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A screenshot from a YouTube video produced by dadlabs.com, explaining ways to make your home safe to children, including how to anchor large furniture to the walls. (DadLabs/YouTube)

Tipping TVs remain a child safety problem

By Correspondent / 02.07.14

Police reported that an 8-year-old boy attending an after-school program in Gardner, Mass., was killed when a TV cart fell on top of him.

The story is tragic and, unfortunately, not unique. A simple online search for similar stories finds four different instances in the last month alone of kids being injured, or killed, when a television fell on top of them.

The Modern Parenthood blog originally highlighted the problem in 2012, citing a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported that in 2011 alone, 13,800 kids were injured and 12 killed in the US by toppling TVs.

With the report of the 8-year-old boy coming from Massachusetts and more online, we have to ask: Why is this still a problem?

Anchoring heavy furniture and electronics seems to be the No. 1 preventative measure in helping kids stay safe around large household hazards.

The group Safe and Sound with Amaya in Syracuse, N.Y., was started by two grandparents whose 2-year-old granddaughter was killed in 2012 when she pulled a TV over on herself. 

Deborah Deming, who founded the group with her husband Scott told The Post-Standard newspaper, "A lot of parents will say it can't happen to me; it won't happen. But families like us can tell you it does happen, and it happens every day."

According to a public-education campaign from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, "On average, one child dies every 2 weeks when a TV, piece of furniture, or an appliance falls on him, according to reports received by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) between 2000 to 2010."

The CPSC recommends tips for keeping children safe, including:

  • Anchor furniture to the floor or wall.
  • Placing TVs on sturdy, low bases. Or, anchoring the furniture and the TV on top of it, pushing the TV as far back on top of the furniture as possible.
  • Keeping remote controls, toys, and other items attractive to kids off of TV stands or furniture.
  • Keeping cords for TV and/or cable out of a child's reach.
  • Making sure freestanding kitchen ranges and stoves are installed with anti-tip brackets.
  • Supervising children in rooms where these safety tips have not been followed. 

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An attendee plays “Call of Duty: Ghosts” at the GameStop Expo in Las Vegas. (AI Powers/Invision/AP/FILE)

Video game violence: Putting study results in perspective

By Correspondent / 02.07.14

Before parents hit the panic button in fear generated by a new Canadian study that asserts violent video games lead to teens being “morally immature,” we need to consider where natural teen developmental issues and real world experiences fit into the equation.

Revisiting the topic of “respond vs. react” as a parent, the media began trumpeting results of a Brock University study that warns parents about teen development. The headlines, from such reputable sources as the BBC, were enough to make any responsible parent want to scream, “Shut that thing off and go outside!”

However, after reviewing the actual study, I learned Mirjana Bajovic of Brock University surveyed the relatively tiny sampling of 109 Canadian teens ages 13 and 14 and concluded that for teens in general, overexposure to violent games weakened empathy for others.

Mr. Bajovic found that 88 percent of these 109 teens said they played games and more than half of players admitted to playing games every day.

The media then picked up the published study of this small population and trumpeted the conclusion that researchers warned of adolescents losing a sense of "right and wrong."

That’s a single-bound leap worthy of Superman on his best day.

As a parent, I am a peaceful video game warrior. Over the past 20 years, I have tried banning all video games with any hint of violence.

That failed, because other parents didn’t adhere to my house rules, so my sons would simply play at the other kids’ homes without me knowing.

While I was able to enforce the rules when the boys were in elementary school, it became a losing battle on my part when they became teens because the issue shifted from snuffing out violent games entirely to nurturing my sons' abilities to discern right from wrong.

One son pointed out years ago, when he was 13, that his gaming had no effect on real life, and he saw it entirely as an activity meant to blow off steam. He was more worried about kids who were out doing drugs at parties and vandalizing property because they didn't have an outlet like gaming.

Now 20, this son is a total peacenik who’s joining his local Amnesty International chapter at college, volunteering to help those in need in his community, and studying international justice to become a force for good in the world.

Yet, he still loves the hack and slash of role-playing games online. And because I did my homework on teen development, I’m OK with that for him and my other boys. What is more important to me as a parent is to make sure I limit their time in front of the screen so they get out and see daylight.

I frequently turn to the video game ratings done by Common Sense Media, which includes still banning violent video games for my youngest son who is 10 years old. 

