“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

Having just returned from a camp conference in Colorado during which there was significant discussion about children and technology, I was struck by Jordan’s comments in response to my blog post of November 1 (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”). He challenged my Boomer-biased assumption that online time was potentially dangerous, and he pointed out numerous benefits to conversing in the virtual world. He even lasered in on the value and opportunities for meaningful connections. At the time, I thought his assertions were noteworthy enough to merit another look at today’s media.

Now my eyes have really been opened, both by what I learned at the workshop and by the just-released report of the MacArthur Foundation called “Living and Learning with New Media.” Turns out Jordan, a GenXer (and also, in the interest of full disclosure, my techno-savvy son) who grew up reaping the plus points of living in a supplementary universe that promotes social connections, was on the money.

Interestingly, somewhere between that November 1 post and this one, my daughter-in-law, Jessica, invited me to “friend” her on Facebook, which meant, of course, that I would have to create my own profile first. So, in keeping with my philosophy to always engage when she reaches out to me, I ventured into this vast abyss of cyberspace!

Upon arrival there, a whole new world of belonging and connecting began to unfold before my eyes. So now I can attest, first-hand, to an understanding of the appeal of having a social network that I can control; that is, I can decide to whom I want to talk and when, I can think about what I want to say or not, and I can look for old friends or build a rapport with acquaintances.

Indeed, the MacArthur study found that [children’s] “…participating is giving them the technological skills and literacy… they’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity….” Bob Ditter, the child and family therapist who conducted the workshop on youth and technology, said the same thing in different words, underscoring the infinite societal upside of friending, texting, and tweeting. Of course, in the context of the meeting for professionals who take care of children, his message was delivered to help those adults be aware of their important role in setting boundaries and monitoring acceptable codes of conduct around these evolving trends.
The New York Times reported today that in 2007, the average person annually spent 189 hours online. It is a no-brainer to extrapolate that the 21 million youth in America who go online regularly likely exceeded that number by a lot. That’s because they have a limitless network of chances to practice and to hone their socialization skills, while at the same time limiting their exposure to self-esteem issues they likely are grappling with in the process of growing up.

The silver lining in this news was unveiled the other day by Lisa Belkin in her blog, “Motherlode,” when she opined, “Thank you, MacArthur Foundation for taking a smidge of ‘bad parenting’ guilt off our shoulders.” That said, we can – and should – still find time to engage in real-world skill-building with our children, such as personal interaction and reading (try “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst) because MySpace and Facebook creators still haven’t been able to conquer the ability to communicate tone, facial expression, and body language!

Knowledge is not only power; it is also a great comfort in the face of the unknown. And that’s what today’s parents are wrestling with every day they are raising their children. So leave your comfort zone. Do you have an online profile? (Please share your observations.) If not, think about creating one- but please keep to your own circle of friends, and don’t invade your child’s “space.”