Beth Blecherman has a frank take on parenting in a digital age. “Internet safety is the new sex talk,” said the Silicon Valley-based founder of parenting blog TechMamas.com. In other words, trying to enforce a childhood without technology is like expecting a teenager not to have hormones.
But unlike a sex talk, the technology talk isn’t a one-time laying down of the law, but a series of rules negotiated as kids become more mature. Whether you’re considering giving your child his first cell phone or letting him join Facebook, it comes down to each kid’s level of development.
By age six, Blecherman says, children should know what can happen if you visit the wrong Web site. By fifth grade, most kids should have their own e-mail address (or at least by junior high, as their school might require it). Once they do have e-mail access, they should be prepared to report cyberbullying. And around age 12, a year before kids can legally join Facebook, it’s time to talk about social networking safety.
Meanwhile, Kimberley Blaine, a licensed child therapist and founder of TheGoToMom.tv, gave her son, now eight, his own computer (her spare MacBook) when he was three-and-a-half. For now, he can use the computer as much as he wants, so long as he’s using it to practice typing. But gaming is out, save for a half hour on Mondays and an hour on Saturdays. In explaining to him the dangers of surfing the Web unsupervised, she framed the issue in such a way that her son felt protected, not restrained. “I said, ‘Honey, there’s a ton of things on the Internet that’s not for kids,’” she recalls. “‘Just like TV, mommy has a blocker because there are scary shows on and I don’t want to scare you. The Internet has that too, so I have to protect you.’”
Although Blecherman is a blogger, her children’s (she has six year-old twins) immersion in technology is something of a concession. “Kids need to have imaginary play, outside time, and face-to-face time,” she said. “But times have changed, and technology is here to stay.”
Not that that’s such a bad thing, says Larry Rosen, PhD, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of the upcoming book Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn. The problem isn’t that kids are too wired, but that parents just don’t get it. “What you have to do as a parent is recognize that this is not your world anymore,” he explained. “This is not your way of making friendships and having social relationships. This is their way.”