Kids and digital media: removing the fears

Reports of Adam Lanza's war-game obsession and the new FTC rules on children's online privacy help refocus concerns on the effects of digital media on children. But parental anxiety can be channeled toward solutions.

Microsoft corporate vice president Joe Belfiore displays an app with his children during the launch of Windows Phone 8 in San Francisco Oct. 29.

Here is what many parents face this Christmas:

Among 6-to-12-year-olds, the top wish in gifts is a mobile device – either a tablet computer or a smart phone.

And the top two bestselling video games (names withheld on purpose) involve military shooting.

Add these two together and parents may wonder how they can better safeguard their children from the head-spinning advances in digital devices and digital media.

They are not alone.

The possibility that 20-year-old Adam Lanza was addicted to war-themed video games before his shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., has renewed calls for a government study on the possible link between real and imaginary violence.

And an explosion of software applications – more than 1.4 million now available online – pushed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) this week to toughen up privacy rules for online services that try to track the online behavior of kids under 13.

Such concerns about media and children should not be alarming, writes media expert Lynn Schofield Clark of the University of Denver in a new book, “The Parent App.” The new digital media can instead provide “an opportunity to change the conversation from one that is guided by fear to one of realism and possibility.”

She points out that the new communication technologies do not raise the level of risk for young people. But they can contribute to social trends already under way, such as isolation and a focus on self.

“We want technologies that assist us in guiding our children as unique individuals, yet we risk inculcating in them a sense that others are sources of competition rather than members of a community in which, in an important sense, we will fail or thrive together,” Ms. Clark writes.

She interviewed hundreds of parents and found upper-income families use new media primarily as an educational tool, while lower-income parents use it to encourage their kids to focus on family and as a means for self-expression. Yet all parents share concerns about cyberbullying and online predators – or what is called “stranger danger” – while many also seek software to monitor their kids’ use of new media without eroding their trust.

The FTC’s new regulations for online apps represent the latest in a long history of government efforts to catch up with new technology in order to assist parents overwhelmed by possible negative effects. But as past struggles over the content of broadcast TV have shown, it is far more effective for activists to concentrate on promotion of suitable content for children (PBS’s “Sesame Street,” for example) than pass laws or issue regulations against unwanted content or encroachment. A market can be built for wholesome entertainment, as Disney and other companies have shown.

The difficult part for regulators is to balance the protection of children against the risk of slowing innovation in digital media. The new FTC rules, for example, require the industry to make more efforts to avoid collecting a wider range of “personal information” about young children. The agency looked at 400 popular apps for children on the Apple and Google platforms and found only 20 percent disclose their policies on data collection. Yet the industry’s response is to warn of a slowdown in developing new products.

Parents, however, still must be the front line for dealing with new media. As Clark found in her studies, parents (mainly mothers) must put more “emotional work” into their relations with their children to overcome their anxieties about digital media. New tools and rules can help parents, but managing the level of burdens and benefits is really up to them.

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