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Published: Saturday, 1/19/2013

A plea from the face-to-face generation about the touch-and-text one

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

If it takes a village to raise a child, then I’m calling for parental backup. Now.

If you’re of a generation that came of age when, say, electric typewriters were all the rage, let’s talk.

As tech savvy as you may be, you can’t compete with kids. Sorry. The young technophiles we live with have a natural affiliation with their ever-changing cyberspace realities. It’s all they know. From tykes to teenagers, they take to their computerized world with an intuitive awareness no grown-up can hope to match.

My 13-year-old son is the go-to person in our household for questions about information technology. Has been for years. He solves the most confounding computer problems that confront his dumbfounded mom.

He and his pals may draw a blank about what they learned in social studies, but ask them about the latest and greatest electronic device and who has one. On the school bus, students kill time with iPods or iPhones.

The ubiquitous gems are the ultimate status symbols in middle school. A boastful few in the backpack bunch also play with their 3DS XLs.

Others daydream about owning an Xbox 360, PSP, Wii, or what have you. Looking at and interacting with a screen — small or otherwise — are what kids do when they’re not sleeping.

Touch and text. It’s how they communicate instead of conversing face to face. It’s how they entertain themselves with music, games, and endless gossip.

It’s all they need. Their social network is singular plural. One person types a message or sends a photo into that network and “friends” or would-be friends like or comment about what is posted.

The young embrace the cyber lifestyle to a greater degree than their elders. Sure, we like the easy and instant communication each succeeding generation of equipment offers.

But for the most part, we’re not addicted to the technology we hold in our hands. Adolescents are.

That makes some parents uneasy. Once tweens and teens create online accounts on their mobile devices, they’re connected to the world.

It’s awesome. But it’s also uncharted territory for kids and parents. The rules are sketchy. The risks, especially for naive and impressionable youths, are real.

In a weak moment, Santa delivered iPods to two ecstatic teenagers in my home. Mom and Dad sat said teens down for a serious talk about the responsibilities and restrictions attached to online activity. We drew up a code of conduct, modeled on one that went viral by a mommy blogger in Massachusetts. We made the itchy iPod fingers sign it. Whether the contract, which curbs use of and content on the device, will result in good choices by the teenage signers is unclear.

Periodic perusals of what is communicated via photos and Instagram — a pseudo-Facebook system — to read the musings of juvenile extroverts are revealing.

Close-ups of puckering-up are big among seventh and eighth-grade girls. So are corny greeting card sentiments on love and finding the right boyfriend. No surprise there.

What I didn’t expect to see was a smattering of kids I remember from preschool, posing suggestively in skimpy outfits. “Sexy” is prevalent in flirtatious missives designed to provoke reaction. So are words I won’t repeat. A photo by a popular teen bordered on racist. Another pictured a cheeky 13-year-old hoisting a bottle of booze.

This is the stuff that keeps parents awake nights. We don’t want to jump into the digital lives of our kids and prohibit everything they say or do. We don’t want to snoop obsessively in their developing world. But we must have oversight and guidance to protect our technically sophisticated cell-phone and iPod users who are not emotionally mature.

They may know more than we do about social media, but not so much about living or interacting with humans who don’t have their best interests at heart. The older I get, the more I subscribe to the value of a village working to mold its young as sterling caretakers of the future.

We need to look out for each other, get involved in the digital habits of our kids, and alert each other to troubling trends before things go horribly wrong.

Any backups out there?

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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