When this new study came to my attention via the sensational headlines I decided that before I gave into a knee-jerk reaction, I would respond with research, and made a call to Dr. Arthur Bowman, chair of the Biology Department at Norfolk State University, to see if something deeper than violent games could be a culprit in the moral immaturity claim.

“Parents who have teens know that moral immaturity is a fact of life,” Dr. Bowman said in a phone interview Friday morning.

He also pointed out how hard it is to determine the validity of a study with so small a sampling.

“You’d have to look at a way larger number, across cultures,” Bowman explained. “Canada’s got something like 35 million people; we’re in a country with 340 million people. So, to study 100 kids and draw any valid conclusion isn’t even laughable.”

He also asked, “Who determines what is ‘moral?’ Is killing a zombie 'immoral'? Is a game in which you are a soldier defending innocents from terrorists 'immoral' because it’s doing violence to another human being?”

According to Bowman, just trying to determine the level of empathy requires more in-depth scientific methods to discover how a teen responds when real life situations are at hand and not those the teen knows to be manufactured and without real consequence.

I think the only benefit of the study is to serve as a reminder that we always need to balance virtual violence with what we define as highly moral, non-violent real life experiences.

And sometimes the need for blowing off steam through video games can help squelch what could turn into a violent outburst in real life. I learned this first hand as my son came home from school after coping with a group of bullies in his class.

I offered my son a hug, a bike ride, and kicking a soccer ball, and none of those options quite provided the release from social injustice he’d just experienced on the playground.

“Just this once, please let me hack away at a zombie villager in Minecraft and watch stuff blow up online,” Quin, 10, pleaded. “I know the difference between right and wrong. It’s just that after a day of dealing with bullies in school who I can’t fight back against this is where I need to go.”

We reached a compromise. I guided his choice to the video game "Final Fantasy 4" – where you defeat non-human foes – and I sat with him as he played. We took turns.

As a parent who is frustrated for my child who is constantly bullied, I can tell you it not only felt great to chuck fireballs at monsters, but also resulted in me being a calmer and gentler mom.

It’s not whether you win or lose the battle over video games. It’s about how you play the game in the real world that counts.

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Jamaican bobsled brakeman Marvin Dixon poses with the Olympic mascots after a welcome ceremony at the Mountain Olympic Village in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 6. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Sochi Winter Olympics: Mascot merchandise ties the Games together

By Correspondent / 02.06.14

The Sochi Games have begun, and while parents may be hoping the Games inspire kids to become athletes, many kids will truly be inspired to plead for merchandise bearing the likeness of one of the fluffy mascots.

Lucky for us, the Russians have chosen not to be too creative, or wacky, selecting instead the most normal critters possible: "The Polar Bear," "The Hare," and "The Leopard."

At least these three mascots are more recognizable than London's Wenlock and Mandeville. 

Kids may only see cute animals, but to some more jaded parents, The Polar Bear seems a bit like an alter ego for buff, sportsman President Vladimir Putin. According to the mascot trio’s Facebook page, The Polar Bear, "lives beyond the Arctic Circle" and “In his home, everything is made out of ice and snow: his snow shower, his bed, his computer and even his weight-lifting equipment.”

The Leopard could be considered a blatant nod to bring the rebellious Caucasus into the fold. “The Leopard is a rescuer and mountain-climber who lives in the uppermost branches of a huge tree, on the highest peak of the snowy mountains in the Caucasus.”

Meanwhile, The Hare seems like the embodiment of the innocence we would all like to find at this international competition. According to the interactive Sochi Mascot site, “The little doe hare trusts her friends so much that she doesn’t have any secrets. She simply loves sport with all her heart,” 

The critters even have their own Twitter account:

The mascot-themed merchandise, such as adorable bunny hats fashioned after The Hare, is probably going to be a big hit with girls and moms alike. In fact, I think I’d look great in one.

Even before the Games began, I was very tempted by the Team USA “GO” and “USA” mittens seen on TV. We try not to get sucked into the merchandising, but a few Olympics back, my husband Robert, who attended the Games once with his family as a child, fell in love with the Roots beret worn by Team USA.

He ordered one and wore it until it was lost in a sailing incident last year.

It has taken me months, but last week I finally found one for sale on eBay and presented it to him at the start of the Sochi games. When I gave my normally stoic husband the hat, he immediately became as happy as he was cheering on his first Olympics as a kid.

Given the host of issues the host nation is suffering with these games, my guess is that the merchandise for Sochi, like the lovable (and weird) mascots of previous Olympics, will be one of the few common comfortable links to Olympics past.

