In search of balance: Can families both embrace and overcome the Internet?

Published: Sunday, Sept. 9 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Adam Persels, who is autistic, bounces plastic toys on the ground at his home in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The children in the Jones Bott family were kept at arm's length from technology — but they received iPods a year and a half ago in a first step toward embracing tech devices.

By the beginning of this year each of the five children in the family, ages 11 to 18, had their own smartphones, despite the concerns of their parents that social media and around-the-clock Internet access could impact study habits, social life and family communications.

The first few months were rough.

"My children are lost in their own worlds, texting or doing Internet or gaming," said Jodie Jones Bott, a parent consultant and autism specialist at the Utah Parent Center. "We have lost family communication, we have lost family time (and) they are more likely to fight."

The amazing speed in which the world is becoming connected may be undoing the connections families are trying to make within the walls of their own homes. It's forcing  parents to balance the positives of keeping their kids plugged in against the negative distractions of having so much information at their fingertips.

Jones Bott has seen tremendous benefits for her children with learning disabilities, but also the struggles technology poses in managing the teens in her own home.

“As we teach in our home, we actually talk about how it will impact them (in their lives)," she said. “Kids are teenagers, but adulthood comes pretty fast and pretty hard,” she said.

Only New Hampshire scores higher than Utah on the percentage of homes with online access. In Utah, it's more than 85 percent of people with Internet access, compared with the national average of 76 percent.

The average time that a person spends online has increased by more than 400 percent in the past 10 years, with 33 percent of the world now connected to the Internet, up from 9 percent in 2002, according to Nielsen ratings.

Jones Bott said the internet has made it more difficult to keep her family close. Terms like sexting and cyber bullying were unfamiliar a decade ago, but are now issues she pays attention to.

She's also noticed that when her kids have free time they spend it watching Netflix or gaming on their Xbox.

"They don't take their break by saying 'let's go to the rec center,' it's, 'can I have my hour on the Internet now?' or 'wait, wait, wait, I have a download coming in,'" she said. "Creativity, educationally, physically, I think those are impacted by technology."

The games they play with friends has changed. It now includes "text bombing," where a group of friends will send a massive number of text messages to a friend as a prank. The result is an overload of messages to the recipient's phone.

The appeal of social media

According to a 2012 survey conducted by McAfee’s Teen Internet Behavior Study, teens spend, on average, about five hours a day online, while parents surveyed believed their kids spend an average of three hours a day online. Nearly 10 percent of teens spend more than 10 hours a day online.

The figure is difficult to interpret as teens with smartphones remain connected around-the-clock.

The appeal of social media has boomed within the decade. The biggest social media site in 2002 was Friendster with 3 million users. Facebook today is nearing 1 billion users.

Thirteen-year-old Sam Walker said he only communicates with his friends through Facebook and said he doesn't worry about calling them.

"They don't always answer, or their phones are dead all the time," he said.

There are other impacts to social norms.

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