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

Published: Sunday, Sept. 9 2012 6:25 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.

Christine Evans, a parent counselor at the parent center, said her 14-year-old daughter Cassidy helps her with new technology, a familiar story for many teenagers whose social interactions have included the Internet throughout their young lives.

Lisa Wade, the chairman of the sociology department at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the Internet and technology have changed the power dynamics in the structure of some families as technologically proficient children are more tech-savvy than their parents.

"It may make a parent dependent on a child to access information, similar to the way that language proficiency can make children of immigrants translators for their parents,  or give a child information with which they can argue with your parent," Wade said. 

Evans remembers when she had to learn how to use certain software, something that seems instilled in most teenagers.

"I don't think she has noticed the change (of technology)," Evans said of her daughter. "I think it has been gradual enough for her, she is really good at figuring out (technology). She will just know how to do it.

"It is amazing to me how Internet-savvy these kids are, much more than we are," Evans said. "We had to learn it, but it is almost instilled in them from school or (I don't know) how they have this knowledge, but I would have to work at it to know this stuff that they know."

Cyberbullying at home

According to the McAfee survey, only one of 10 parents are aware that their teens are targets for cyberbullying, while 23 percent of parents are so overwhelmed with technology that they just hope for the best.

Fearing that cyberbullying and the Internet are the new "bathroom wall," Jones Bott has limited her children's activity within social media.

"That is where you can post and say (anything you want), but it has escalated because you can use pictures and videos," she said.

Ellis Godard has been studying online interactions and social life for nearly 20 years as a sociologist at California State University of Northridge. He said that bullying and the secrecy of the Internet have created a perfect environment for cyberbullying.

"Bullying happens as a function of group dynamics that are not only just as possible online, but might be found in more places online than off," Godard said. "Part of it is differences in information conveyed online, where semi-anonymous interaction is common; but part of it is the growing diversity of online social life, which creates the tensions and conditions that make interaction conflictual."

That can play out in families as well, as siblings who have to share computers or other high-tech devices compete for time.

Jones Bott said she has witnessed a new level of control and manipulation in her family because of electronics. The newly received smartphones have already caused some conflicts within her family.

"I have seen a rise of physical violence in the family over technology (because) it was their turn to use a specific remote or it was their turn to choose a movie," she said. "My kids engage more in physical violence, being angry, than we used to without all the technology used six months ago without phones and a year and a half ago without the iPods.

"It is a new form of bullying and control, manipulation where if you don't do what I want you to than I don't need to share my iPod or the Xbox controller," she said.

A West High School student said that she fights with all of her siblings because there is only one computer in her house.

"We fight over it all the time," the teenager said, agreeing to speak on condition of anonymity. "Because we all want to use it and we all want to talk to our friends." That, then, makes the computer the "friend" everyone in the house is seeking.

The challenges that have arisen from Internet access and smartphones in the Jones Bott family led to specific rules and guidelines for their use. She said all phones must be turned off during school time. They make sure that the kids follow the rules by checking their phones for content, and by using settings preventing any data or text messages from being deleted.

Although Jones Bott knows it is not realistic to prevent every type of risk that is associated with the Internet, she has specifically targeted pornography, sexting and addictions affiliated with the Web.

"One of our rules is no accessing the internet without permission. I have a password on our Internet, and all of our computer and technology needs to be in the public area," she said. "You are less likely to get in trouble if you are not alone."

It's brought strong lessons on the need for boundaries and provides new opportunities for family discussion — when the devices are turned off.

"Anything intended for good, can be good or can be bad," she said. "(Internet), it is good and it is bad and it depends on how people use it."

Technology helps

Tina Persels has two 12-year-old children, but the siblings use technology differently.

Araya Persels uses a kid-friendly version of Google. The search engine for kids allows minors to create a home page with the benefit of blocking any form of adult content.

Adam Persels, who has multiple disabilities and special needs, uses a tablet to communicate with the world. His tablet is no bigger than any other version on the market and allows him to express himself to his family. He can ask for specific toys, express an emotion and entertain himself with a virtual drum set.

"Ten years ago there was nothing like this for a child like ours," Persels said. "My son is 12 and he needs to be able to tell us what he wants."

The evolution of technology has allowed children with disabilities to concentrate on a career path.

Jacob Hansen, 12, has cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis. According to his mother, Jodi Hansen, 10 years ago his options for a career would have been severely limited.

With technology aiding her son, Jacob has set goals to become a computer designer or a computer programmer.

"Now he (Jacob) sees the future as he can now do something to support him and his family," Hansen said.

Speech software allows Jacob to communicate to his family through a tablet. He has also used the software to verbally write a 17 chapter book.

Having the benefit of books in tablets allows those with disabilities to read more than an average teenager.

Jacob cannot physically hold a book, but that has not stopped him from reading.

The option to listen to books when in bed allows him to read on average one book a week and the ability to flip a page in the tablet with a finger helps him finish books faster. 

Evans, the parent counselor, said her daughter Cassidy makes it a habit to install learning software for her 12-year-old sister, Camryn, who is in a wheelchair and suffers from cerebral palsy.

"She will go through books like nothing, she is a reader," Evans said of Camryn. "This Kindle has saved us so much money because she can get free books online."

The second oldest of Jones Bott's children, 17-year-old Kyle Jones suffers from autism. His condition limits his attention span and he is unable to read.

Due in part to his smartphone, he is now able to stay on track during the day. The smartphone has aided him by alerting him of his chores with a daily message. The device has given him stability by creating a daily routine that is beneficial to a teenager with autism.

When a message pops up in his device, Kyle is immediately reminded to brush his teeth, make his bed, while his 14-year-old brother Keenan is reminded to pick up his homework before going to school. 

Having a quick form of communication with the ability to aid her children in daily tasks has proven to be a real positive for the family.

The new family dynamic, with technology, has become identifying the boundaries for each child by extending the reach for some, and reining in the reach of others.

“I do think, by teaching them these (boundaries), hopefully it will carry on to adulthood (and) it won’t impact them negatively in losing a job because they are on their phone or ipod or the internet too much, being disrespectful to someone when you didn’t really intend it that way,” Jones Bott said.

E-mail: jreyes@desnews.com

Twitter: @_JulianReyes_

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