suggests never allowing young children to surf the Web unattended.

She also advocates making it as easy as possible for kids to navigate the Web. Take away the urge to surf by organizing favorite sites under preferences, accessible with one quick click of the mouse.

Another secret, Culp says, is to resist the urge to put a computer in a child's bedroom.

"The more public it is," she says, "the more opportunity for casual oversight."

Another thing computers in common areas does is promote dialogue between parent and child. Just as it's important to discuss television viewing habits with children, parents need to talk about the dangers of surfing, whether avoiding pornographic sites or not sharing personal information.

In time, Calvert says, children can earn more computer privileges, though parents might be wise to set limits for usage.

"I wouldn't let them use it all the time," she says. "Cultivate good habits about media use. Have it a part of living and not a default activity, which it could become over time."

When inappropriate sites are accessed, the parental impulse might be to lash out. Calvert says it is a mistake to be accusatory from the start.

Computers and the Internet are, in many ways, still a brave new world, full of pitfalls children may unknowingly stumble upon. Trying to look up information about the White House at www.whitehouse.gov, a simple mistake - typing www.whitehouse.com - can take them to a pornography site.

And, while software exists to track computer usage, Calvert cautions against it.

"I think that undermines the trust in the parent-child relationship," she says. "How can you tell your child you know where they've been without saying you've been spying on them?"

The bottom line is, like any behavior, parents need to start young to educate children about the benefits and dangers of computer use. Kids grow up fast, faster than a high-speed Internet connection. Wait too long to talk these issues out, and parents may miss their chance to be proactive.

But even when teens are surfing the Web, parents should remain inquisitive about their child's habits.

Recently, Ginsberg's youngest child, 14, sat down to help him with a spreadsheet program. Since many kids are much more fluent in the language of computers, parents can learn from them, and should not shy away from the subject. In fact, Calvert says, it may open a new avenue of communication.

"I think one of the greatest gifts," Calvert says, "is for an adult, a parent, to tell their child there is something they don't know, and ask their child to teach them."

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