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Parents have always struggled to talk with their children about certain topics. When kids are young, parents can gloss over the details of where babies come from and why the man in the movie is slurring his words and stumbling. But as kids get older and are making more of their decisions independently, it’s vital for parents to give them good information.

It’s time to be upfront, factual and blunt about what goes on in the world, and more importantly, how to avoid making the big mistakes. Until about 1995, this conversation mostly revolved around sex and drugs (OK, I’ll throw in rock ‘n’ roll just for fun). But with the internet, teens can be unknowingly heading down a dark alley with every click on the smartphone.

Luckily, recent research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that most parents are talking to their teens about online safety. Here’s what parents and teens report:

Parents and teens report that they talk together about online safety

It isn’t shocking that parents talk more than teens listen (or perhaps parents just think they talk more than they actually do), but the good news is that there is conversation happening.

One point from the Pew report that caught my eye and that I think some parents can learn from is this:

“According to teens, parents who use social media are more likely to talk with their teen about what kinds of things should and should not be shared online or on a cell phone. Teens report that parents who are friends with their teens on social media are more likely to have these conversations than parents who have not friended their child (92% vs. 79%). Parents who do not use social media are more likely to have teens who report that their parents do not talk about any online behavior or safety issues with them.”

The message is clear: Parents, do not buy your child a technology you do not understand. Get on social media sites and see what’s going on. Send some photos from your phone so you know how easy it is (too easy). Text so you can relate to your child (what does MOS mean in your teen’s text?). Friend your child on Facebook (but not too obnoxiously). Follow your child on Twitter (discretely). The point is not to harass kids, the point is to fend off a major online mistake that your child could regret.

Be where they are – they need you.

Click on photo to watch 57 second video

It doesn’t matter if you’re the chief operating officer of Facebook making millions of dollars a year like Sheryl Sandberg or if you’re the head clerk of a grocery store, parents need to be able to spend time with their children. But it’s hard.

In this short MAKERS video, part of a video initiative from AOL and PBS showcasing hundreds of compelling stories from trailblazing women, Sandberg talks about leaving work at 5:30 p.m. everyday to be home to eat dinner with her two young children. If you have a job that’s salaried rather than hourly, that’s easier said than done.

When I was pregnant, I assumed that I’d return to work after maternity leave. I’d always worked. Everyone I knew worked. So I returned to work. That lasted six months, and then I quit. I could not do the job I expected of myself without staying late. I felt guilty for not being home with my baby (and I just missed him). I felt guilt for not staying late enough, pitching in enough, working hard enough.

I was fortunate enough to be able to stay home for a few years, returning to a part-time job when preschool rolled around for my son. And Sandburg is clearly bright enough and fortunate enough to be able to afford fantastic home help so dinner is ready when she gets there. I know for most parents, leaving work at 5:30 p.m. does not mean sitting down to a pleasant dinner with the family at 6 p.m. It means driving to daycare to pick the kids up, swinging by the grocery store, unloading the car, getting something in the oven, feeding the dog, and on and on.

But good for everyone, rich or poor, who fights the good fight to put their children first.

I applaud Sandberg and her dedication to both her career and her family. I cheer her standing up for parents everywhere and saying, “Hey, I am leaving work at 5:30.”

My time as tech manager

April 8, 2012

Like many moms, Jessica Torres has a house full of technology – four laptops, an iPad, two iPhones, two iPods, an iPod touch and two desktop computers. OK, maybe it sounds more like an Apple Store than a house, but for good reason. Jessica and her husband live in Reno and run two businesses. She has three blogs, three Twitter accounts (one of which has more than 53,000 tweets!), three Facebook fan pages and her personal Facebook page to manage. That’s a lot of digital time!

I found out about Jessica, 30, through her blog My Time As Mom. As another mom submerged in a digital world, I asked Jessica for her insights on managing technology with her 2- and 8-year-old girls.

“We don’t really have any rules about screen time,” Jessica says. “Rather we just monitor them each day with the devices. We try not to let the kids have too much time on any of the devices because we don’t want them to miss out on the world around them. However, it’s hard because they see me spending so much time online because of everything I do.”

Her 8-year-old owns a laptop and an iPod touch. Jessica says the iPod touch was a gift last Christmas.

“For the first month she was always on it at home,” Jessica says. “We started telling her to put it down at certain times. Since then, she has started to spend less time on it – maybe one hour a day.”

