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How to Parent High-Tech Kids: A Safety Guide

Families have been celebrating “firsts” since time immemorial, including baby’s first words, a child’s first loose tooth, and little ones getting dropped off for their first day of school. And as explained in our recent bestselling book Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide, there are an entirely new and equally important number of major life milestones these days that kids and parents must be prepared to greet as well. For example: Highly memorable high-tech moments such as your tween receiving their first cell phone; signing up a child to receive their first e-mail address; or even the first time that your kids create their own Facebook profile, team up to play online video games, or send siblings a text message.

Moreover, just as parents observing their baby beginning to walk can expect the process to be accompanied by ample bumps, bruises and scratches, so too must modern parents ready themselves to contend with similar high-tech hiccups. Just like riding a bike for the first time can result in the occasional scrape or even head-on collision, so too can entry into today’s Internet and online world be a bumpy ride, complete with its own important concerns and hazards which modern parents must be prepared to address. With the tipping point at which technology’s influence on the modern family dynamic having become pronounced, ongoing, and highly influential not only being reached, but irrevocably blown past several times over, the time to tackle these issues is here and now. As positive an influence as technology and online connectivity can exert on today’s world, bear in mind that as responsible parents and digital citizens, we must always remember: Children cannot be allowed to come of age in a digital world which we’ve left them unprepared to greet.

Vital to consider is the fact that between the rise of computers, social networks, apps, and Internet-ready mobile devices such as smartphones, tablet PCs and gaming systems, today’s families are more connected than ever. Not only are educators, lawmakers and non-profits nationwide increasingly rolling out programs devoted to extolling the virtues of technology. In the US alone, there are now more than 300 million Internet users – a large proportion of this audience including adolescents, young adults and even children barely out of diapers. According to the US Senate, 80% of kids are now spending at least one hour per week in cyberspace, starting in kindergarten and running through the 12th grade. Not only that, but another recent study reveals that children ages 5 to 16 routinely spend an average of six and a half hours in front of a screen each day. And, as Internet security software maker Trend Micro also points out, 93% of kids between 12 and 17 are now online – and that’s even before you consider that consumer watchdog Common Sense Media estimates that half (!) of five to eight year-olds now currently utilize high-tech devices. Needless to say, all this high-tech activity adds up to a tremendous amount of time spent online by children of all ages in a virtual world which contains its own set of rules, behaviors and potential exposure to outside influences – activity which often occurs outside of parents’ otherwise watchful eyes.

Equally important to note is that much of this online activity is quickly being embraced and welcomed by families as well – especially adults, whose own enthusiasm for technology can color the tone, nature and degree of influence it can exert on the household. In fact, according to a recent BabyCenter survey, 43% of moms say that if they left their wallet at home, they would leave it, but would in fact return to retrieve their smartphone. (The previous year, this figure was 34%.) Of the women surveyed, nearly 60% considered their smartphones their back-up brains. (Ad network Greystripe additionally says that 66% of mothers shop with and through the device – a clear wake-up call for casual observers, as well as businesses and brands, which speaks directly to modern families’ changing needs, tastes and consumption habits.) Likewise, recent research from Cisco reveals that nearly three-quarters of dads are more enthused to show kids how to use tech tools than real-world equivalents, while anti-virus provider AVG points out that tots aged two to five are now better able to run downloaded apps than tie their shoelaces.  And if these numbers weren’t eye-opening enough, Microsoft and AARP’s “Connecting Generations” survey goes a step further, noting that 83% of all respondents, ranging in ages from 13 to 75, believe that going online is helpful to family and intergenerational communication.

Our research for Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide showed us that the deeper you dive into the rabbit hole, the further it goes. Case in point: Strikingly, today, some 40% of tablet PC users include women and children as well, with over half of all purchases made by households containing children under 18, according to Forrester Research. And that’s before you even include the household impact of electronic reading devices, or eReaders, with the Pew Center suggesting that more than 50% of adult Americans own either a tablet or an eReader or both. Moreover, a whopping 80% of tablet PC owners have also made downloadable purchases from these devices such as apps, books and music, speaking to the public’s growing appetite for digital media consumption. It’s a figure that becomes even more telling when you ponder that seven in ten children under age 12 in tablet-owning households use these devices regularly.

