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"!