Sunday, September 02, 2007

Teens, Parenting and the Internet

This summer, I took my 15 year old son to his pediatrician for a physical before he could play football. She took the time to talk to him about proper diet, exercise and other life-style issues facing teens, which I appreciated. At the end of her talk, she added "And no more than 5 hours of sitting in front of a computer per week".

Per week? During the summer, I suspect my children spent 5 hours of time on the computer per day.

Suffice it to say I've taken a more liberal approach to things than our pediatrician suggests. Perhaps it's because I am a "techno-file" myself: I keep 3 blogs, I host an on-line course in Catholic Doctrine, I read 10-15 web sites daily on topics ranging from curriculum to Notre Dame football, I've played over 5,000 games of "Literi" (Scrabble) over the internet, and over 2000 games of Chess (I don't even want to estimate how much time that is!) and I regularly experiment with all the new Google gadgets. This Christmas, to see if it could be done (it can), I asked my wife if she'd allow me to do ALL the Christmas shopping on line for our kids and relatives, and it was the first time I've ever enjoyed shopping. There's something very satisfying about the packages arriving at your house as opposed to fighting the traffic, wading through malls, and standing in line!

So if 5 hours a week is a reasonable standard for our teens, I confess that I fail that standard miserably as an adult.

But as a father of four teens, I don't believe it's the right standard. One of the mistakes we often make as adults is to equate time on the computer as time in front of the TV. TV requires very little brain activity, whereas time on the computer and over the internet requires much more. My 15 year old is a good example: he creates movies, using our digital camcorder and I-Movie software, he writes songs and mixes music, incorporating his drum/keyboard/guitar playing with Garage Band software, he uses HTML code to design web pages, he uses Adobe software to create art and he uses I-Tunes to download music. And yes, of course, he uses Face-book, AIM and MySpace accounts to communicate with other teens. These are all generally healthy activities, and I want my children to be fluent in using computers and the internet to create and communicate.

On the other hand....

I am not naive. Pornography is rampant on the internet, accounting for over 70% of all internet band-width used, by some estimates. Language in chat rooms is abominable. The temptation to violate copyright laws, especially with a tech-savvy son, is real. And I do agree with our doctor that computers can become all-consuming, to the detriment of exercise, school work and genuine social interaction among peers.

The challenge for us as parents is to find ways to maximize what is good about the internet, while discouraging the negative. Here are some of the things we've tried to implement in our household with my 4 teenage children:

1) Time on the computer is contingent on proper balancing, as with all things in life. Homework must be completed. Household chores must be done and done well first (always a battle!). Exercise must be regular and routine (playing on school teams helps!). They must get enough sleep! When these things are generally balanced, I don't believe in some sort of absolute time limit.

2) The computers must be used in public places around the house. This eliminates a lot of temptation to be on the wrong sites and do the wrong things. Laptops and wireless networks are a problem in this regard, and for this reason we didn't allow our kids to get them until they go to college.

3) Our children are not allowed to erase "histories" in the browsers. This lets us as parents review every where they've been on the internet. Again, this creates a strong disincentive.

4) My children may not download software or music illegally.

5) I do allow my children to use Facebook and My Space accounts, contingent on the following:

--from time to time, unannounced, they must show me their sites. They don't like this, but I see no other way of keeping things honest. If someone posts a crude remark, they are supposed to remove it immediately.

--they may not make their Facebook "private", meaning only invited members may see the sites. As I point out, people make their sites private for a reason.

--they cannot share personal phone numbers

--they must realize they are liable to our school for anything that's on their page, since Facebook enrolls students by the school's name.

That's about it, really. I've tried filtering software that screens certain sites, but not with much success early on. It becomes a kind of game with my sons, especially. They guess my password (ok, I could do better!). They go to proxy sites that allow them to log in to the sites screened out by our software. The filtering programs often block legitimate sites. Maybe I should give these filtering programs a second chance, but to be honest, I haven't used them in years.

I'm not a perfect parent, and my children aren't perfect either. I suspect they've gotten away with some things, partly because of my less-than-perfect supervision, partly because there are areas in all this where my children are simply smarter than I am!

May God give us all the grace and wisdom to be good parents in this "Brave New World"!


Anonymous said...

As a mother of 4 children in your school system I agree that today the computer is becoming an important aspect in our children's lives and certain guidelines need to be taken to safeguard them from predators. But I disagree that Facebook and similar named sites are OK for the young and old (yes, there are adults who use them as well). Not because someone's feelings may get hurt because they are not included, or that they may not be the "friend of the day", but because how corporate America and certain industries are using them to gain knowledge about us. The insurance industry is using these sites to determine the "rate" of premium to charge us and whether or not to pay pending claims (do you smoke, drink, participate in risky activities...all this can be found on these sites). These sites are also being used by the judicial we settle or can we go forward in a court of there enough evidence to pursue charges...what type of individual will be in the jury box? Surprisingly, these answers can be found on your childs site today as well as in the future--remember cyberspace is FOREVER--even if you shut it down--someone, somewhere may have kept files. It would not surprise me in the least if colleges are using these sites to determine whether to accept our children...and what better way to monitor their activities once on campus! The real question is HOW MANY MORE industries are using these sites, and what information are they looking for?...But we can protect our children and ourselves now by just telling them cannot start a facebook, not now and not as an adult (I still cannot think of any reason these sites would benefit anyone to maintain that out weighs the risks). Our children may be smart and great computer experts and have reached great wisdom for their years, but all the "Safe" rules cannot protect them from industries determined to spend what it takes to find information about them....especially if we place EVERYTHING about ourselves in cyberspace for the WHOLE WORLD to see and analyze.

Faustin N. Weber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Faustin N. Weber said...

Your points are well taken about corporate America taking advantage of social networking to learn more about our habits and spending practices. And you're right: I know employers that scan Facebook and MySpace accounts to screen prospective employees

I guess I would only say, "that ship has sailed". Unless we simply fore go using the internet at all, corporate America will get its hands on us. Companies follow which web pages we hit, learning our interests by how we navigate the web, then targeting advertising campaigns accordingly. They learn about us by accumulating data each time we do web searches. Every time we submit email for a product, the companies store emails in vast data bases and then sell them to telemarketers and other vendors. Because these efforts are invisible to us, I would argue they're even more pernicious than whatever we deliberately, consciously tell people about ourselves via Facebook and MySpace.

11:53 PM

VĂ­ctor said...

Really impressing blog, Mr. Weber. I enjoy reading it whenever I've got some time left.
I might send you an emial if I get to write it :S