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TV's "Science Guy" Bill Nye speaks during a debate on evolution with Creation Museum head Ken Ham at the Petersburg, Ky. museum on Tuesday, Feb. 4. (Dylan Lovan/AP)

Bill Nye and Ken Ham prove theory of coexistence

By Correspondent / 02.05.14

Bill Nye probably had a better chance of winning “Dancing with the Stars” than making headway in a debate Tuesday night with Ken Ham, creationist expert and director of the Creation Museum.

However, Mr. Nye and Mr. Ham offered a powerful example of how to respond, instead of react, when someone challenges your beliefs.

In kid terms, I suppose you could say to Nye that, “he started it” with the production of his video “Creationism is not appropriate for children.” The video went viral, prompting Ham, author and founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., to invite the scientist over for a debate Tuesday night.

The debated question was this: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

However, the questions on my mind were, “Should I let my ten-year-old watch this, and will these men behave like adults or ten-year-olds?”

Having been once burned by “The Bible” miniseries being inappropriate for children to watch, I was twice shy about Biblical tenants clashing with science on TV with the kids watching.

I opted not to let my son watch.

In retrospect, I wish I had, because both men handled themselves with dignity and restraint.

While my belief in the science of evolution remains unaltered, I came away from the event ready to proselytize to parents about the wisdom of not shouting down the opposition on such emotionally-tied issues as those discussed last night. 

Over the past 20 years of parenting, there have been times when my kids have witnessed me in heated debates with other parents over abortion, gay rights, and creationism.

I went ballistic when my sons, who were attending a Catholic high school at the time, were promised that science and religion classes would be kept entirely separate, only to find the religion teacher visiting science class to tell kids the other teacher was wrong.

That led to my husband re-enrolling my boys in public schools. We then learned the kids would have to repeat science classes because, despite receiving “A” grades, the parochial school’s courses didn’t match state standards. 

Perhaps some people will call me a bad Christian, but I believe in evolution. I also believe that global warming is real and that women should make their own choices about their bodies.

Here in Virginia, where same-sex marriage is currently under debate, I support the idea that the love, strength, and infuriation that comes with the marriage covenant should belong to anyone brave enough to seek it for themselves.

I am very passionate about my beliefs. Too many times I have reacted with anger or frustration when fellow parents brought up one of my hot-button issues. 

So, when I see my sons about to enter into an intellectual brawl with their friends or – heaven forbid – their friends’ parents, I am grateful to have examples like the Nye-Ham debate to point to as a civilized way to disagree with grace.

It has taken me a lifetime to make headway in getting past the intellectual arrogance that drove me to sneer and look down on those who disagreed with my views.

It’s hard to teach your kids not to call someone who disagrees with them “an idiot” when you yourself roll your eyes or cut ties with people who disagree with your views.

I realized I was being a bad role model after seeing my sons copying me and was ashamed.

Interestingly, the evolution of my personal ability to respond to an argument with sensible discussion – rather than react with superiority or anger – didn’t come from science. It came from going back to church.

Every good scientist loves having a mystery to unravel, and this one’s a doozie. For me, finding a church that provided fellowship and a positive community gave much-needed perspective to my life. 

I’ll be honest, I didn’t go for the religion, at least not at first. I went because I was lonely, having alienated too many people, and to find better role models for myself. My choice was faith-based, but the faith was in people.

Perhaps, my approach could be viewed as scientific. I went to a bunch of different places; visiting community centers, libraries, yoga classes, tai chi classes, writers’ enclaves, and churches. I was in search of my tribe.

I finally found mine at a local United Methodist Church, where it turned out most of the nicest people I’d met during my exploration were concentrated each Sunday.

My theory was that if I religiously attended the church filled with folks who were kind, friendly, helpful, passionate, and compassionate, I could learn from them and evolve into a better parent and person.

We can debate my religious beliefs, paradoxes, and how I found my church all day long. And, fortunately, that debate will look much more like the one between Nye and Ham.

There is common ground beneath all our feet in the form of the planet that, we can all agree, exists as our shared home.

No matter how the planet and its people came into existence, the real question before us is how we teach our children to coexist.

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In this file photo, third-graders Jojuane White, 8, left, and Eddie Turner, 9, focus on learning coding techniques through playing an "Angry Birds" game at Brownell/Homes Elementary School in Flint, Mich. (Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com/AP/FILE)

Should schools teach computer code as a foreign language?

