children internet usageThe sexualization of girls, our hyper-gendered toy market, the plagues of princess culture, and parental gender bias each mark the experience of modern parenting. But where there is controversy over a pink LEGO and gender-neutral parenting, one debate tends to unify all contemporary parents as we put down the flashing iPad, pick up the buzzing iPhone, and consider the pros and cons of introducing our kids to Twitter: technology.

More specifically, children Internet usage.

As smartphones and tablets become more common in the home, the threat of Facebook and Angry Birds seems, well, less threatening — despite what studies reveal about Facebook shortening children’s attention spans. Meanwhile, kids in their teens and 20s who figured out Skype and Twitter long before their parents said it was okay aren’t really growing up at all. But leaving that metaphoric cord right in place as they touch base with the parents every day, receiving text message reminders about college papers and never leaving the digital nest that is Facebook.

But by the same token, advancements in technology have provided tremendous educational opportunities for children who otherwise would have gone without. So when does that computer introduction become beneficial before taking a turn for dependency?

Cognitive psychologist Alicia Chang says that like a lot of childrearing decisions, this is one that parents should make for themselves when they consider their child ready. She confirms that there is no “magic age” at which a child can safely navigate the world wide web on their own, but rather parents should use their own best judgement with their own child. Discussions about the interwebs, including social media, however, are an important component of parenting a web-savvy kid given the uptick in online bullying.

“Research on online bullying indicates that it happens quite frequently, and is not commonly reported to parents,” says Chang. “What is unfortunate and most concerning here is that it is generally done by peers. This is another important reason why parents should monitor their children’s Internet usage and to try to have open dialogue with them about their activities and how they are being affected by them.”

Brenna Hicks, a child therapist, also agrees that there has yet to be an Internet-appropriate age sanctioned by child psychology. Yet, she points out that although maturity levels and temperaments can vary, many children do not possess abstract reasoning skills until around 12 years old. For parents, this ultimately means that concepts like morals, values, empathy, and remorse, have yet to set in making the anonymous interwebs a somewhat dangerous place. Therefore, discussions about online conduct might not gel until a child reaches this stage.

“Parents should be aware that any amount of talking about the dangers of the Internet, what should and shouldn’t take place online, why it is something that should be limited and so forth is a waste of time until adolescence when it can be fully processed,” she says.

Hicks finds that the constant connection provided by social media platforms and Skype, sometimes abused by both parents and child, have produced nearly a generation of children with an underdeveloped adult skill set. Generally speaking, children tend to ascend a few developmental stages of “appropriate individuation from their parents,” she says. These stages help children achieve independence, learn consequences, make decisions, and build self-confidence. But 20 text messages a day, bi-daily phone calls, and weekend Skype sessions have compromised such abilities in many young adults.

“The consequences, which I am sure many still remain to be seen, include children who are unable to take care of themselves, cannot assume appropriate responsibility for themselves, who are socially, emotionally and financially dependent well into their 20s, requiring many empty-nesters to admit adult, college-educated children to move back into their homes as they ‘figure out what they want to do with their lives.’”

If the end goal among parents is to raise independent, confident adults, then a dependency on these mediums can pose a serious hindrance — and it starts young. Although iPads and the like have many educational applications, the tendency to use these gadgets as “babysitters” can pose quite a few developmental disadvantages as well. Consistent use of video games or computers can create relational issues, Hicks says, in which children come to understand that their needs can be met by things — not people.

Too much face time with Angry Birds prevents actual face-to-face time and social interaction, meaning that kids are spending less time talking or observing social behaviors. Hicks adds that an overuse of the Internet and social media can impact several important developmental areas for children, including reading non-verbal cues, understanding tone of voice, reading facial expressions, and even healthy muscle development and bodily growth due to too much immobility.

Yet, for children who are by nature far from social butterflies, the Internet can provide a low-cost community and access to an array of topics that might not be available in their immediate geographic location. Through the web, timid children can build friendships and engage with like-minded peers about just about anything, putting a significant asterisk beside the declaration that the Internet innately compromises social development.

Chang notes that although it is fairly easy for parents to concentrate solely on the risks, the Internet is far more complex than that:

“While we tend to highlight the dangers, I think there are also positives for both cognitive and social development when talking about the Internet and social media. There are studies that show that playing computer and video games can enhance certain cognitive abilities. There are also a lot of free and low-cost options online, and for your mobile device, where kids and adults can learn topics from basic math to foreign language to computer programming.”

She adds that, just like everything else, moderation is absolutely key as is the cursed term that often irks parents, “balance.” Although the Internet does give an array of advantages to many a child in 2012, the need to couple these video games and iPhone sessions with traditional outdoor activities, reading, and more conventional social interaction is imperative. And finding that middle ground in our increasingly digital age is perhaps the true work for modern parents after all.

(photo: olly/Shutterstock)