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Harold KoplewiczBack to OpinionHarold Koplewicz

How to help your child connect, online and off

When parents talk to me about their kids’ well-being, they usually raise concerns about the bonds formed at school, friendships that are increasingly maintained through cell phone texts, instant messages and chats on social networking sites like Facebook. Parents tell me that they’re not only worried about “cyber-bullying,” but also they’re nervous about the impact technology might be having on their child’s development.  Mothers tell me they’ve discovered that their preteen daughters have boyfriends because a Facebook status update told them so. I’ve heard, “My son seems anxious when he can’t check his cell phone for text messages,” and “My daughter is constantly on her Blackberry.” Is all this use of technology really, truly harmless?

Children, and especially teenagers, used to talk to each other on the phone, the family landline, and this, of course, was when they weren’t enjoying face-to-face time, group activities or sports. When my three sons were growing up in the 1980s and early ‘90s, computers and mobile devices were just beginning to be a part of our daily experience. Remembering this, though, doesn’t fill me with relief. Yes, technology has changed dramatically over the last decade, and some of the changes have been unsettling, but the basic questions that arise as our children adopt new, digital forms of communication are longstanding. We’re still shaking our heads and wondering: Are our children developing the skills they need to have healthy, fulfilling relationships? Are they learning how to nurture friendships and engage socially?

To date, we’ve spent much time talking about how technology might diminish or interfere with our children’s ability to enjoy the companionship of others. What we need to focus on instead is teaching our children how to build positive relationships, and how to communicate safely and effectively both off- and online. My teenage patients, who often bring their iPods to my office, will tell you that CDs and the Discman are already “retro” — which doesn’t say much for the longevity of either Facebook or text messaging. Caring adults, who are mindful that new technologies will continue to bring new challenges, need to help children and teens learn to read social cues, such as facial expressions and body language, and make decisions in different situations.

Technology, then, doesn’t have to be a point of contention for parents, but there must be rules of the game. When it’s time for our kids to study, for example, we should insist that they turn off their cell phones. We have a generation of young people who are adept at multitasking, but I guarantee you that even the most gifted child has trouble focusing on schoolwork when it competes with phone vibrations and instant message jingles. It’s crucial, too, that our kids understand that the quality of their face-time with friends and family will be negatively affected if they’re chained to a mobile device. Two of my sons, now grown, are working for a large financial company, and sometimes I catch them glancing under our dinner table at their Blackberries. But ultimately, they embrace the time when they, their mom, and I can turn off our phones and talk, without interruption, about the things that truly matter to us.

What I’m really talking about here is helping our kids develop self-esteem and the communication skills required for healthy, mature relationships. This means that rather than viewing technology as a potential threat, we must teach our kids how to use it.

Here are my tips for getting started:

Cell phones:

  • Set limits and monitor your kids’ cell phone use.
  • Pay attention to the names in a child or teen’s address book. Text messaging enables young people to communicate and make plans with friends their parents may not know.
  • Be specific with your children about the number of text messages you think appropriate to send and receive on a daily basis.
  • Share with your children the monthly cell phone bill. Explain how cell phone services, such as ring tones and text messages, are tracked and charged. Teenagers should begin contributing to their bills.
  • Talk about the consequences of sexting. Emphasize that anything texted can be copied and forwarded to others; intimate photos and messages are not necessarily private.

Social networking:

  • Ask your kids to consider carefully the information they post on social networking sites. Remind them that Facebook and MySpace are public forums, and that strangers can view their profiles, even when privacy controls are employed.
  • Insist that your children turn down “friend requests” from people they don’t know. And while you’re at it, check your kids’ Internet site history. You should know which sites and with whom they’re visiting.
  • Set limits on time spent instant messaging.  Suggest picking up the phone and organizing physical activities.
  • Encourage real-life friendships. Your child needs to know that companionship and intimacy require face-to-face interactions.

Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., 
is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, founding president of The Child Study Center Foundation, a new organization dedicated to transforming mental health care for the world’s children, and director of the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.