By Correspondent / 02.04.14

Many parents would agree kids learning coding is great for their future job prospects, but a new bill passed by the Kentucky Senate to count computer programming classes toward fulfilling foreign-language requirements in public schools leads to a debate over this is as a step forward or backward in education.

According to my favorite tech site, Gizmodo, “rather than taking three years of Spanish or French or whatever, kids can choose to learn to code.”

The Gizmodo writers point out, “whether it's Java or German, they're both technically languages. But they're also two very different skills.”

“The goal is to enhance programming skills, enabling more Kentucky students to land high-paying jobs in the growing computer industry,” said Sen. David Givens (R), the bill’s sponsor told the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama gave technology a starring role as he called on us to better prepare students to become more qualified employees for growing tech sectors.

“Today in America ... an entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than 8 million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years," said Mr. Obama. 

The challenges in adding a topic like coding to the curriculum include limited school resources, such as in-class time, teachers qualified to handle this topic, and availability of the technology necessary to teach coding. These challenges could be exacerbated in Title One areas around the country.

However, coding could offer a valid alternative to kids who lag behind in traditional foreign language classes – especially those students who are interested more in math and science programs.

According the Courier-Journal,  this bill is tricky, as it tries to lead the charge to allow programming classes to slip into the mix by satisfying foreign-language requirements.

“To acquire that depth of knowledge, we’ve got to find a way in this constrained curriculum … for students to begin these areas of studies earlier in high school,” Senator Givens told the Courier-Journal.

Givens asserts that the bill would give high school seniors the chance to take higher-level computer courses, and he sites that college-bound students in Kentucky are expected to take at least two foreign language credits.

It seems that parents are still split on the proposed curriculum updates, according to conversations among parents on Facebook about the issue.

James Previti, a programmer and father of three from Medford, N.J., says that learning code and a foreign language achieve different results. "Computer 'languages' are for creating instructions for the actions of computers. Spoken languages are for the communication of ideas ... a realm not likely to be occupied by computers anytime soon. The clear communication of ideas is much more important for our race than computer instructions." 

Trevor Lewis, cofounder of 757 MakerSpace, replied in favor of the change. “Spoken/written languages are important but in learning a traditional language you're only taught a minor portion of that language. Sure, you get structure, verbiage, tenses, but learning a computer language teaches you the logic behind the use. Programming languages are a vastly better method of teaching language in general than even traditional English classes and can be directly applied to not just learning foreign languages later but understanding how language applies to the sciences.”

Mr. Lewis asserts, “it wasn't until I took a structured programming class that I was able to look at an incredibly complex language like Japanese and be able to suss out the structure and reasoning behind it.”

Lewis's business partner at 757 Makerspace, Beau Turner, a father of two, says “Having the option would be a great opportunity as socio-economic classes continue to have greater division."

Mr. Turner also suggests parents read the book “Program or Be Programmed” to get a better handle on the issue.

The debate is bound to continue, as parents and educators wade through the details of how coding may supplement, or replace, foreign language requirements. For now, the Kentucky bill is an invitation to discuss how the future of coding may work in schools.

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An Olympic worker overlooks the Caucasus Mountains from the Alpine ski course in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on Feb. 4. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Sochi security: Not a game (+video)

By Correspondent / 02.04.14

As the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi draw near and excitement for our athletes builds, some darker undertones to these games and to the host nation’s policies provide both challenges and teachable moments.

Parenting would be so much easier if the only thing we had to cope with during the Olympics was the constant giggling of our kids over the correct pronunciation of the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Poot-in).

Unfortunately, Mr. Putin is arguably one of the most controversial political leaders in the world today whose actions have been hurdles for parents to navigate.

I should have known back in August of 2012 that this was going to be a painfully long Olympic run for parents when we had to explain to kids why the pretty girls in a punk band named Pussy Riot were on trial for speaking against Putin’s policies.

As a journalist, who speaks passable Russian, who covered politics from Russia during the breakup of the Soviet Union, and whose great-grandfather was a dissident who fled that nation under charges of sedition, I figured I was qualified to cope with basic kid questions.

I quickly learned that no parent was ready for Pussy Riot.

It was just my luck that the first question fired at me about Russia wasn’t even from my own child.

At a chess summer camp, where I volunteer as an instructor, a 7-year-old came running into the chess room to ask me why international chess icon, Russian Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, was dragged to a Russian paddy wagon in handcuffs for trying to attend the verdict “on a bunch of cats.”

