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Parenting: Honey, I Wired The Kids

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Obviously, we spend time worrying about the adverse effects of technology on our children, but not, I admit, all that much. We tend to find that parents who do spend a lot of time worrying about these issues don't have a lot of technology (when you have it, most of all you just want it to do everything it's supposed to do). Still, I often think I would like to resist more than I seem able to do. (I am more protective and judgmental than my wife, who is more inclined to trust both the children and the technology.)

Cell phones, for instance, an unexpectedly contentious technology, started to appear in my now tenth-grade daughter's circle in the seventh grade. They were, I thought, vulgarisms: just fashion and status accoutrements. (I felt about seventh-graders with cell phones the way I feel about seventh-graders with Prada.) The fallback position, a beeper, seemed worse, and, with its gang and drug connotations, even dangerous.

"You know you're overreacting," said my wife.

My issues, I understood, had nothing to do with the phone itself, with the technology or the functionality. They had to do with -- well, not giving your kid everything your kid wants.

But then there is the push-down effect.

First, my daughter borrowed her mother's beeper, then one of our cell phones, which after the third or fourth time was not returned right away, so that a de facto state of having a beeper or cell phone came to exist, at the price of inconveniencing one or another parent.

So finally, in the process of upgrading our cell phones (because the old cell phones don't work very well in Manhattan), the old one is passed down from parent to teenager. But the old phone that didn't work for the parent (although somehow the parent used it for the last eighteen months, and used an even worse one before that) doesn't work for the teenager. Finally, it's not even the teenager who complains but the parent who is suddenly cursing the obsolete technology while trying to get the teenager on the phone. Anyway, the failure to deliver something less than immediate gratification results in the teenager's shortly being upgraded. At which point the issue is no longer a matter of what the cell phone means, implies, suggests, portends, but what it means, implies, suggests, portends when the teenager is not available via the cell phone.

"If you don't keep that phone on at all times," I say, often, "you can't have a phone." (Answer: "Whatever.")

This is partly an issue of technologically facilitated control and supervision and convenience, but it is also a more basic issue of modern telecommunications. That is, you must have a person to talk to when you want to talk to him or her. What's more, it's a passing-the-time issue, something extra to do with an idle moment. When I am sitting in a restaurant waiting for a lunch companion, or in traffic in a cab, if I am lucky, my daughter will be willing, available, and within the service area to talk to me.

Indeed, I look forward to all new ways of being in greater and greater touch with the people I want to talk to (which is a different issue from being in closer touch with people with whom one would rather not be in touch).

In the future, therapists might say, "How did you feel about your family's technology?"

Certainly technology has become the focus of some central family issues: money and sex, for starters.

After all, technology can be as expensive as a car.

There are families, of course, who deprive themselves, and families who go way overboard, families whose self-worth may be compromised by obsolete equipment, and families whose values may be corrupted by who-knows-what unnecessary electronic status symbols.

Who gets what and how is the issue with all things in all families. In the past, teenagers fought over the bathroom and phone and television; now they fight over the AOL account (apparently, attentive to domestic discord and to the power of teen chat, AOL is about to release a version that will accommodate multiple users).

And then there is the sex issue. You can't have a discussion about the Internet with parents of teens without this specter's rising (indeed, you can't have a discussion with parents of teens about anything without this specter's rising).

I spoke to a mother recently who has decided her daughter won't be given Internet access until she is 14 (like pierced ears).

Of course, there are all these filtering applications, used policelike in schools and libraries, which work poorly and cynically, but which no parent (other than ones who are both sex-obsessed and technically proficient) would actually install.

In our house, we have decided (although I can't say that Alison and I have really hammered out our digital-sex policy) that the world of digital media, instead of being a city of mean streets ready to rob our children's innocence, is like a great, varied bookstore, which I suppose can take innocence, too, but not too roughly.

We do not actually want to know.

When you have no choice, it is better to find a positive outlook.

The issues of what you do in your family versus how you find it done in the outside world is almost always an awkward one. Now it's an issue of technology too.

If you are from an under-wired family, you probably feel pretty bad (we know parents who have had to call consultants to install AOL). On the other hand, getting all this stuff up and running, being transformed by it in ways large and small, you expect the world to be up and running and transformed, too.


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