- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2008

At what age should a child have a cell phone? Should social-networking sites be off-limits? What does “AIM” stand for?

As the first generation of digital-age youngsters grows up, parents are trying to keep up the pace not only with the latest technology — which is challenging enough for some — but also with new types of judgment calls with no guidance from their own childhood experiences.

Megan Hollister, a mother of three in Sterling, Va., said her family has been “uncommon” when it comes to cell phones for her daughters 12-year-old Callie and 14-year-old Emma. The girls had been sharing a phone until recently, when Emma entered high school and got her own, while some of their classmates had phones as early as the third grade.

“I think the main reason in the end is for sports,” Mrs. Hollister said. “A lot of their friends had phones for a very long time, but this is our comfort level.”

As for social-networking Web sites, the Hollisters have had an active dialogue with their children about the risks of posting personal information, and they don’t allow either daughter to use popular hubs like MySpace or Facebook.

“I think she realizes we’re not doing it to be mean; we’re doing it for safety reasons,” Mrs. Hollister said of daughter Emma, who she acknowledged may earn the right to use the sites in the future. “And then we’ll manage it, she’ll have a limited time, and if we find it’s affecting her or her grades drop, then that’s the first thing to go.”

It’s far better for parents to be involved and grapple with the challenges of raising children in a wired world rather than tune out, said Monica Vila, founder of TheOnlineMom.com, a Web site that helps parents navigate the digital landscape for information ranging from good Web sites for ‘tweens to common acronyms used in texting and instant messaging.

“Once I was savvy, I could keep my daughter savvy, create a good and responsible cybercitizen,” said Ms. Vila. “She goes out the door and into school and into friends’ houses and is exposed to many other things I cannot control.”

Ms. Vila said she launched the online hub in August, after parents at her daughter Samantha’s elementary school kept going to her for answers to their technology questions. As she searched for resources, she found plenty of sites focusing exclusively on safety and the dangers of being wired, but none that discussed the benefits.

“We thought it would be great to have a resource that actually was encouraging and more positive about embracing technology,” Ms. Vila said.

The Online Mom features a technology dictionary, topical articles on subjects such as parental controls and tips that are broken down by age groups. When it comes to the use of technology and children, Ms. Vila describes the benefits in three main tenets: communication, entertainment and education.

“Parents need to learn how to communicate with their kids. … If they are not savvy at texting or e-mail or things like that, then they miss an opportunity,” she said.

A recent survey that asked 1,000 parents and 1,000 children about their text-messaging habits showed that 79 percent of parents text their children most often to tell them to come home or give them a call. Half of parents think text messaging makes them a “cool parent.”

“Not only does text messaging allow parents to enter their child’s world, but it provides an unintrusive way for families to stay in touch throughout the day as needed — whether it’s coordinating schedules, sending reminders about doctor’s appointments or just texting a ‘thinking of you’ message,” said Alecia Bridgwater, director of messaging for AT&T Inc., the nation’s largest wireless carrier, which commissioned the survey.

Sending a text or an e-mail also can be an easy way to establish a dialogue if a son or daughter appears depressed, Ms. Vila suggested.

As for technology’s second major plus, Ms. Vila stressed the entertainment value of the Web and even video game consoles like the Nintendo Wii, noting that families are more likely to stay home as the economy contracts. Although several controversial and violent video games are available, plenty of others, such as the popular “Guitar Hero,” are good for family bonding, she said.

“There are incredible resources out there to support academic achievement,” she said, citing education as the third major area in which the Web can be of help. “You can say, ‘My child is 7 years old. What are the kinds of games, what are the kinds of sites I can go to find some cool books?’ ”

For example, Ms. Vila said, she and her daughter were recently surfing the Internet together to look at satellite images of hurricanes and pictures of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

“Those are the kinds of things that are fun and interesting resources that open kids’ horizons, even if you can’t travel,” she said.

One of the most frequently asked questions is how old a child should be to merit a cell phone. As with other parenting queries, Ms. Vila said, the answer isn’t necessarily one-size-fits-all, but the site offers some recommendations.

“If your child is going to be alone for any period of time, either occasionally or daily, then in my view it’s the right time for a cell phone,” she said. “If the child is clamoring for a phone because he or she wants to text or download ring tones or play games, then that’s different.”

She cited several pay-as-you-go services geared toward children, such as Kajeet or Firefly Mobile, that don’t require contracts.

In addition, the nation’s largest carriers offer a variety of parental-control services that can restrict mobile Web surfing, block unwanted calls and texts, and prohibit young users from buying and downloading games and other content. Both AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. offer theirs for an extra $4.99 a month; Sprint Nextel Corp. doesn’t charge for parental controls; and T-Mobile USA Inc. charges $2 a month.

The Hollisters, who have AT&T, use the Internet to check on Emma’s wireless usage — particularly text messaging, which she added five months ago.

“She definitely went over her first month,” said Mrs. Hollister, who noted that Emma has since learned to manage her usage. As for her sister, seventh-grader Callie will be getting a phone soon - albeit without texting.

And 9-year-old Quinn? “I don’t really see the need for that,” she said.

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