The bottom line being as follows: From a practical, everyday standpoint, what all these facts and figures add up to is an entire generation, not just of children, but of extended families for whom technology has changed everything from education to interpersonal relationships and viewing habits – a nation of individuals we define as “Generation Tech,” whose lives are impacted by new technologies, innovations and communications methods at virtually every turn, from childhood’s earliest days on up.

Such insights may seem eye opening at first blush. But they become even more telling in light of revelations that, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that children under age two receive no screen time whatsoever, over 80% of kids now enjoy an online presence in some form or fashion before they’re 24 months old, according to a recent report by the Pew Research and Internet Project. And, for that matter, perhaps doubly so knowing that while Emily Post’s Etiquette now includes entire sections on virtual conduct and The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of friend has expanded in less than six years to include “a contact on a social networking website,” the contemporary family’s basic knowledge of digital citizenship and safe computing habits can many times be shamefully anemic.

The net result of these advancements is that an entire generation of parents and experts is currently struggling to bridge the gap between generations, since grown into a gaping chasm, only further serving to underscore the desperate need to provide today’s family with basic high-tech life skills and training solutions. With 70% of parents clamoring for more high-tech education in schools, and four-fifths of teachers believing that more formalized digital citizenship programs are desperately needed, it’s no longer an individual problem either. Suddenly, across the world, it’s a problem that every society, culture and generation now shares. As such insights clearly illustrate, it’s not just technology that’s changed in the wireless, streaming and always-connected era. From personal and professional interactions to basic aspects of learning and behavioral development, it’s the fundamental rules of family and parenting that have transformed as well.

Eye-opening as all these stats and figures may be though, keep in mind that, in the interest of community service and informed discussion, it’s also vital to look beyond them and keep things in perspective too. Happily for high-tech parents and children hoping to navigate a hyperkinetic world defined by buzzing Android and Apple smartphones, bleeping video game consoles, and frazzled working moms struggling just to stand up, let alone get dinner on the table while chasing screaming toddlers around the house after a grueling 10-hour workday, connectivity can also be a huge plus. From helping to better engage kids; boost learning and retention rates; enhance intergenerational communications; and foster creativity and promote interest in real-world subjects, technology’s beneficial effects on family life can be both pronounced and ample. Whether videoconferencing with distant friends or relatives, connecting online to explore educational and career-related resources, or simply discovering new ways to share information and consume news of the world and current events, the potential upsides that high-tech tools and services offer kids and adults alike are plentiful. Technology should not be feared, but rather embraced, researched and continually discussed and debated from all standpoints, so as to allow for healthier usage, and more informed decision-making, amongst all age groups. Ultimately, both the high-tech world’s positives and negatives add up to one foregone conclusion, however: Technology has suddenly infiltrated every facet of family life, and even the youngest children are now being exposed to and rapidly embracing its onset.

Note that many companies will soon be offering parents ample options to soothe even screaming newborns using screens, play mats, and infant accessories that offer ways to connect with high-tech devices (portable media players, cell phones, etc.) and the Internet. Toddlers and preschoolers additionally have many new adult-like technologies and devices being created specifically to meet their needs, including tablet computers exclusively designed for preschoolers, with many action figures and dolls also now including built-in digital cameras and companion apps as a matter of course.  From the toys they play with to the media they consume – including TV shows with companion second-screen experiences or that are inspired by games and apps themselves – today’s digital kids won’t just expect technology and Internet connectivity to be present in all facets of life going forward. They’ll actually see it as the everyday norm, and it will allow them to expand their horizons in virtual ways that to them will appear second nature, but to parents may still seem like something straight out of a science-fiction movie. 

Consider that familiar storybooks from the likes of Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street have also now become wildly popular “storybook apps” – and are more interactive than yesterday’s bibliophile could possibly haveimagined.  Video games like Activision’s popular Skylanders series, which allows kids to take real-life toys and play with these characters in simulated 3D universes, or a growing number of licensed virtual worlds in which popular animated characters appear online for players to interact with, are also growingly in popularity.Many humble trading cards now even contain online and digital components. Surely, we’ve all marveled at some of these amazing innovations that we could only have dreamed of when we were kids.  Can you imagine explaining to your younger self that by the time your children were in school, you’d not only own a pocket-sized phone that makes calls virtually anytime and anywhere, but also one that can send messages, photos or videos made on the fly to friends and family in seconds; play sophisticated 3D video games; and stream movies, music and software programs down for play anytime on-demand?

