When I was in high school, Madonna sang about living in a material world. Today the lyrics would go something like this: "We are living in a digital world, and I am a digital mom."
In our family — with kids ages 12, 14 and 17 — IM (instant messaging), MySpace and Google are common terms. We have Game Boys, iPods, Xboxes and cell phones (with built-in cameras, of course).
Let's face it, wishing for Little-House-on-the-Prairie days won't change the fact we've been chosen by God to parent during this time in history — even if bonnets seem more family-friendly than Bluetooth earpieces. Yet we can guide our children through the minefields of today's technology — and grow closer for our efforts.
Sometimes it's hard to fully understand the threats that lie beyond the click of a mouse. According to the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, the largest group of viewers of Internet porn is children between ages 12 and 17. And while the thought of our children viewing those images is scary, another danger is online predators. Nearly 80 percent of teens say they aren't careful enough when giving out information about themselves online.
The first thing parents must do is educate their kids about the potential dangers of technology. Kids need to understand people can pretend to be friendly in order to satisfy selfish and dangerous urges. Parents should tune in to warning signs, such as children spending large amounts of time online, turning off the computer quickly when an adult enters the room or receiving mysterious phone calls or gifts.
Children should also be taught to tell if they have a bad experience. This means immediately going to a parent or other responsible person for help and sharing about the encounter.
Parents can also help children be proactive about the entertainment they choose, starting by helping kids search for fun and appropriate Web sites and bookmarking them. Resources such as the Christian Game Developer's Foundation help families choose video games that have no violent or sexual content. As my own family has learned, even though the package may claim an E (for everyone) rating, these games are not always wise choices.
"Limit media in bedrooms or availability to media in back rooms. This was one of our biggest mistakes," says Eva Marie Everson, author of Sex, Lies and the Media, a book she wrote with her daughter Jessica. "Jessica was a good kid. We trusted her. Too much, at times. Her curiosity led her to watch, hear and read things via media we would have never approved of."
For a while, Everson felt she lost her daughter to her destructive habits. Now Jessica is the first to urge parents to stay on top of trends and know what kids are listening to, watching and interacting with.
Everson has learned to be more vigilant with the technology in her home, and she encourages other parents to do the same. "Let your children know you have filters in place on the computer but that you will still monitor where they have been," she says.
Parents also need to discuss with their kids the moral issues surrounding unwise media choices.
"My wife and I have a motto," says Eric Wilson, a father of two from Tennessee. "We're not trying to protect our kids so much as we're trying to prepare them. The dangers of technology are all rooted in the sin nature. While we try to warn them against opening unknown files and e-mails, we're more concerned with helping them identify the core issues involved, such as greed, lust, pride."
Technology doesn't have to be a frightful menace for today's parents; it can be an important ally. Parents brave enough to enter their child's digital world can discover priceless opportunities.
"Since my daughters are on MySpace a lot, I decided to sign up," Wilson says. "Now I know what they're interested in, and what they're hearing and seeing. I also like to send them messages and leave comments on their pages. They do the same back to me. It's one more way to let them know I love them and want to be a part of their lives."
MySpace, however, can expose your children to questionable content and online predators, so carefully consider the benefits and dangers of this site before allowing them to use it.
Instant messaging is another way to connect with your kids. Michele Huey of Pennsylvania is an IM buddy to her son, a junior in college.
"When my son started college," Huey says, "he downloaded AOL's Instant Messenger on my computer. He's the only buddy I have, but we connect nearly every day. We've had some heart-to-heart conversations . . . and it has brought us closer."
Of course, virtual connections are no substitute for real-life encounters. Part of a parent's job is to make sure kids don't disengage from the real world. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, children's social intelligence is hindered when their world is filtered through technology.
"To be sure, from the iPod wearer's perspective, he is relating to someone — the singer, the band or the orchestra plugged into his ears," Goleman writes. "His heart beats as one with theirs. But these virtual others have nothing whatever to do with the people who are just a foot or two away — to whose existence the rapt listener has become largely indifferent. To the extent that technology absorbs people in a virtual reality, it deadens them to those who are actually nearby."
While technology is part of our lives, parents need to make sure their children have real relationships with real people. This includes unplugging from the digital world for a while, getting back to family dinners, inviting friends over and setting aside time for family fun and one-on-one conversations. Teach kids that in this digital world there are also flesh-and-blood people who love them — people living beyond the glow of a plasma screen.