I had previously asked the kids to start looking for references to chess in the news, film, and art.

The little boy proudly brought a computer printout of a news photo to show everyone how Mr. Kasparov was manhandled into a police van by a pack of Russian officers and hauled off to the slammer.

I explained that, by American standards of civil rights, the girls in the band and Kasparov hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, I explained, what they did was brave in the way many American heroes have been over the centuries.

However, in Russia and other countries, the rules are often different and freedoms are limited.

Everybody seemed to get it and the subject was closed.

However, my Russian chess ruckus paled in comparison to one I witnessed more recently. At a local supermarket, I overheard a stunned mom stammer through an explanation to her little girl on why Russia’s president “made rainbows against the law.”

I overhead the little girl ask her mom about Putin “hating rainbows” while in the checkout line at a rather posh local supermarket with flat screen TVs at the checkout area to keep customers entertained while waiting.

One TV blared a news story on a gay Russian protester being detained for unfurling a rainbow flag (symbolizing gay pride) during the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Putin’s hometown of Voronezh, 690 miles north of Sochi.

The Russian law, passed last year, outlaws what it describes as "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relations" around minors, according to the Associated Press.

In the interviews, Putin repeatedly said he was “protecting children.” As if some mad, gay army was on the march to Sochi, carrying rainbow torches and singing show tunes to children all the way.

I was very glad not to be that mom in the supermarket.

However, the most worrisome aspect of the Games is not about gay rights, girl bands, or grandmasters, but the relentless news chatter about security concerns for our athletes in Russia.

Due to the fear of attack from rebel forces in the neighboring Caucasus, Putin has devised “one of the most sweeping and ambitious security operations ever launched,” according to an article in the February 3 issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, kids have a very keen radar for words such as “terrorists” and “lock-down.”

Putin put a $2 billion security operation code-named “ring of steel” around the Olympic venues, isolating them and placing everything in the region under constant surveillance.

Unfortunately, in his efforts to allay fears, Putin may actually accentuate them for kids who hear too much announcer banter about “lock-downs” around Mother Russia.

The Sochi lock-down means that local residents can’t leave their towns for the duration of the Games, leaving most Russians to watch the Games on TV, according to the Monitor article.

Like many parents, I would love for the Olympics to be about nothing more than the Games, good will, and friendly international rivalry over medal counts.

Sadly, Putin isn’t making that job easy at all.

The best we can do for our kids is to change the channel when the security talk gets too intense.

While we love the Games and the fellowship for which they stand, we need to be mindful that the messages our kids take away from them are more about the unity of many nations, than cowering together in fear.

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Facebook anniversary: In this file photo, Michael Goodwin, Senior Partner for HTC, displays a smart phone with a Facebook interface at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. on Thursday, April 4, 2013. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/FILE)

Facebook study: Why parents say 'no' to kid pics online

By Correspondent / 02.03.14

Facebook turns 10 tomorrow and parents tell the Pew Research Center they are not very happy about how the dominant social networking platform plays with their kids when it comes to image and video sharing features.

According to the Pew study, parents dislike when images and videos of their children are shared on Facebook by others without their permission.

“Parents are especially protective of images of their children, as 57% of Facebook users with children under the age of 18 say that people posting pictures of their children without asking permission first is something they strongly dislike about using Facebook,” according to the study.

Facebook is the dominant social networking platform, used by 57% of all adults and 73% of all those ages 12-17.

As a blogger and someone who runs a children’s chess group I am used to asking permission of parents before using a child’s image.

The City of Norfolk, Va., which hosts our group, issues permission forms and had me do the same to get written permission from parents because many times just having a parent say “yes” isn’t enough to cover you legally if they change their mind after it’s posted.

Yet despite all that ingrained procedure it’s still easy to slip up when posting photos of my own kids via smartphone, especially if they are in a crowd at events.

Years ago, when I posted a snapshot of my son at a school honor roll ceremony, other parents saw their child in the background and called me to go berserk.

It didn’t help that those just happened to be the same pictures accidentally posted as “public” since that’s the default setting on my new Android phone Facebook App, instead of “friends” only.

I fixed that setting in a hurry.

To find out how some of my friends feel about photos of their kids being shared by others, I posted the question on my Facebook wall. Among the responses:

“If my kids are in a photo with their kids, I'm fine with it. I don't live in the Fox News universe where every stranger is a sexual predator,” replied dad B.C. Wilson.

