Navigating the Sea of Electronic Media
The New York Times last week told the story of eighth grader Margarite, who "sexted" (sent a naked photo of herself via cell phone) her boyfriend. When he and Margarite broke up, the boyfriend forwarded the message to another girl—a former friend of Margarite's with whom she was having some trouble—with the caption, "Ho Alert!" The girl forwarded it, and soon the whole school had access to the photo that the 14-year-old meant for her boyfriend's eyes. Several students were eventually charged with child pornography for their role in forwarding the message, although charges were eventually downgraded to harassment, punishable by community service.
As my oldest daughter prepares for middle school next year, I'm pondering the best ways to equip her to handle the changes and challenges of adolescence with wisdom and grace. One of my central concerns is how to help her (and our other two children) navigate the digital world of cell phones and laptops. Sexting, distracted driving, cyberbullying—these modern scourges can leave kids damaged, lonely, in legal trouble, or even dead.
Recognizing that online activity (sexting and cyberbullying, as well as less overtly threatening Facebooking and texting) has potentially negative effects on kids' physical and mental health, the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging pediatricians to inquire about media use during check-ups. Experts have coined the phrase "Facebook depression" to describe the plummeting self-esteem that can result from constant exposure to friends' happy status updates and photos indicating a packed social calendar. Although it has yet to show a causal link, one study found that teens who text a lot (120 text messages or more per day) are more likely to engage in sexual activity and drug use. Experts speculate that factors contributing to excessive texting (impulsivity, a need for constant stimulation and social interaction, inadequate parental supervision) also contribute to risk-taking.
What is a parent to do? Some parents might ban electronic media altogether, but that's not the right answer for most of us. Electronic connectivity will play a larger and larger role in the workplace and education. I am a writer for whom online media are indispensable for sharing and marketing my work (and frankly, central to both my social life and my household management). My husband is a librarian transitioning his university library from being a repository of printed material to an access point for online resources. My daughter's middle school homework will require Internet access, as many teachers post homework on web pages, rather than passing it out in class. Facebook, e-mail, and texting can also be tools for enhanced connections between people, if used with respect for others and within limits. Forbidding my kids from using computers and cell phones would be shortsighted and, really, impossible.
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