Q. We have three children — ages 7, 9 and 12 — and two of them received electronic hand-held devices for Christmas. This is causing a problem since all those stories about cyber-bullying and technology addiction have made me pretty strict about their use.
Even though my husband and I own electronics ourselves, we only let our kids use them for 1-2 hours on the weekend and not at all during the school week. This makes them think that we are terribly strict and uncool. However, their friends are allowed to walk around with their electronics, carry them to school and send emails day and night.
Obviously, we can’t tell other parents what to do, but shouldn’t their children respect our wishes when they visit us? Our middle child and her friends usually just sit around texting and videotaping each other when they have playdates at our house instead of actually talking and hanging out.
We’ve also told our children that we always read their emails — although most parents don’t — and that we do it because we’re afraid that the anonymity of the Internet might lead to real problems. We hope that this will make them more responsible when they text their friends, but are we invading our kids’ privacy? Should we lighten up about technology and figure that there’s just no way to fight it?
A. You and your husband can be good parents and still lighten up a bit, both in the words you use and the limits you set. Preschoolers, for instance, have playdates and 7-year-olds have company, and this is a big distinction. Adults might like to pretend that they are younger than they are but children never do.
You also should know that 9-year-olds learn to interact with others through the games they invent. Your middle child is learning this skill when she and her buddies text each other and videotape themselves, just as you and your friends did when you played with Barbie dolls and put on fashion shows in the living room (and as your mother did when she and her friends played with paper dolls and took silly pictures with their Brownie cameras). Basic activities never change; they just have different props.
The Internet is one of the greatest props of all, and the activities it encourages can be seductive, stimulating, addictive or even dangerous, but you still have to trust your children to use it for a little while every day as long as it doesn’t interfere with their homework or their chores. It shouldn’t hurt to let them text and play videogames for an hour or so before dinner during the week and for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday. This may seem like a foolish waste of time, but children long to use these gadgets because their friends are using them, because the need to conform is critical between the ages of 7 and 16 and because cell phones, iPads and computers are part of our lives today.
You do want your children to use the internet with care, however, so you’ll have to step into their electronic world to monitor at least some of this time. To do that, you might play Scrabble with your child online; join Facebook to see what they and their friends are posting; text them the same kind of sweet messages you might still leave in their lunchboxes and use the same email address for the whole family. This gives you the right to glance lightly over the content of each email to see if it’s for you but not to read these emails intently. That would be unacceptable, like reading your children’s letters, their diaries or listening in on their phone calls.
You shouldn’t tempt your children to use their electronics after their time is up, however, which they will probably do unless you have them toss these gadgets into a basket, particularly at bedtime. By adolescence, they’ll almost surely need more sleep than you — or they — think they’ll need which is explained so well in “Snooze . . . Or Lose!” by Helene A. Emsellem, M.D., with Carol Whiteley (Joseph Henry Press; $25).
You might also read “Cue Cards for Life” by Christina Steinorth, MA, MFT (Hunter House; $13) — a crisply written book on relationships which reminds its readers that teenagers often rebel if the discipline they get is either too rigid or too lax. Once you learn to walk down the middle of Discipline Road, you may get clipped a little by the traffic going in either direction, but you’ll never face a rebellion.
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