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What is the parental role as young kids access technology?

By Christina Quick

Like countless others in the blogosphere, Abby O’Connell enjoys having an outlet to journal about her interests and life experiences.

For the past 18 months, she has maintained a personal blog called Imagination Princess. She conducts reader polls and writes about the latest books she’s read. She discusses news and fashion, entertainment and politics. Yet Abby is only 10 years old.

The world of digital communication is no longer on hold until the teen years. O’Connell is part of a new generation of tech-savvy tweens — elementary and junior high kids who are as comfortable in cyberspace as they are in their own backyards.

“Technology is intimidating to a lot of adults,” says Anne Collier, founder of Net Family News, a Utah-based organization that promotes youth safety online. “But kids have grown up with it. To them, it’s a normal part of everyday life.”

Abby developed an interest in blogging after watching her mother, Ashli, maintain a Web log for several years.

“When she asked if she could have a blog, I was a bit nervous about the idea at first,” says Ashli O’Connell, a Web content developer and editor for Evangel University in Springfield, Mo. “I wanted to limit access that other people would have to it.”

Ashli installed safety features that allow only a handful of friends and family members to enter Abby’s blog. Readers can log on only with a password and an invitation from Ashli.

Ashli says the blog has helped Abby develop her writing skills while allowing relatives who live out of state to keep up with her life.

“Abby loves the Internet; she’s very computer savvy,” Ashli says. “But we have strict rules about when and how it’s used. The computer is in a high-traffic area in the home where we can keep an eye on the screen and closely monitor what’s going on.”

Not all parents are as cautious. In a recent Disney survey, while 80 percent of parents polled said they worry about online safety, more than a quarter admitted allowing their elementary-age children to access the Internet without supervision.

Marketing researchers at The NPD Group reported last year that two-thirds of kids ages 9-14 who use the Internet navigate it alone. Seventy percent download music in an average month, and most obtain the files without an adult’s help.

Sixteen percent of the youths surveyed were registered with MySpace, a popular social networking site that prohibits anyone younger than 14 from opening an account. Children sometimes get around the age restrictions by lying about their birth dates.

Collier says parents shouldn’t assume that just because their children are familiar with technology they are ready to make mature choices about how to use it.

“The executive part of the brain that understands cause and effect is not fully developed until the mid-20s,” Collier says. “Adults need to be in the mix. We still like to be in the same room when our 12-year-old is online.”

In a 2008 survey by Internet Solutions for Kids and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, 15 percent of children ages 10-15 said they had received an unwanted sexual solicitation electronically. Of those, 43 percent said the solicitation came via instant messaging, while 32 percent said it happened in a chat room. Four percent reported such incidents on social networking sites.

Computers aren’t the only devices that can pose a danger. A growing number of tweens now carry cell phones, and many send and receive text messages.

Nearly half of U.S. kids between the ages of 8 and 12 use a cell phone, according to a recent Nielsen survey. About 55 percent of tweens who own a phone send text messages.

A report released in April by AK Tweens claimed 30 percent of 10- to 15-year-old girls the marketing consultancy and research group polled had sent or received text messages with sexual content.

Meredith Knapp, an elementary music teacher at a public school in Emporia, Kan., says cell phones are status symbols for tweens.

“It’s a big deal to have a cell phone,” says Knapp, an Evangel University graduate who attends Life Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Emporia. “They’re always waving them around in their friends’ faces and saying, ‘That’s a cool cell phone.’”

Knapp says a fourth-grade girl’s phone was confiscated last year at an after-school activity when it was discovered someone had sent her sexually explicit text messages.

“I’ve seen kids that come from stable homes who carried cell phones because their parents wanted them to be safe as they walked a few blocks to school,” Knapp says. “I’ve seen other kids who are just handed technology with no parental oversight.”

After expressing concern to a fourth-grade boy’s mother about his antisocial behavior at school, Knapp learned he was spending three hours a day playing a zombie game online.

Another young student was banned from using the school’s computers after he repeatedly tried to access pornographic Web sites online.

“For the most part, it’s not the families that take their kids to church that I see having these problems,” Knapp says. “People who are committed to raising kids God’s way have a better grip on technology so that it’s not taking over their children’s lives.”

That doesn’t mean the church can afford to ignore these issues, cautions Lori Van Veen, senior editor and Web coordinator for Assemblies of God National Girls Ministries.

“I see things happening with my 9-year-old that I never expected until junior high school,” Van Veen says. “A lot of her friends are already carrying cell phones and iPods. The window is narrower than ever before. Now we’ve got to teach them, in a way they can understand, how to make God-honoring decisions about technology when they’re 7, 8 or 9 years old. If parents and children’s workers don’t take that initiative, we’re going to lose a crucial opportunity.”

National Children’s Ministries Agency Director Jason Noble agrees.

“It’s vital that we as parents, and people who work with children, keep up with technology and really understand how it works and how it impacts children,” Noble says. “We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and hope technology goes away. We as leaders and parents need to embrace it, and help our kids learn how to use technology in a way that pleases God.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer. She lives in Springfield, Mo., and attends Central Assembly of God.

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