A Closer Look

Mom vs. the Machines

By Amy Alexander
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, September 17, 2006

When my daughter turned 3, my in-laws bought her a cute, brightly colored laptop called a LeapPad to help with her growing vocabulary.

Back then, she mostly responded to the coloring-book style graphics and high-pitched, bipping songs that emanated from the computer. But after a few months of use, once she'd mastered all that device had to offer, this laptop was relegated to her toy chest. To her, jump-ropes and sidewalk chalk were far more fun.

Now 7, she still jumps rope and draws on the driveway. But more often, she also wants to spend time in front of the computer to play games or watch Internet versions of her favorite kiddie TV shows.

No reason to worry, right? Study after study has revealed that an understanding of technology will be essential as children enter adulthood. Still, I have mixed feelings about technology and its influence over my daughter and her 3-year-old brother.

Today, my kids are content playing learning games and visiting kid-friendly Web sites. But how long until they want e-mail accounts? Or camera phones and MP3 players? Or their own MySpace pages?

I can't help feeling a bit nervous as I watch my children experience new technology at such tender ages -- and at so many contact points in their young lives.

Is this feeling I have one of foolhardy paranoia, or is it a realistic response to some of the highly publicized, child-related pitfalls of all this digital inter-connectedness? After all, we've all seen the scary stories about preteen girls being lured to hotel rooms by adult men they've met online. And late last year, there was the mind-boggling story of a teenage boy who used his webcam to set up a highly profitable pornography business from his own bedroom.

As the parent, it's my job to be smarter about the interaction my children have with technology. My role is paradoxical, a whiplash ride from guide to protector, from techno-cop to optimistic cheerleader. I try my best not to communicate to them my growing anxiety from this somewhat dichotomous dynamic. But more and more, I'm coming to think of it as Mom vs. Machine.

"I think in many ways, this is a brand-new universe," said Amanda Lenhart, senior researcher at the District-based Pew Internet and American Life Project. "Parents find that they're not necessarily comfortable with this technology but that their kids are."

Like many parents, my relationship with technology is decidedly practical. My husband and I, friends our age, and co-workers are comfortable with e-mail and office programs such as Word and Excel. We're e-mailing photos, downloading music and playing around with digital video projects.

But for young people of today, from middle-schoolers to twentysomethings, e-mail addresses are being augmented by MySpace monikers. Video games aren't played with a friend from school but rather a Web-connected gamer on the other side of the planet. Cellphones aren't used for talking -- they're the tool for text messaging, taking pictures and shooting video clips that might appear on YouTube.

I can only imagine the technology that will be used by the time my kids reach middle school.


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