Alas, as these innovations underscore, parenting kids based on solely on our own prior technological experience isn’t enough anymore. Even for those of us who grew up with computers in our bedrooms, it’s crucial to recall: Both technology and the Internet are increasingly impacting and influencing kids’ lives from the moment that they’re born, and often in new and unexpected ways. Such advancements’ impact on today’s household is suddenly a foregone conclusion, with big questions no longer surrounding if, but simply when – and to what profound degree – they will irrevocably redefine modern household life. As leading experts will tell you, the field’s progress hasn’t just reached critical mass – it’s currently doing laps around the average household, and trailing smoke as it moves at Road Runner-style cartoon speeds.

“Children are going to have to learn how to use these high-tech vehicles responsibly because they’re going to be a part of their everyday life,” explains Laurie Nathan, deputy director of programs and partnerships for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Knowing this, if they wish to relate to and comprehend kids’ changing lives going forward, parents must now take action, and make a running commitment to educating both themselves and their families on technology’s forward progress. Suddenly, we as a society not only need to research, debate and discuss the latest that technology has to offer on a constant, running basis. We must also take pronounced steps to carve out the time required, and embrace the more receptive mindset that’s necessary, to properly equip ourselves with the vital, game-changing information that’s integral to understanding and preparing kids for meeting the challenges that will inevitably come with its continued progress and deployment. Nor can we expect children to figure out how to make sense of this new digital world all on their own – as ever, only by serving as positive role models and examples can we help to guide and shape their experiences for the positive.

The mandate for modern families is simple: Under no circumstance can you afford to parent part-time where technology is concerned. As responsible adults and caregivers, we owe it to both ourselves and our children to dive into and learn as much as we can about the different ways today’s kids are connecting, sharing, and consuming information, online or otherwise. Happily, successful high-tech parenting bears little difference to traditional parenting if you remember the fundamental rule – homework isn’t just for children alone. “Parents need to partner with kids in a positive, protective way [to make sense of high-tech devices and interactions],” explains Judi Warren, president of Web Wise Kids, in no uncertain terms. Acknowledging the growing role that technology and the Internet play in your life, she says, is a big step, with it mandatory for today’s parents – as with any aspect of parenting – to stay informed. “Kids are often the ones teaching adults about technology,” she says. “It needs to be the other way around.”

Astute readers will also note the duality of the role that parents must play in the modern high-tech world, as underscored by Lynette Owens, director of Internet safety for kids and families at Trend Micro. Owens agrees that it’s our job as caregivers to do much more than simply safeguard our kids when using all these different forms of media and high-tech devices to connect online. “What we’re really talking about here is not how to keep kids safe, but how to make them responsible,” she says. Stressing the importance of digital citizenship, or promoting positive online behavior, as a key part of training that must be provided by parents, teachers and kids, she touches on an important point we often make as part of our own public speaking efforts. Shepherding and stewardship are as much a parent’s responsibility as safety and security – teaching kids to be caring, thoughtful and prudent are part and parcel with adequately preparing them for life in the online age.

Raising responsible kids is, at its core, one of the key pillars of Internet safety. To this extent, this series provides an extensive overview of the many types of online interaction that kids will be involved in as they grow, and a look at the many potential benefits and dangers that children may encounter. As you read through each section, note the presence of tips, perspective and research provided by an all-star panel of experts, who help weigh in on the issues present. Later articles will also offer age-by-age suggestions on when to introduce different high-tech gadgets and technology, and provide insight into how to broach and discuss these issues with children too. It’s our hope that all will provide you with a better understanding of the high-tech and online world, and help you prepare the next generation for tomorrow’s connected reality in turn.

To find out more about how to keep kids safe online, protect children’s privacy, and make sure they’re enjoying positive and uplifting experiences with technology, also be sure to check out the bestselling book that started it all, Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.

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