Kids' Tech Toys: High-Tech Communication Tools

Experts agree that parents need to get involved and understand the technologies their children are using. Here's a primer on kids' high-tech communication tools and the concerns parents have about them:

  • Cell Phones and Text Messaging - Parents are tempted to give children cell phones for safety reasons, but kids most often use them to talk with friends. They also use them to send text messages and even to surf the Web. Some cell plans allow teens to stay connected to friends all day long at no cost.
    Sue Simon* says her daughter sleeps with her cell phone, and Sue once found her text messaging a boy she'd never met at 1 a.m.

    Is Your Homework Done?

    What about the things that kids aren't doing - chores, homework, active play and exercise - during all those sedentary hours at the computer?

    Surprisingly, research has shown that online kids actually spend a little more time exercising or participating in sports than offline kids, says Jeffrey Cole, director of USC's Center for the Digital Future.

    Studies have also found a majority of parents (75 percent) reporting that their kids' grades have not suffered as a result of Internet use. Ultimately, parents worried about the distractions of the online world can enforce limits on computer and cell phone time, just as they can on TV time.

    But besides the constant phone use, parents also worry about the social etiquette - or lack thereof - that teens with cell phones exhibit. Kids tend to answer their cell phones whenever they ring, no matter where they are. In any given circle of teens, half may be talking to other people on their cell phones - certainly a breach of etiquette in their parents' eyes.
    Thus, it's up to parents to talk with their kids about cell phone etiquette, and to enforce time and usage limits, says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC. "I think civilizing your kids is not a bad thing."

  • Web Sites and Computer Gaming - Today's kids can find just about anything on the Web and will spend hours surfing. At computer gaming sites, players develop characters and use IM to meet and strategize with other players from around the world. Online games can last for hours, if not days. The Web site, where visitors can "adopt" virtual pets and monitor their care and upbringing, commands more than 23 million members worldwide, and most are under age 18.

    Most teens spend an average of 48 minutes a day online. A 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that parents who set and enforce time limits do influence the amount of time their children spend with media.
    But Henry Jenkins, MIT's director of comparative media studies, says time limits don't address the core question of how children use the media. "I'd rather see three or four hours of intelligent engagement of the media than one hour of stupid engagement," he says. "It's not about limiting access. It's about engaging attentively to the media your kids consume and setting a model for a constructive relationship to popular culture."

    Nearly one-third of seventh- through 12th-graders say they have pretended to be older to get into a Web site.

    Kaiser Family Foundation study

    Beyond all that screen time, parents also fear that their children can gain access to sexual or violent content. Joan Almon, head of the Alliance for Children, an organization cautioning against computer emphasis during kids' younger years, recommends keeping the computer in an open family space, rather than a child's bedroom.
    Parents can also install filters that block out objectionable sites, but filters are not 100-percent effective. In more extreme cases, installing computer monitoring software that records everything a child does on a computer - including email, IMs, chats and Web sites visited - can give parents peace of mind.

  • Instant Messaging - Instant Messaging allows teens to chat online with friends - a private chat room of sorts - in real time. Teens create buddy lists and, as soon as they log on, they can see who else is online and start chatting. IM typically surges in popularity in middle school, when talking to peers becomes so important; 32 percent of all U.S. teens use IM every day. Teens in the Pew study say they prefer IM to email, which they see as something used for communicating with "old people" or institutions.
    While most IM's consist of harmless text exchanges in abbreviated and slaughtered English, instant messaging can have serious social consequences for kids when exchanges get ugly or screen names and passwords get into the wrong hands.
    At Thomas Blake Middle School in Medfield, Mass., Principal Peg Mongiello has witnessed the aftermath of hurtful IM exchanges, including racial threats. "Although it doesn't happen at school, it spills over because they come to school very angry or upset about what they were IM'ed the night before," she says.

    Even though they love technology, teens still report, on average, spending more time physically with their friends doing social things outside of school than they report interacting with friends through technology.

    Pew Internet & American Life Project study

    Teachers are planning workshops on IM etiquette and online dangers. "We're trying to make them realize the screen is not an excuse to do things they know are wrong in the first place," Mongiello says.

Certainly kids who use IM can choose to block or accept messages from people they do not know. But in a 2005 nationwide study of 8- to 18-year-olds by the Polly Klass Foundation:

  • Nearly one in eight online teens reported they had learned that someone they were communicating with electronically was an adult pretending to be younger.

  • Even scarier, one in four reported that they had talked online about sex with someone they'd never met in person.

  • Nearly one-third said they had talked about meeting in person someone whom they only knew online.

"Sadly, the message has to be, 'You don't trust anyone you don't actually know.' It's a much longer speech than 'You don't get in cars with strangers,'" Cole says.

  • Social Networking Sites and Blogs - Teens tend to take even more risks in their blogs ("Web logs," a kind of online diary) and on social networking sites, such as, LiveJournal and Friendster, which allow members to create profiles and link to as many "friends" as they choose. Like signatures in a yearbook, sometimes teens compete for popularity by trying to add the most "friends" to their space. They can also upload photos, add personal descriptions and post blogs.
    These sites offer kids a creative outlet, where they can use multiple screen names and try on different personalities - ones not judged by appearance. But problems arise when they disclose too much.
    Mongiello was shocked to find photos of her students wearing bathing suits on and profiles revealing names, phone numbers, addresses, where they work and what soccer field they'd be at Wednesday afternoon.
    A 2005 study of teen bloggers by researchers from the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University found that two-thirds had provided their age and first name, and 60 percent had offered their location and contact information. One in five had offered their full name.
    While most social networking sites have age limits for users ('s is 14), anyone can create a profile by simply lying about his or her age.

    Aside from stranger danger, blogs raise privacy concerns. "Teenage girls would be petrified if you read their diary, yet they are now posting online stuff that is much more personal," Cole says. "The belief is that their mother won't see that. Clearly kids need guidance."
    MIT's Jenkins agrees. "Kids don't recognize the permanence of what they put out there," he says, noting that Web archives take daily "snapshots" of postings online.
    Both Cole and Jenkins advise parents to warn their kids about sharing personal information or photos, and to pay attention to their kids' blogs and profiles. "I think it's a violation for you to read your daughter's diary. I don't think it's a violation for you to read her blog," Cole says.

- Anne Chappell Belden

Online Resources:

Alliance for Children - Offers information cautioning parents about children's immersion in too much technology.

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act - Provides details on laws preventing children under age 13 from signing up for anything online without permission.

Kaiser Family Foundation - Features studies on children's Internet use and other media topics.

Get Net Wise - Provides online safety tips and information on computer filtering and monitoring software.

National Institute on Media and the Family - Offers a newsletter, links and tips for parents on guiding children's media use.