Getting Through to Generation 'Text'

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Like so many kids these days, you can find 16-year-old Cole Deardorff in lots of places.

He's the editor of Porcupine Productions--a free-wheeling collection of videos that he and his friends produce, the creator of his own MySpace page and the singer/guitar player on multiple YouTube videos.

And Cole's whole family is into technology, from his baby sister who claps and laughs at YouTube videos to his mom, Leah, who blogs.

Across town, the Nissen family is also devouring the latest technology. Emily, 14, thinks nothing of texting friends non-stop. Her 17-year-old sister, Monica, is an aspiring writer and seeks online forums and friends to critique her work. And their mom, Dory, gets most of her office work done at home via her laptop and cell phone.

These families understand what a new study shows-- today, teens are learning many good things with their fingers and thumbs.

"I think we've been able to step back and say it's not wasting time. Kids aren't being lazy," said Diana Rhoten, Director of Digital Media and Learning for the Brooklyn-based Social Science Research Council.

A Web-Conscious World

The MacArthur Foundation sponsored the study which observed youth and young adults online for more than 5,000 hours In their research, the group found two major benefits.

First, the majority of youth are using new media to develop and enjoy their existing friendships.

"We're navigating a whole new world of socialability that you and I didn't grow up with," Rhoten explained.

Teens, she added, must learn the "ins and outs" of this sophisticated world and are learning it through "netiquette."

"How do you behave online, how do you represent yourself online, when do you expose your full profile, to whom do you expose your full profile," she explained.

More Than Social Networking

Many youth are also using the online world to go beyond school and home and explore their interests.

Rhoten points to sites like Project Budburst, which tracks seasonal changes across the country via "citizen scientists" who report local data. It's a site that has caught the attention of young people.

Likewise, Chessclub.com is attracting teens who want greater competition than their local community offers.

For Cole, online activities have helped to both spur existing friendships and develop his music-related passions. A side-benefit is finding like-minded friends around the world.

"There [are] people who have commented on my YouTube videos from different cultures, different languages," he said. "It's fun to go and Google [the translation]."

Helping Parents Keep Up

But for many parents, the thrill of this new technology is not a joy-filled ride. They're often overwhelmed and stressed by the very options their teens find so enticing.

It's one of the reasons New York-based psychologist Michael Osit recently wrote Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything.

"The technology moves so fast and advances so rapidly and kids are unfazed," he explained. "They're unimpressed. They just adapt to that technology and the power of that and the parents are left in the dust."

Osit also observes that it's difficult to set parameters on this technology that provides access to the outside world 24/7.

Psychologist Linda Mintle writes a parenting column and has authored numerous parenting books, but still admits it's tough to keep up with her kids when it comes to the latest technology.

"I know as a parent I'm very frustrated," she said. "I'm having these texting conversations [with my kids] and I just want to pick up the phone and say 'could we just talk?'"

"But these kids are fast, they're good," she added. "They're used to it and this is the way they communicate with one another."

Knowing the Negatives

Osit says the digital era carries with it some serious concerns for teens. He worries that while they're developing online social skills, real-life relational skills are suffering. A lack of those real-life skills can ultimately hurt youth--in both their personal and workplace relationships.

"Social skills are learned. They have to be learned face-to-face," Osit claimed. "Kids are not practicing it a lot."

Kids are also vulnerable to inappropriate content online. For many parents, pornography is a major concern.

Several years ago, the Justice Department estimated that 9 out of 10 children between the ages of 8 and 16 had been exposed to pornography online. Other websites promote material with violent or self-destructive themes.

Keeping Kids Safe

So, what can parents do to help their children navigate? The parenting experts agree--parents must learn the technology themselves.

"You have to learn what that cell phone can do," Osit said. "[Then] you don't have to worry about what your child is doing or not doing because you set proper boundaries and limits with it."

Next, random inspections are recommended to keep tabs on your child's safety and well-being.

"Go to the sites. Check their history. Find out where they've been," Mintle advised. "Sometimes parents get a little nervous about that and [ask] 'isn't there a privacy issue,'" she added. "[But] they're putting this out in cyberspace which is a public domain and all kinds of people can look at it. You certainly are one of those people."

Also, discuss media with your child. Experts recommend talking about privacy, security, bullying and presentation of self. One online site even provides questions to answer together to create a pact that you can reference on an on-going basis.

Lastly, don't be afraid to be bold. Osit suggests screen-free days for the whole family. Mintle creates text-free zones--like the dinner table, in one-on-one conversations and at church.

Set Boundaries Not Bans

In Chesapeake, Va., youth pastor Thad Harless asks teens to surrender their cell phones at the altar at the beginning of youth events. The practice helps youth to focus on Christ and avoid distractions.

It's tempting for some parents to want to ban media entirely for their children, but experts advise against such measures. Their concern is that denying them access to the basics like the Internet and a cell phone can actually put them at a disadvantage.

"As they move into new worlds that are part of their adult life, college, the workplace and beyond, they're going to have to know how to navigate these new networks," Rhoten explained.

And many teens, like Cole, are hoping the adults in their life will catch a vision of this new technology.

"Don't knock it before you try it," he said. "You don't know what your kids are always doing on there and a lot of the time they're doing some really cool stuff."

His parents, meanwhile, are committed to keeping a close eye on all the family.

"We like to say we trust but verif," Leah Deardorff said.

They're cautious, but clearly excited about what the digital age offers. And experts say that attitude will go a long way to help children make the most of this promising new world.

*Originally aired March 4, 2009.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

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