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
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
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
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
“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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