The Wired Child: Parents are the Ultimate Connection
By Jean Sheff


Every new year brings new challenges and in today’s world you can expect some of these challenges to be technical. According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), 18 percent of consumers expected to purchase a desktop PC and 20 percent were likely to buy a notebook or laptop PC this past holiday season. The vast majority of those systems will be wired to the Internet.

If your family is part of that group you may have found that, unlike the train set of old, a parent’s struggle doesn’t stop once everything is assembled and ready to go. This is when the job of cyber-parenting begins. You are not alone. The CEA estimates that household penetration of PCs has reached 68 percent, so most parents are trying to discern the rules of raising tech-savvy, yet tech-safe children. Yes, you may have your work cut out for you, but there is help.


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Want to understand this chat room lingo?
Click here for a list of common Internet acronyms.

More resources:

  • Age-Based Tips for Internet Use

  • Instant Messaging Basics
  • Get Hip or Get Help

    Sue Downes, owner of Garrison, NY-based Downstream, a computer solutions consulting business, has her finger on the pulse – or the keyboard, if you will. A former corporate technology specialist, Downes frequently gives lectures on Internet safety, and coaches parents and children on how to use the Internet wisely.

    “At one time, the Internet was like a dirt road, but today’s high speed has turned that one-lane road into a super highway,” Downes explains. The word “Internet,” Downes says, was first used in 1982, and it wasn’t until 1992 that e-communication was available to the masses. So, if you are feeling out of the loop, don’t despair; it’s not you, the pace has been phenomenal.

    Downes, who has made numerous house calls, says, “Parents need to understand that they are responsible for controlling technology in their home.” That means educating yourself about the benefits and potential dangers of Internet use and taking positive action.

    Many parents come to Downes because they notice their computer has slowed down or strange icons have suddenly appeared or pop-ups make it impossible to navigate. Like a private investigator, Downes traces the trouble back to its source and recommends strategies for the future.

    In many cases, parents have allowed children to surf the Web without adjusting the search tool settings to prohibit sending data out of the computer. Children are also using the Internet as a primary source of communication, which can create its own set of problems. The cyber-savvy parent must know that Instant Messaging (IM), online journals and blogs as diaries, personal e-mail accounts, chat rooms and peer-to-peer networks (P2P) are avenues of communication that your child can have at his or her fingertips. And, while many parents worry about online predators, which is a real problem, communication misuse by your child and her peers is what is causing many families daily distress.


    Stay Connected

    Ironically enough, communication – the verbal kind – is just what is needed in most cases. Ken Texler, director of the Academy of Information Technology and chair of the computer science department at Gorton  High School, a magnet school in Yonkers, NY, says the ethics of Internet use is an important part of the curriculum.

    “You wouldn’t hand your child the keys to the car saying ‘Here, have fun,’ without advance education, training and practice,” says Texler. “The same holds true for Internet use.”

    Downes and Texler both note that instant messaging (“IMing”) has contributed to new social problems. Many parents think the form is innocent enough and is similar to phone calls. “The telephone and IMing are two separate animals,” says Downes.

    For one thing, the anonymity of these forms of communication often allows children to say things in print that they would never dare say face-to-face. Once in print, these comments can be shared with any number of people, including the person the comments are about. Kids are also not being caught and reprimanded for this misbehavior, which intensifies the problem. Bullying, misunderstandings and outright confusion often result.


    The Blame Game

    Just as parents are encouraged to know their children’s friends, you had better know who they are IMing, if it’s something you allow. Children should be able to identify all of their IM addresses with real kids, not a friend of a friend. Go through their address book together and get to know their online pals.

    Even what might seem innocent can turn sour. One local mom reports not liking the IM “away” feature. It’s one thing to let people know you aren’t available to talk, but another to say, “I’m at the movies with Sarah, Chloe, Alexa and Rachel,” with the undertone being “and you are not.”

    Downes, who has a warm way of speaking with children and gaining their confidence, reminds parents not to play the blame game. Everyone is part of the learning process. “In general, girls typically have Internet bullying, IM and online diary issues, and the boys have more pornographic, chat room and P2P file-sharing issues,” she says.

    Even Texler, whose students are steeped in the rules, can take missteps. “I recently had to escort six young men down to the principal’s office,” he says. “They were IMing during class time.” Kids tend to think that in their technical world they are exempt from the general rules of etiquette. “You have to consistently remind children that whatever they say online is completely public, it is not a private medium,” says Texler.


    Start Young

    What’s a parent to do? Start talking, and start when children are young. Family “netiquette” rules are important. Susan Levitin, a Westchester mom and co-owner of  Imagine Tomorrow® Computer Classes for Kids, says, “Nothing is good or bad, it’s how it’s used.”

    In her classes, children ages 2-8 use sophisticated yet child-friendly technology to visit places like “Internet Island,” a simulated version of the Web and send simulated e-mail messages. Lessons are shared with their parents who learn right along with the child. Technology becomes something they share, not the elephant in the room.

    Judy Patterson, the New Jersey-based educator who developed the Imagine Tomorrow software and curriculum, says that technology provides a wonderful tool for learning. At the same time, she says, parents must monitor their children. The basics are important. Patterson says keeping the computer in a public space where it’s easily accessible to everyone, teaching your child never to give out personal information and limiting access are rules that should be standard.

    A recent Common Sense Media survey reports that 65 percent of parents believe they could do a better job at supervising their children’s media. So, maybe it’s time to consider a media diet in your home. According to “Kids and Media @ The New Millennium,” a Kaiser Family Foundation Report, November 1999, 49 percent of children have no rules about TV and 32 percent of children ages 2-7 have a TV in their bedroom. The same report notes 23 percent of children ages 8-13 have a computer in their room. Clearly, these machines didn’t get there by themselves. Most parents know what they have to do; now is the time to do it.


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    Government Agencies

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    New York State Center for School Safety (NYSCSS)
    – 845-255-8989 – The center lends support to schools, communities and families regarding their safety and well-being. Training on violence prevention and crisis intervention is offered.

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    Westchester County District Attorney, Jeanine Pirro
    995-3000 – The High Technology Crimes Bureau works with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Westchester and maintains a constant undercover presence on the Internet to identify and prosecute criminals seeking to misuse Internet communications. They respond to complaints from private individuals and businesses.

    More resources:

  • Age-Based Tips for Internet Use

  • Instant Messaging Basics

    Jean Sheff is editor of Westchester Family, a United Parenting Publication.

  • January 2005