The laptop gets one or two hours of use a week and has parental security set up so certain websites can’t be accessed. Jessica says her daughter mostly uses the laptop to look up things she wants to know more about and to learn to type.

“Next year, we are planning on homeschooling her, so I’m sure that she will be spending more time on the computer,” Jessica says.

As for the 2-year-old (almost 3), Jessica says she gets to use the iPhone and the iPad for games and YouTube videos of Dora, Diego and Mickey Mouse.

“I have been in the middle of potty training my toddler, so as a reward she would get to use my phone or the iPad to watch a video while she was on the toilet (hopefully not TMI),” says Jessica.

I think every parent would agree that potty training brings out all the bribes! Check out Jessica’s blog post on the topic: Potty tricks.

Looking to the future, Jessica says she and her husband plan to manage their children’s technology habits closely.

“My kids will not be allowed to join Facebook or Twitter until they are age appropriate and mature enough to understand the sites,” she says.

“Our children will not have cell phones until at least high school,” she says. “I see kids today in my daughter’s elementary school who are in second and third grade with cell phones hidden under the lunch table. We will get our kids cell phones when they are old enough to drive and have a job.”

And maybe that job will be running a successful blog, just like their mother!

In October 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its policy statement concerning babies and media use. It is quite clear: “The AAP discourages media use by children younger than 2 years.” It goes on to say, “Unstructured playtime is more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media exposure. If a parent is not able to actively play with a child, that child should have solo playtime with an adult nearby. Even for infants as young as 4 months of age, solo play allows a child to think creatively, problem-solve, and accomplish tasks with minimal parent interaction.”

So why does the Laugh and Learn Apptivity Case by Fisher-Price exist? It’s an iPhone holder intended for children ages 6 months and up.

Parents listen to their pediatricians’ advice on most aspects of their children’s health, yet when pediatricians specifically tell us it is bad for our babies to interact with electronic media, many parents ignore them. About 40 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds (and 10 percent of 0 to 1-year-olds) have used a smartphone, tablet or video iPod, according to an October 2011 study by Common Sense Media.

Perhaps marketing and advertising have a part to play. Frito-Lay spends millions making sure we feel good about eating Doritos, while I’ve never seen an ad for apples. Now, Fisher-Price has ads for the Laugh and Learn Apptivity Case to tell us, “Free Laugh & Learn™ apps mean plenty of learning fun!” but I’ve never seen a AAP advertisement telling parents that play is best for their babies.

Another reason this iPhone holder will be popular is that life often trumps “the right thing to do.” I know I should exercise everyday, but life gets in the way. Most parents know about the AAP recommendation, but life (meaning a screaming child) gets in the way.

What do you think of the Laugh and Learn Apptivity Case? Take the poll and see what everyone else said:

While most of us use Twitter to keep in touch with others and share interesting content we’ve found online, some teachers are finding educational ways to use Twitter to engage their students. Check out these great ideas from BestCollegesOnline and AskATechTeacher, then think of the possibilities in your family to make your own tutorial tweets:

  • Now is the perfect time to use Twitter to help students engage in political conversation. Even better than simply following @barackobama and @mittromney, students can tweet questions to the candidates. The candidate with the smart campaign staff will tweet right back.
  • Teachers can create a class hashtag such as #mrsjoneshistory, then have the class create an online resource everyone can use. In one Iowa classroom highlighted by BestOnlineColleges, the teacher asks the students to each tweet their MVP (Most Valuable Point) following class discussion, thus compiling a great resource of knowledge for future review (think group note-taking).
  • With Twitter’s 140-character limit, we all have to tweet concisely. This tight space challenges students to make every word count. Hone those action verbs, tighten those adjectives. Save the rambling for your blogs.
  • Books and online searches are wonderful tools for research, but imagine how much more engaged students become when they can tweet with experts around the world. For instance, a geography class that’s researching Mount Everest can follow #oneverest for nearly real time commentary and photos of what’s happening on the great mountain.

These are just a few of the educational opportunities for students that Twitter offers. What innovative ways can you imagine Twitter enhancing education in your child’s life? How do you use it now?

The joy and happiness a new baby brings into the world is staggering. But all those smiles and cuddles come with a cost to parents – the end to peace of mind. Every fever, every rash, every colicky night scares parents, yet makes them stronger. Anxiety management is a huge part of learning to let your children go, as they surely will, into the world.