Police Officer Ivetta Pertosyan replied, “I'm fine with it as long as I'm tagged on it and know they're up.”

One mom simply replied, “don't post pics of me or my kids without my permission.”

I have no problem with that. Last year when a man posted a shot of me that was not very flattering and then tagged me in it without my permission I was feeling very “unfriendly.”

My friend Meg Faller, mom of twin boys and a photographer posted, “Don't mind for myself, but if someone asked me to take something down, I immediately would. In our current atmosphere of instant posts to Fb, if you have a problem with people posting pictures of your kids, you should let people know at the event.”

Christina Schweiss posted, “In my daughter's American Heritage Girls troop, they tell people at the beginning of the year to please not post pictures of other people's kids to social media without that person's permission.”

It was my pal Dawn Peters who got straight to the heart of the matter, which is how our own kids – especially teens – feel about parents posting pictures of them without their knowledge or permission.

“I do it all the time. My daughter doesn't like it when I tagged myself in her videos,” Ms. Peters wrote. ”She says that she gets all these comments from ‘old people’. I can share just not tag.”

As the mom of four boys, I ran into this same issue with my teen son about three years ago.

He was about three streets past Livid Lane when he came storming down the stairs from his room shouting, “MOM! What the heck? Seriously? Like you just had to take my picture and post it on Facebook for the world to see?”

I stammered in the face of his fury, all the while thinking, “I wish I had my camera. He’s so cute when he makes that angry face.”

However, I took him seriously and from that point on adopted the habit of asking the boys how they feel about the shots I take.

After all, if we don’t show our kids courtesy then we can hardly expect them to return the favor. And we don’t want them posting revenge photos of us in a pore minimizing mask, babushka and 'Betty Boop' PJs.

A Screenshot from the 'Web Junkie' documentary Facebook page. The documentary highlights China's approach to reforming teens diagnosed with "Internet addiction" which has now been labeled as a clinical addiction. The documentary premiered at Sundance Film Festival, January 19. (Web Junkie/Facebook )

'Web Junkie': Internet addiction a clinical disorder

By Guest blogger / 02.03.14

Judging by the just-released documentary Web Junkie, about a Chinese “Internet addiction” treatment center, it’s loneliness that’s at the heart of what the Chinese officially call a clinical disorder (more often called “problematic Internet use” in the West).

If you can get past the boot-camp-like conditions and young patients’ (inmates’?) tears, you’ll get to a scene – at 4:50 into the 7-min. trailer – that’s just as dramatic but in a different way. The psychiatrist who runs the treatment center, Prof. Tao Ran, who is also a military officer, is talking to patients’ parents, who are encouraged to stay at the center and participate in their children’s treatment.

“One of the biggest issues among these kids is loneliness,” he tells the parents. “Did you know they feel lonely? So where do they look for companions? The Internet. They know the Internet inside and out, but nothing about human beings.”

I was struck by this statement. The treatment explicitly refers to “Internet addiction,” but what it appears to be addressing – based on the patients’ interviews, the footage from "World of Warcraft" and video of kids playing multiplayer online games in Chinese Internet cafes – is much more specific: so-called gaming addiction.

So much of the experience of multiplayer games is interactive and collaborative. It could well be seen as an antidote for loneliness. In saying that these young gamers know “nothing about human beings,” perhaps the professor is saying they know “nothing about human beings” in offline life and relationships because there’s some sort of deficit there.

No siblings, fearful parents

As the film progresses, online magazine Motherboard reports, “we slowly see the value of the treatment as it rebuilds family relationships.” And there’s an important cultural reference that offers context: “The teenagers don’t have any siblings. One boy suggests that it’s [China's] one-child policy that makes them lonely in the first place and drives them to the MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) they compulsively play.” Prof. Tao says to the parents: “Criticizing, accusing and blaming. You think these are the best ways to make them change, reflect and make progress?”

Many Westerners will find the documentary disturbing, but – as the Motherboard article points out – it’s not about a particular culture. There are some universals. Writer Whitney Mallett interviewed the film’s creators, Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, about their premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and they told of a question from an American mother in the Q&A after the screening: She “told us she has a 20-year-old who is addicted to internet games and has been going in and out of rehab, and every time he will go through a program, when he comes back home, again the problem arises because the internet is such an integral part of your life – unlike heroin, where you can and should live without it. Here it’s like, how do you moderate it?”

How much is technology the problem?

