By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: June 13, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Now that school's out, Sue Barnett has replaced one concern for another when it comes to her 11-year-old son, Noah.
Instead of being a homework disciplinarian, Barnett often feels like she has to run interference between Noah, his Nintendo DS and his Web browser.
"I'm worried I won't be able to fend it off," said Barnett, a San Francisco resident and mother of two. "The summer just presents that much more opportunity for him to be on the Internet unsupervised, and parents do let down their guard because they don't have the pressure of school."
Like many parents of school-age kids, Barnett faced her first of 12 weeks of summer this week, and with it an extra 30 hours, on average, of supervising her children. In the Digital Age, when many kids don't play outside in the neighborhood or at the park, many parents are thinking about who they're playing with online.
Make no mistake, the Internet is playing an increasingly major role in kids' entertainment. According to research from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, kids ages 8 to 18 now spend an average of 48 minutes a day online and about three hours a day watching television.
But unlike TV, the Internet is an interactive playground where kids can socialize with friends and strangers. Experts say that depending on a child's age, parents need to ask themselves a host of new questions about their kids' use of technology: Is this addictive? Is it appropriate for my kids' age? Can my child talk to or be exposed to strangers with this technology?
With summer here, "in general, kids are leaving school and they're faced with a lot of free time," said Susan Sachs, chief operating officer of media-education group Common Sense Media. "They spend more time online anyway, and more unmonitored time. It can be scary for parents who feel outgunned, especially by kids who know more about technology than they do."
That said, Sachs said summer presents ample opportunity for parents to sit down with their children and talk about how they use the Net, set time limits and establish rules of engagement.
Congress has also declared June as National Internet Safety Month, in line with the past several years. In a May 17 declaration, Congress called on "Internet safety organizations, law enforcement, educators, community leaders, parents and volunteers to increase their efforts to raise the level of awareness for the need for online safety in the United States." That translates to various programs and efforts by groups like Common Sense Media, which published a parent's guide to kids Net safety and a guide to summer media use.
The Advertising Council, a nonprofit public-awareness group, also started airing a new ad campaign to educate teens about the perils of posting too much information about themselves online. The commercials, called "Think Before You Post," are being aired on television and are circulating the Web on sites like YouTube.
Parents of younger kids, ages 7 to 12, are especially new to the phenomenon of social networking, given that sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz, which are targeted at that age group, have exploded in the last year or two.
Kate Becker, also a San Francisco resident, said both her 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter like to play on Club Penguin and Webkinz, visiting and chatting in the virtual worlds.
"It's sort of plunged us into the baby MySpace world before I thought we would be there," she said. "And it cements the thought that that's where we're going to be. They don't come home and play with other kids in the neighborhood, so this gives them a connection."
Becker is a bit worried about her kids' Internet and tech use this summer, but she's lined up several camps that'll reduce the children's time at home. Her kids spend an average of three hours online a week, and that time could go up an hour over the summer. "Part of me feels like they need a break and that's how they chill," she said. "But it's my responsibility to give them other options and to limit them because they're not necessarily the best at keeping their own time."
Similarly, Barnett has scheduled camps and summer excursions for her kids, and for all her worries, she could actually see her son's Internet use drop over the summer. Amanda Lenhart, a researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said that anecdotally, she has heard in focus groups that teens use the Internet less in the summer.
"They're out of the house and away from the computer more, at jobs or summer camps, or their friends are, so they have fewer people to connect with," Lenhart wrote in an e-mail. "But for those with out summer plans or activities, I would imagine that information seeking, and gaming might increase."
Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit with children when they're online to ensure they visit only parent-approved Web sites. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends. To kids, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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Kids: high-tech's fussy new customers
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