I was part of a panel recently that focused on teens and spirituality. A bright 14-year-old sitting next to me announced that human brains were just "wet computers." This same young man connected with classmates via instant messages but hadn't been to a dance in the three years he attended middle school.

Kids long for connection, and technology is fulfilling that desire by allowing them access to worlds beyond their own neighborhoods. But with this vast expansion of opportunity comes a need for balance and consciousness. If our child is exploring nature through vividly graphic internet sites without running barefoot in the backyard or spying on birds building their nests, there is no balance. When our teenagers connect with cyber pals thousands of miles away but don't take the time to toss a few balls with the kids next door, they don't have the experiential opportunity to know people in all their complexity.

Rather than condemning and fearing the power of today's technology, however, we can accept its potential for good in our family and craft a plan to use it in ways that enhance, rather than shrink, warm human connections.

The following ideas will help you begin:

  • Examine your own use of technology. Do you rush home from work only to check your e-mail, phone messages, and pager before sitting down to hear about your child's day? One father was devastated to receive this e-mail from his 6-year-old daughter: "Dad, I know how busy you are, but do you think you would have time to read me a story tonight?" He was on his laptop in the family room, she on her computer upstairs in her bedroom.

  • Find websites that enrich your child's life rather than those that encourage spending or show vapid content. Explore these sites together. A couple to check out are Playmusic.org, where you can learn about composers and go backstage with a symphony orchestra; and Amazing-kids.org, where kids can post their own creative writing.

  • Whenever possible, make computer use a social experience: Put the computer in a central place in your home, and put two chairs there to encourage sharing. Get to know what programs interest your child and join him in his simulated city construction or interactive chess game. An added bonus: Older kids are apt to use technology more responsibly when it is out in the open rather than in their bedrooms.

  • Make sure your kids are connecting with friends in real time, not just through the computer. Encourage them to invite pals to your home on the weekends or after school.

  • Be available to listen to your child's worries and questions. According to a recent national survey by Kaiser Family Foundation, 39% of preteens are getting information about their big questions via television or the internet. Wouldn't you rather your kids come to you?

  • Talk to your kids about what your family believes in when it comes to media. "We only allow programming into our home that treats people respectfully--that goes for websites, CDs, video games, and TV shows." Then discuss why you feel the way you do, rather than handing out rules and consequences.

  • Come up with ways to extend computer interests your kids have into real- world interests. For instance, if your child loves sending greeting cards online, stock up on art supplies and old magazines for collages and have him create some of the handmade variety.

  • Don't let screen time substitute for lap time with your young child, and don't expect books on CD-ROM to substitute for a loving parent's voice.

  • Take time to connect as a family. Dazzling technology can diminish human worth, but coming together through a shared activity grounds and unites us. Pick one day a month as Family Day, and mark these days on your calendar. Just have fun, or learn something new with your kids.
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