They have a point. But it’s probably a little bit easier if we’re very clear and specific on what it is that’s difficult to moderate – e.g., multiplayer game play rather than all Internet use as a whole – and what the compulsive use of it is compensating for. Besides loneliness or a deeper sense of connection in offline life, it could also be disengagement or boredom at school.

The opposites of those conditions are found in multiplayer online games. Here’s how author and game designer Jane McGonigal describes the experience in her 2010 TED Talk:

“There are lots and lots of characters willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, a mission perfectly matched to your current level in the game, though challenging you on the edge of your capability. You have hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators at your fingertips and an inspiring epic story urging you on, with constant feedback and support from peers. You are on the verge of an epic win all the time.”

She added that, “in game worlds, we become the best version of ourselves,” whereas in the real world, “we face obstacles, we feel anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, cynical.”

I think these filmmakers captured something important for parents and mental health practitioners alike: that although this “addiction” seems new because it involves technology, it’s actually as old as our need for connection, mastery, and play.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

Georgia National Guardsman Sergeant 1st Class Ron Tuttle directs traffic as a fellow guardsman helps a civilian to their abandoned vehicle in Atlanta on Jan. 30. (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Atlanta's storm lesson: Prioritize emergency prep

By Correspondent / 01.31.14

The storm that paralyzed the Atlanta area will give politicians and commentators plenty of opportunities to debate the best and worst ways for major cities to handle sudden, massive emergencies. While others look at the big picture, I’m more interested in what the average person or family can do to be prepared when disaster happens. 

I almost said “average person on the street” but in Atlanta a whole lot of people were stranded in their cars. Such a situation has intrigued me for a long time and it should be part of any household disaster plan.

Most advice columns or news stories about emergency planning will tell you things like: keep several bottles of water stored in the garage at all times. I agree completely, but as you gather supplies for your home survival kit, just keep in mind that you may be out of the neighborhood when the crisis hits.

A big problem with all disaster planning is deciding how much is enough. Should your car be stocked with a few key items such as a flashlight and bottled water or equipped to become a temporary survival pod in case you, and perhaps your children, are stranded amid urban wreckage with no option except to sit and wait until help arrives?

The equation of what-might-happen added to where-you-might-be has an endless number of permutations. Back in the 1980s when I worked in San Francisco, my top emergency concern was a major earthquake knocking down the city while I was on the job. My house was 15 miles down the peninsula from where I worked. One interesting possibility I often considered was to keep a small inflatable raft somewhere in the office. My building was a block from the bay and I figured if I could get to the water and follow the shoreline south the odds of getting home were much better than trying to walk.   

I visualized myself paddling along under clear to partly cloudy skies with a light breeze. In California, assuming a disaster will occur on a nice day isn’t a bad bet. But weather can be a wild card in many areas of the US, and if you want a truly terrible worst-case scenario try this one: an earthquake, giant storm, or other mega-event smashes across a wide area in the Midwest or East Coast knocking out power grids and blocking roads in the dead of winter. 

The other element of the Atlanta story that caught my attention was school closures and kids trying to get home safely. For all parents this is truly a hot-button issue, and once again the hard truth is that no amount of planning can cover every possibility. 

When my daughter was in middle school the official plan for a massive earthquake was to get all the kids out of the buildings and onto the athletic field, and if parents showed up they would be allowed to take their kids home.

But there were a lot of questions with no definite answers. What if Joey Smith’s dad drove up and said, “I’m picking up Jane Johnson, too. I just talked to her parents and they told me it’s okay.” Should kids be allowed to walk home if they lived two or three blocks away? What about five or six blocks? 

A line that news people often use in the aftermath of disaster stories is, “This should serve as a wake-up call.” I don’t have a problem with that.

Wake-up calls are good. Every household in America should have a wide-awake discussion about how to be prepared various disaster situations. Don’t try to solve every potential problem. New ones will always pop up. Circumstances change, and plans may have to change with them. The important thing is to start the conversation with your family, and then make sure it never stops.

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Hollywood superstar Mark Wahlberg set to host Nickelodeon's 27th annual Kids' Choice Awards. (Nickelodeon/PRNewsFoto)

Mark Wahlberg not a kid-friendly host for Kids' Choice Awards 

By Correspondent / 01.31.14

Mark Wahlberg has been named the host of the 2014 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, leaving parents to deal with the issues of his inappropriate filmography and the expected hype for his upcoming role in the fourth Transformers film.