Exmobaby garment

Now, I’m all for using electrical-outlet covers in your home, installing rear-facing carseats in your cars, and putting babies into their cribs with sleepsuits instead of blankets, but recently I heard about a product that I think goes too far: Exmobaby.

Exmobaby (tagline: “knows how your baby feels”) is “the first-ever baby garment developed for remote monitoring of heart rate, emotional state and behavior.” The website goes on to explain how sensors integrated into the clothing wirelessly transmit data to a home computer where software can then analyze it: “The software means that parents can record previous physical states and attach a motivation, such as hunger or tiredness, which allows the system to predict likely causes of future events. With parent and caregiver input, the technology can learn over time and help predict baby’s future emotional and behavior states.” [bold Exmobaby’s]

Of course if a baby has been diagnosed with a medical risk, then by all means use appropriate monitoring. But to me, Exmobaby feels like a company preying on every parents’ deepest fear: losing a child.

I’m also troubled by the idea of monitoring the baby to predict future emotions and needs. If the monitoring data tells a mother that her child is on the verge of being hungry, and the mother goes to the baby and feeds him, how will the baby ever learn to communicate his needs? And who can be surprised when these uber-monitored babies turn into children who expect their every wish to be granted before they can even think of it?

Medical technology has brought wonderful things to the world, but monitoring babies’ emotional states is a little too big brother and a lot too hands-free parenting for me.

Oh, and did I mention that one baby suit with equipment costs $1,000? My baby went through six onesies a day, easily, between diaper mishaps and spit-up. How is one of these going to be useful?

Here are a few other quotes from the Exmobaby site, all of which make me think it goes too far:

“Exmobaby is intended ultimately for first time parents.” I presume because second-time parents are not as vulnerable to scare tactics.

“Exmobaby parents will be able to see icons representing their baby’s heartbeat, emotional state and activity level on their cell phones. This is especially important for first-time mothers re-entering the work force, parents concerned about the vigilance of their babysitter, and childcare centers juggling the needs of multiple children.” Really? A new mother is supposed to work and watch for a text from the baby monitor that the baby isn’t breathing? She would get no work done! And if I could afford a $1,000 baby monitor suit, I think I could afford a better child care facility than one that remotely monitors my baby.

“The idea is to demonstrate the link between changes in vital sign data and mental states. It is also to create a deeper level of communication between babies and their parents at the beginning of such a critical relationship.” A deeper level of communication is looking at your baby, listening to your baby, holding your baby and with your baby figuring out how to make him content.

“No extra or constant monitoring by parents, caregivers or relatives is needed. The Exmobaby product line does all the work.” The message here is: Check on your baby less. I don’t like that message at all.

Now, to lighten the mood before you move on, here’s a baby garment I would be on board with if I didn’t find it so absurdly funny: The Baby Mop.

Which would you put your baby in – Exmobaby or Baby Mop? Please share in comments!

I thought I loved Facebook. I thought I loved YouTube. I thought I loved NYTimes.com. But now I know the truth – I didn’t even know what love was until I tried all those websites without advertisements.

My new best friend is AdBlock, a quick and easy download that stops Gucci from telling me I need a $500 handbag (on NYTimes.com, of course) and film execs from telling my 8-year-old he needs to watch the violent, PG-13 film Wrath of the Titans. For years now I’ve seen ads on Facebook telling me how to look younger (darn Facebook for knowing my age) and weather.com telling me how I can fly to Vegas cheap and party cheap, too (they don’t know me as well). I’ve had ads for L.L.Bean kids’ snowsuits populate ad spaces on all the web pages I go to, simply because I’d been shopping around for snowsuits. It’s creepy. And it’s over.

Since I installed the free browser plug-in AdBlock, the ads are gone. Poof. At first, looking at my ad-less web pages, I had a moment of, “But wait, will I miss something?” But shortly after, the peace set in – the peace of my mind not having to play the role of ad-filter while clicking through web pages. Do I want a Gucci bag? No. Should I buy that wrinkle cream? No. Do I want to party cheap in Vegas? No. I don’t have to even consider those ad-driven ideas anymore. My brain is free. I can concentrate on the task at hand, whether it’s shopping for Gucci knockoffs (just kidding) or checking out a cool video of a Rube Goldberg machine with my son.

Give yourself some ad-free peace, too. I followed this step-by-step on the Yoursphere website: How to Easily Block Ads on Your Child’s Computer. But it works for parents’ computers, too!

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