Kids today face a considerable assortment of gadgets and technologies to master: cell phones, BlackBerrys, iPods and the vast world of the Internet. It's no wonder, then, that the young focus so much on material goods; if the majority of a child's friends have the latest appurtenances, chances are he or she will be asking for them, too. Add to that other present-day pressures — such as having embarrassing footage, recorded by a cell-phone camera, uploaded to YouTube just minutes after the images were captured, for all the world to see — and it's clear that today's youngsters have lots to worry about that previous generations never could have imagined.
So what are parents supposed to do?
More than 30 people gathered on Nov. 20 to discover some answers to this pertinent question at a program held at the Perelman Jewish Day School, Stern Center, in Wynnewood. The speaker was Sharon Duke Estroff, a Marietta, Ga.-based, syndicated, Jewish-parenting columnist, educator and mom of four school-age children.
Parents these days are "digital immigrants," stated Estroff, whose book, Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?: The Essential Scoop on Raising Modern Jewish Kids, in which she discusses ways of finding a balance between traditional family values and contemporary culture, was published in 2007. "We grew up in those dark ages before cell phones and iPods."
And, as she acknowledged fairly early on in her remarks, "Sometimes newer isn't always better."
Estroff noted that youths socialize online in chat rooms and through instant-messaging, sometimes staring at the computer screen for hours on end; this, she continued, has replaced traditional socializing, like playing in the park or hanging out at the mall, and has created a computer community where children can be subjected to lying, cheating, stealing, virtual materialism and bullying. As such, parents need to come up with a new set of rules and guiding principles to inculcate in their kids.
During the program, titled "From Net Generation to Net Generation: Raising Digital Natives with Jewish Values," Estroff offered various tips for parents.
Keep Computers Out of Bedrooms
The expert recommended that parents not allow an Internet-connected device in a child's bedroom and, instead, place the computer in a highly trafficked area of the home, where a parent can monitor online habits. Additionally, she suggested spot-checking a child's buddy lists, and asking questions about each person and how the child met him or her.
"Recognize this is their world and how they communicate," added Estroff, "but we need to be there."
To "get a lay of the land," the columnist urged parents to set up their own Facebook accounts, and require their children to "friend" them in order to keep track of what materials they post online.
With cyber-bullying becoming a widespread problem, Estroff suggested drawing up an agreement list with a code of conduct, "just like you would in real life," as a way for parents and children to talk about some of these issues before going online; the key to this, she said, is to be specific, such as no bad words or name-calling, and no posting inappropriate pictures of friends, and to always ask your children how they would feel if someone did that to them.
Estroff added that parents should also brush up on their cyber-acronyms, some as simple as LOL ("laugh out loud") and BRB ("be right back"), to others such as PRW ("parents are watching"), which kids use to give their online friends a heads-up so they'll be careful about what they're posting.
"They know their parents are clueless and are capitalizing on that," warned Estroff. She noted that Web sites, like connectsafely.org, offer a list of the most common acronyms kids use.
She also suggested embracing and celebrating Shabbat, since parents and children can use the day as a break from modern technologies. A screen-free Saturday, she said, can be a day for kids to play with things that don't require a battery or charger. She also advised having kids help pay for the membership costs of some social sites with allowance money. She also promoted online giving opportunities, such as "Coins for Change," through the popular children's social-networking Web site, ClubPenguin.com.
Estroff urged audience members to use the parental controls on the computer, and to download and utilize monitoring software.
"It's not spying," argued Estroff. "It's parenting."