Seeing the news, I wondered which role landed Mr. Wahlberg the job hosting a show with a demographic of children ages 2 to 11. Was it the bloody action thriller "Lone Survivor" or the one with a teddy bear (in the film "Ted") that spews obscenities while acting like a porn star?

Last year, Nickelodeon was the top cable network with kids ages 2-11 (3.1/1.0 million; +24%) and total viewers (2.0 million; +27%). Nickelodeon’s 2013 Kids’ Choice Awards managed to garner 12 million total viewers, according to the ToonBarn website.

I like Wahlberg, but wonder what the folks over at Nickelodeon could have been thinking when they selected him to host a show for that age bracket.

Then, I read further into the news stories and found that Wahlberg will star in Michael Bay's "Transformers: Age of Extinction," in theaters June 27. The film is expected to be rated PG-13, like all the others in the franchise.

A recent study published by Common Sense Media about kids ad viewing, which I wrote about just a few days ago, takes a hard look at how advertisers are “exposing kids to product placement in popular TV shows.”

The study, released last week, points to Nielsen data estimating kids ages 2-11 see approximately 24,000 ads per year, which seems enormous even before you realize that it doesn't count all the product placement in shows (i.e. "American Idol" judges drinking Cokes), embedded plugs in scripts of TV and films, or online ads woven into gaming experiences. 

For me, what stands out here is that the age 2-11 demographic mentioned in the study is the exact same viewership age spread as Nickelodeon viewers.

I’m a mom, so I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe everything happens for a reason, and in this case, the reason seems to be to get kids to nag parents to go see the new Transformers film.

According to a video produced by Anna Lappé for the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International, when it comes to kids nagging their parents to buy them something – from a new toy to a Happy Meal at McDonald's – research shows, “It takes an average of nine nags for a typical parent to cave-in and buy a product.”

Funny, I always though of nagging as my job.

According to Ms. Lappé, the way companies get kids to make those “nine nags” is to come at them early and often, blitzing them by placing products in television shows, similar to placing a non-kids film star into the role of hosting the large kid-focused awards show on television.

Our kids don’t know Mark Wahlberg today, but by June (when the film releases) I predict they will be nagging us for toys they just suddenly find they can’t live without from a PG-13 movie that it’s unlikely we will even take them to see.

This morning, I asked Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media's parenting editor, about her thoughts on Wahlberg as host. Ms. Knorr responded in e-mail, "There's an age-disconnect. The advice for parents is if your young kids become interested in seeing age-inappropriate movies because they like the actors in them (having been exposed to those actors through age-appropriate means, i.e. the Kids' Choice Awards) your job becomes tougher." 

"You really have to research those movies to see if they are OK for your kids, based on your own values – not what's being marketed to them," she added. "In the end, you may just have to say, ‘no, not yet.’ ”

Common Sense's website has age reviews on films to help parents make better informed choices.

Still, young kids will likely know the film’s “best” lines by heart from TV and online commercials.

I’ve seen this happen with my son Quin, 10, who has not yet seen the new “Lego Movie” but can tell me his favorite line.

I can tell you right now, Quin will not be watching this year’s Kids’ Choice Awards with Wahlberg. That’s partially because of the ad blitz, and because when he doesn’t know something or recognize a celebrity, he Googles them or looks for their work on YouTube.

I have already suffered through the horror of having my 10-year-old look up TED Talks, the brilliant educational series of videos and find clips from the Wahlberg film “Ted” instead.

Oh, for the days when the Kids’ Choice Awards made good choices.

I am sure there was plenty of marketing drive behind the choices of previous hosts such as Will Smith and Jack Black, but at least they were already known for kid-friendly film work.

Will Smith, who hosted in 2012, voiced “Shark Tale” and is the father of “The Karate Kid,” Jaden Smith.

Jack Black is the lovable Po in “Kung Fu Panda” and so ran the show in 2011.

Josh Duhamel, who starred in the Transformers franchise from 2007-11 served as the 2013 host, which may have opened the door for Wahlberg's entrance as host.

I will not be surprised if the Kids’ Choice Awards show is heavily targeted with Transformers promo talk by the host, franchise toy ads, and film trailers on the commercial breaks or even during the show itself.

As a parent it’s my job to stay on top of the tactics used by companies to manipulate my child.

Also, it’s the parent’s job to nag, and no advertising agency bent on selling my child a burger, toy, or film is going to change who’s in charge of that in my house.

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