January 22, 2009
Walnut Creek author offers expert advice to parents on the pros and cons of kids' use of the new technology
RJ Lavallee is a Walnut Creek writer and father who, like a lot of us parents, faced a daunting challenge when his oldest child begged him to buy him the the latest cool electronic gadget to hit the kindergarten playground.
Lavallee's 5-year-old son desperately wanted a Nintendo DS, and Lavallee and his wife were scrambling to figure out how to respond. On one hand, neither had been gamers growing up and Lavallee says he had some pretty common worries: that his son just wanted because everyone else had one; that the game would put him in bad company; that the game would lead him to a sedentary, unhealthy, obsessive electronic gaming life-style.
Those worries led Lavallee to do some serious research into the true dangers and benefits of video games, cell phones, and other 21st century communication tools. What Lavallee learned challenges some of what I'll call the current hysteria surrounding kids and modern technology.
In developing what would turn out to be his book, IMHO (In My Humble Opinion), Lavallee rigorously analyzed the most cutting-edge studies on the topic of kids and technology. He also interviewed leading national experts and kids themselves. He developed conclusions that may defy conventional wisdom, but ultimately offer a smart, balanced, and useful perspective to parents trying to make sense, for themselves and for their families, of this brave new technological frontier.
What follows is my Q&A with Lavallee, in which he offers useful ideas for parents to consider when deciding whether a particular gadget or technology is appropriate for their child.
We read so much about kids becoming victims of cyber-bullying or sexual predators, luring kids through Internet sites, into dangerous online and actual relationships. Shouldn't parents be worried?
Of course they should be worried, but not about the online world. A draft of a report by a researcher named danah boyd [sic] for the Pew Internet & American Life Project in November of 2008 noted how the same kids who are threatened online are typically at the greatest risk of experiencing the same dangers in real life. This is why sociologists think what we’re seeing on the Internet is nothing new. Parents should be worried: worried about being responsible parents who communicate with their children, but not about the Internet specifically.
How often does cyber-bullying or child victimization via the Internet actually take place?
Empirical statistics are hard to come by for events and/or behaviors that emanate or are specifically caused by interactions on the Internet. Even in the area of law enforcement there is nothing that specifically notes if a crime is related somehow to the Internet. Since it is practically impossible for a child to avoid some form of contact with the Internet after the age of 10, I propose that almost every bullying or victimization event would involve the Internet in some way. The underlying, and most important facts here are, however, that somewhere over 98 percent of all child abductions and abuse claims are perpetrated by either a family member or a close family friend. Some statistics indicate that number is as high as 99.8 percent.
Do you think kids are actually better able to make safe decisions than we give them credit for?
Absolutely. A recent interview session with a group of 4th and 5th graders illustrated this. These kids are what researchers have coined “digital natives.” They get the Internet better than their parents do. One must remember, however, that they are children. How many times did your parents remind you when you were young to look both ways before crossing the road? The children are savvy, but they do still need parental guidance, which can only come from communication. I tend to note that a lot: the importance of communication.
What about kids not being active like they used to, because they're slouched on the couch with their Nintendo, or lying in front of the TV, playing their Xbox? Shouldn't that make us say no to these games?
Well, we really haven’t given them many choices, have we? When I was a child my mother used to say to me “be home by dinner.” That was when I was in first grade. I would run a quarter-mile down the street to the house of the next closest kid I knew, we would run another bit to another kid’s house, then we’d be off through the neighborhood, or blasting down the biggest hill we knew on our bicycles. I would love to do that with my kids today, but I find myself restricted by social pressures from other parents, afraid that someone might actually call social services on me for allowing my kids to venture out unsupervised. But that’s when I played, and ran around, and exercised my body, and my decision-making skills, which weren’t always that good, and often meant a sprint back home so my mom could patch up whatever I cut or tore or bruised. So we parents recognize this and schedule play-dates, or involve them in organized sports that last an hour or an hour and a half at most after school. I’d love to be able to say “no” to these games, but they need some form of outlet after school, and while video games should not be the only outlet, they are an adequate choice to put in the mix.
Can you explain how the new technology and the games involved play a role in kids' social lives?
This is probably where I see the greatest benefit to allowing a child to play video games, or interact in online virtual worlds: cultural touchstones. The vast majority of children with whom our kids interact at school are going to have some degree of exposure to the Internet and video games. The access that you allow your kids, and at what age, really becomes a personal choice, and is something that will answer itself, mirroring your family’s beliefs and feelings towards technology. The only thing that I’d add is that to totally restrict a child’s access to these media is analogous to the parents of the '70s withholding television from their children. Did those children do well in school? Some would argue better. Were those children total cultural outcasts? No. The only thing those kids missed were the occasional cultural touchstones that wove themselves into playground games and recess talk: the water cooler babble of children.
What is the fascination with social networking sites? If our kids want a Facebook account, should we let them and are there things we should watch out for?
The fascination is carnal; humans need and like to connect with each other, we communicate, we are social creatures. That the Internet would lead to this was only a matter of time and innovation. Ten, even 15 years ago places like this existed, they just weren’t so visual. As the technology matured so did the presentation methods.
Facebook? For kids? Not yet, but that’s my personal opinion. My 10-year-old nephew “friended” me on Facebook, and it weirded me out. I do not want to have to censor myself in that landscape, and that my brother-in-law thought it OK to let his 10-year-old son onto Facebook I found curious, but that’s his decision. For social networking there are places that are much more age-friendly and specific. Club Penguin is perfectly satisfactory for elementary school kids. Middle school: I could see using MySpace, even Facebook, but you need to communicate the importance of restricting access: keeping the site “private” and only inviting or accepting invitations from people you absolutely know. That’s where it gets hairy– that balance between infringing upon your child’s space and giving them a sense of privacy and autonomy–but that’s the tough part about parenting, isn’t it?
If our kids are into gaming, how can we make sure that the games are kids play are safe and age appropriate?
With your kids: communicate, communicate, communicate. Practically every start-up page of every online game is targeting a very specific demographic that is fairly easy to discern by that page. Ask your kids to show you the websites of the online games they are playing. If they’re playing console games, like on a Sony PS3, or Nintendo Wii, or handheld games like a Nintendo DS, all of the games are rated by a rating agency, like the MPAA does for movies. You can reference the Entertainment Software Rating Board for more information about their rating system, and look up specific game titles.
To buy Lavallee’s book go to Lulu.com. Look for IMHO on Amazon.com starting in March. Lavallee also maintains a blog examining the cultural ramifications of technological innovations, under the Technology: Culture – The Blog link.
The New York Times Technology, Science and Arts sections
The Wall Street Journal Tech pages
Virtual Worlds Weekly