When Maggie Gianesin was a teenager, computers were room-sized machines for serious work by universities, governments and corporations. At the same time, cellular phones were just invented, and only business executives and computer nerds owned one.
She socialized with her friends after school by meeting up with them at local hangouts and occasionally talking on the phone.
“Having a long phone cord that would reach into your room was a big thing,” Maggie said about her teenage years.
When Maggie’s parents wanted to know where she was and what she was doing, they would go to their support community.
“When Maggie (and her older brother, Andy) were teenagers, we had a group of parents who would check with each other. We supported each other,” Maggie’s mom, Margaret Steel said.
“I don’t really envy parents raising teenagers today. Society works overtime to make that parental job difficult,” she added.
Today, Maggie is the mother of three teenage sons at home — and a daughter in college — and she knows very well the mixed blessing of modern technology.
While she appreciates the instant access to her children that cell phones provide, she has concerns. Internet safety and dependence on electronic communication negatively affecting their face-to-face relationships with peers, family members and future spouses, is what worries Maggie most.
When it comes to safety, Maggie relies on good, old-fashioned parental nosiness.
“When they started out with Facebook and MySpace, they couldn’t have a page without me having their passwords,” she said.
When her boys get home from school — and whatever sports team practice they may have — they often go straight to the cell phone or computer to electronically connect with their peers. This causes a disconnect between family members. So when the Gianesin family sits down to share a meal, cell phones are off and out of sight — the same goes at grandma’s house.
“The rule at our house is when we sit down to eat together, we don’t bring those tools to the table,” Margaret said.
Maggie is also concerned about the kids’ interpersonal communication skills in general.
“It’s very safe to express your feelings with a screen between you and who you’re talking to,” Maggie said. “But in a real relationship, you don’t sit across from each other texting. You have to express yourself face-to-face.”
Maggie’s concern is a common one among parents.
“Most young kids aren’t talking to each other verbally,” said Beverly Spielman, director of the Turlock Family Network, a private nonprofit agency that offers parenting classes and mentoring. “They will stand right next to each other and text a complete conversation. It doesn’t help when the Webster Dictionary adds words like ‘lol.’”
A study released in 2010 by Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that cell phone texting has become the preferred channel of basic communication between teens and their friends, with cell calling a close second.
Seventy-five percent of 12-17 year-olds now own a cell phone, up from 45 percent in 2004. The study found that cell phones have become indispensable tools in teen communication patterns. Fully 72 percent of all teens — or 88 percent of teen cell phone users — are text-messagers. That is a sharp rise from the 51 percent of teens who were texters in 2006. More than half of teens (54 percent) are daily texters.
Spielman has heard from local parents that cell phones also cause behavior problems.
“A lot of (parents) have been expressing if they try to take the cell phone away as punishment, even for a short time, their children seem to withdraw from the family,” she said. “It’s like having a different child in the home.”
While modern technology is presenting today’s moms and dads with unique parenting problems, the best way to handle the situation is to do what parents have done for decades to keep track of their kids — stay involved.
“What I have done is made it a point to get to know their teachers, coaches and friends’ parents,” Maggie said. “Communicate with your kids. Ask, ‘How are you doing?’ It helps, maybe not that moment, but when they’re ready it opens the door.”
To mitigate behavior problems, Spielman recommends parents communication with their children and stay aware of what children are doing online and with their cell phones.
“Look where your kids are visiting on the Internet. Pay attention to who your kids are hanging out with and talking to. Invite their friends over to your home. Bring back spending at least one night a week together, interacting with your children,” she said.
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