Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Parents learn to embrace changing technology

Innovations offer them new ways to monitor kids

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Evan Menendez, 8, (right) plays a social computer game called Club Penguin, in which he can communicate with his friends, who name and outfit their own penguins. Evan’s mother, Stacy, supervises and little brother Scott is very interested in the game.
Many parents say technology has improved their children’s education and socialization, and being able to use the latest innovations to monitor those youngsters is a bonus.

Moshe Briel, a Wheaton resident whose son will be starting his freshman year at the University of Maryland this fall, said computers, cell phones and the Internet can be positives if people have access to them. ‘‘Things are moving faster now than they used to be, and I guess technology has been a drive to that. The sooner students learn how to use it, the more competitive we’ll be in a global market.”

Briel said he’s had a computer in his home since his son, Lior, was just 6 years old. By the age of 10, Lior was teaching Briel more about computers than the other way around.

‘‘He never got a chance to know life without a computer,” Briel said.

Briel also got Lior a cell phone at age 12 as a way to hold his son accountable by always being reachable and keeping track of his own minutes.

While Briel has seen the way technology has affected his son’s life throughout his public school education, Stacy Menendez is just beginning to understand the impact technology will have on her children, who both attend Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring.

While Menendez’s sons Scott, 6, and Evan, 8, have only just started using the computer for schoolwork, ClubPenguin.com has become a growing phenomenon with Evan. ClubPenguin is a social site for children ages 8 to 14 who want to communicate with one another, play games and earn points for good deeds. The site makes a point not to post any personal information about the child such as real names or hometowns.

While Menendez said she trusts that Evan is having harmless fun with friends, she also has a penguin account so she can keep track of what is going on and that the site remains ‘‘G-rated.”

‘‘It seems that everything is on the up and up, but you never know these days,” she said.

ClubPenguin has also taught Evan lessons about not giving away personal information, Menendez said. Evan had given away his password to a friend, and Menendez realized the friend was starting to sign onto the site as Evan and change things on Evan’s penguin page. She said it taught her son to never give out his password and how to change it.

While technology has done a lot to shape her son’s life, Menendez said technology has become a resource for her as well. She said Connect-ED, a phone system the schools use to correspond with parents and staff, has been helpful.

As the president of the Parent Teacher Association at Kemp Mill, Menendez can record messages to remind parents about events. The messages are sent to all parents’ home phone numbers at the same time.

‘‘The snail mail or backpack [messages] don’t really get a lot of attention,” she said. ‘‘That is just an incredible resource.”

Montgomery County Public Schools has also provided a way to connect parents with student achievement through Edline, which allows parents to log onto a secure page where they can track their children’s progress.

George Gadbois, who has a son at Wheaton High School and a son at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School, said he checks Edline every day to track his sons’ grades and is able to get on their case when something doesn’t seem right. He is even alerted through e-mail when one of his son’s teachers has posted a new grade.

Gadbois said technology is positive as long as parents teach their children to use it safely.

‘‘I may make a comment from time to time, but as our kids get older, they need to make some decisions for themselves,” he said.

With personal sites like MySpace and Facebook increasing in popularity and prevalence among college, high school and sometimes middle school students, Gadbois said parents have to ask questions.

Gadbois said both of his sons visit one or both of the sites, but use a computer in the living room to go on the site, leaving little room for privacy. He said he tries to limit their use of the computer.

However, for parents whose children haven’t entered the world of MySpace and Facebook just yet, the future can seem a little scary.

While Menendez approves of ClubPenguin, she said she hopes to prevent her children from joining MySpace and Facebook until high school.

‘‘Kids do not come with handbooks, so you never know when you’re doing it right,” she said. ‘‘I [believe] every action has consequences down the road.”