Sexting. Cyberbullying. Predators lurking on MySpace. The threats are scary enough to make a parent want to block text messaging on cell phones or even unplug the computer.
But instead of being suspicious of technology or banning it from the home altogether, members of Wired Moms want to harness its innovations and influence in order to better connect with their children.
Technology can help you become a better parent, says Mary Heston, a North Idaho mother of four and the national director of Wired Moms.
“It’s part of our children’s lives, so the more comfortable parents are with using technology, the better it is for the family,” she says.
“We don’t want moms to cut their kids off from technology but to participate together.”
Wired Moms was launched this year as an outgrowth of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit that focuses on educating people of all ages about safe and responsible Internet use.
Both groups were established by Parry Aftab, a New York mother of two and an attorney whose expertise includes security, privacy and cyberspace issues.
While WiredSafety.org and Aftab’s other Web site, WiredKids.com, are directed at young people, educators, law enforcement and others, Wired Moms is a site created specifically for parents – both the tech-savvy and those who have little experience with the Internet and want to learn more.
“We are dedicated to helping families connect with each other through technology and to empowering other moms to parent through technology,” according to the Wired Moms Web site.
Since Wired Moms was created in March, the group has united mothers across the country, says Heston. About 6,000 moms have been participating via Facebook and the Web site, she says, and about 20,000 people follow the group through Twitter.
On Nov. 6, the first Wired Moms Summit is scheduled on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash. Space is limited at the free all-day event, but those who can’t make it to the Seattle area can participate via Tweeter and by watching the webcast.
Heston, who lives in Kellogg, became involved with Internet issues about 15 years ago. She was a stay-at-home mom who was busy with her household and children, but wanted to keep in touch with other mothers in the same boat. They ended up starting an online book club.
One of the books they read was Aftab’s “A Parents’ Guide to the Internet and How to Protect Your Children in Cyberspace,” which was first published in 1998.
Since she was active online and her children were showing an interest in the Internet and technology, Heston decided to contact the author, who was one of the first attorneys to explore issues involving cyberlaw and safety.
Their online conversations led them to work together on some projects. Since Aftab’s focus was on training children about responsible Internet use, she asked Heston to lead the efforts to help mothers.
In a 2007 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Media and Health Project, nearly three out of four parents said they knew “a lot” about what their kids were doing online.
More than 80 percent said they review their children’s profiles on social networking sites; 87 percent check their kids’ Instant Messaging “buddy lists”; and 76 percent look to see what Web sites their children have visited.
But not all parents are tech-savvy, experts point out. Nor do they have a realistic view of what their kids are doing online.
Common Sense Media – a watchdog group that examines children’s media exposure – conducted an online survey this year and found that there is a disconnect between kids’ online activity and their parents’ perceptions.
For instance, while 22 percent of teens check social network sites more than 10 times a day, only 4 percent of their moms and dads believe their children do so.
Most of the moms that Heston has talked to – whether they work at home or go to an office – are usually exhausted by the end of the day and don’t have the time or energy to monitor their children’s Internet use.
“They say, ‘I trust my kid, he’s a good kid,’ but good kids can still get in trouble,” Heston says. “We need to stay up-to-date and help provide that kind of guidance.”
Heston, whose children are 11, 13 18 and 20, first became concerned about Internet safety when she realized that although her kids could be safe inside the house, they still have the ability to connect with strangers outside.
When her oldest was in his early teens and started distinguishing between his friends online and “IRL – In Real Life,” Heston knew she had to learn more about the technology – not just to stay in touch with her children, but to also be aware of the potential hazards of the Internet.
To help her kids stay safe online, Heston put the computer in a central room where she and her husband could always monitor what they were doing.
They had restricted hours and Heston checked out the sites they visited. She also provided them copies of Aftab’s book as a resource.
“You have to talk to kids about the Internet,” she says. “They go to friends’ homes and they may or may not have the same rules about using the computer. So we set up guidelines.”
One piece of advice that Aftab offers to children on WiredSafety.org is “to stop, block and tell” whenever they come across inappropriate content on the Internet. They kids are instructed to stop, block the site and then tell a parent.
On the Wired Moms Web site, Heston blogs about all sorts of topics involving technology, from social networking sites and “friending” your children on Facebook to privacy issues and possible radiation exposure from cell phones.
She’s a big fan of technology, she says – not just because the gadgets and innovations are fun, but because they also help bring her family closer.
For instance, Heston has always played video games together with her children. The activity gives her kids the opportunity to open up, talk about their day and share what’s on their minds.
Lately, she and her kids have participated in a three-minute challenge available on a Web site called GetGameSmart.com. The quiz is a way for parents to learn about their child’s interest in video games through a series of questions that kids and adults ask each other.
The questions include: What’s your kid’s favorite video game? Why does he/she like it? What’s the plot/theme? How do you win?
“We’re better off when we understand the technology,” Heston says. “There’s a lot of exciting things that are very positive. Wired Moms is a way for us to talk about what’s age-appropriate. …
“Even though we’re dealing with a new technology, we can still help our kids make grown-up, mature decisions.”
Despite all the high-tech gadgets and tools out there – from IPhones and the Internet to Xbox, Wii and Nintendo DS – Heston says her children don’t actually spend that much time in front of a screen or texting on their phones.
“With school starting, they have homework and chores to do,” she says. “My kids like to read. … You have to have balance.”
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