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How to Handle the Brave New World of i, X, IM, and Wii

It would be so easy to become a crazy person, wouldn’t it? One of those reactionary lunatics who fears the world is moving too fast and sets sky-high bonfires in the backyard, hurling cell-phone chargers and iPod Nanos and fistfuls of flash drives onto the crackling flames as you giggle madly and mutter desperate prayers to the Gods of Simpler Times. (Not that I’ve thought this through or anything.)

As parents, especially, the threats of the Digital Age can scare you stupid. Are our sons being stalked by some cyber-perv who hangs out on Club Penguin? Will our daughters post photos of themselves, drunk and half-naked, on MySpace for their college admissions counselors to see?

Most frightening of all: Will our texting, Wii-ing, IM-ing little darlings grow up unable to relate to human beings face-to-face?

These questions were posed at a recent talk by media expert Jim Steyer. A former schoolteacher and civil rights attorney, Steyer runs Common Sense Media, a non-preachy Web site that reviews movies, TV, games, and music for parents. He spoke to parents and educators at Laguna Blanca School last week about the media’s impact on modern kids.

Parents have always fretted the media’s influence. Steyer’s own mother worried that the Rolling Stones might corrupt him. The difference now is that kids spend more time with the media — online, watching TV, iPod ear buds in place — than they do with their parents.

To us, this technology still feels new — “new-fangled,” even. (As I type this, spell check is flagging every other word.) And because it’s new, it’s unnerving. “We are immigrants to this new digital reality,” pointed out Steyer, a father of four, “but our kids are natives.”

What we view as a professional or social tool, they see as a world unto itself. A world with unlimited access to the best and worst elements of humanity. A world where, according to concerns voiced by parents that night, teens feel free to collect pirated movies and publish intimate secrets and sling lingo alerting their friends of a prying parent’s approaching footsteps: P911!

Still, the media isn’t evil. We don’t need to denounce Facebook and YouTube and now Twitter (Want to know what your friends are doing all day long? They’re logging the minutiae of their lives on Twitter, that’s what!) as the devil’s doing. We just need to be parents — a job that doesn’t seem to change from generation to generation. The duty now is pretty much the same as it was back when those infernal moving pictures started luring kids to dark cinema houses, or when the ubiquitous Sony Walkman made it impossible to chat with teens over dinner.

First, set boundaries. Steyer suggests imposing time limits on your kids’ media time, requiring them to ask permission to use the stuff and never putting a TV or computer in their bedrooms.

Second, teach values. Show them how to temper curiosity with caution, how to have fun without sacrificing foresight. Discuss why it’s inconsiderate to answer a cell phone when you’re talking to someone in person. Explain that even though the Internet makes it easy to download songs without paying for them, or poach someone else’s history essay, it doesn’t make it right.

As a new parent, did you read What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Do you make a point of attending parent/teacher conferences? Talking with your kids about the media, Steyer said, is at least as important as those efforts. At this moment in this century, he said, it should be the measure of a competent parent.

I think he’s right. Give it a try. But the nice thing about bonfires is they’re always there if you need them.

Published inColumnsParenting

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