Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Families absorb the technology boom

Wired up and wireless, parents and kids adapt to changes and their effect on school and home

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
The Onley family of Takoma Park is well-equipped electronically for education. (From left) Nora, 20, has a MacBook; Martin, 14, has a Mac mini, Dwight holds a Blackberry and owns an eMac, Terri Savage has a Dell laptop and Claire, 17, has a MacBook.
As a father of three and a county English teacher, Dwight Onley knows technology has become omnipresent both in and out of school.

His own family’s interactions with each other and the access his three children have to their schoolwork at home are more effortless because of that technology. In their Takoma Park home, the Onleys have six computers, including three laptops.

‘‘I’m a real computer freak and ever since they were born, they’ve always had access to some type of computer,” said Onley, who teaches at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville. ‘‘You flick the computer switch and you are on the [Inter]net. ... It’s always there. It’s like electricity.”

The Onleys aren’t alone. Nearly 62 percent of U.S. families own computers, and nearly 55 percent have Internet access in the home, according to 2003 U.S. Census Bureau data. Compare that with the 23 percent who had computers in the home in 1993, and the 42 percent who did just five years after that, and it is clear that for students, computers are becoming more of a necessity, not a luxury.

Allison Druin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, with a research focus on children and technology, said more schools are requiring computer and Internet access for assignments outside the classroom. The resources available online to complete those assignments compared to five years ago are drastically different, she said.

Onley said his children even use their cell phones to talk to their classmates about homework.

‘‘The whole thing is connectivity,” he said. ‘‘No one has to study alone ever. You can talk to tutors on the Internet. You can always contact teachers, parents. Anyone who fails nowadays is trying.”

Druin said the right technologies can dramatically improve a child’s study habits or experience at school. But the wrong ones — those that youngsters haven’t had much exposure to or those that don’t mesh with their learning habits — may not be appropriate.

Dwight Onley’s 17-year-old daughter Claire said she sees how too much technology can have its pros and cons, but she said her cell phone was more of a necessity.

‘‘I officially cannot live without ... my cell phone,” she said.

Nora Onley, 20, a junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said that others expect her to be attached to her cell phone.

‘‘Because everyone has a cell phone, people expect you to be available whenever,” she said.

She said she has even used her cell phone to contact a family member while they were both in the same house.

‘‘I can’t attribute that to anything other than laziness,” she said.

Wired for technology

Judith Horne’s family lives in a neighborhood of Silver Spring she says is prone to blackouts. When the power is out, so are her three children’s computers, the cable television and her son’s Nintendo Wii video game system.

Could they live without it all?

‘‘I’d say probably not,” she said in her home one afternoon, the same day a Verizon worker hooked up their FiOS system, an Internet upgrade that would make the family’s Web connection faster.

‘‘For [family members], in a lot of respects, technology has made things easier,” she said.

Taking a break from playing on the Wii with a group of friends, her son, 13-year-old Evan, said that while having an Internet hook-up in his room helped him procrastinate at times, it was essential in getting his schoolwork done.

‘‘We get a lot of projects, and e-mail comes into play most of the time ... and I love Google,” said Evan, an eighth-grader at Eastern Middle School who bought the Nintendo Wii with his bar mitzvah savings.

Erica Horne, a 14-year-old sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School, said she did most of her online research for last year’s school projects at home. She said she would be able to manage the coursework with the computers at the library or at school, but would have more trouble giving up her cell phone.

Her sister agrees.

‘‘I found myself being a little lost without it,” said older sister Lizzie, 16, a senior at Montgomery Blair. Lizzie said her mother hid her cell phone from her for a while because ‘‘I was sort of using it too much.”

The only gadget Judith Horne said she could claim growing up with was an electric typewriter she got when she turned 13. Now, all three of her children have cell phones, iPods or MP3 players and digital cameras.

‘‘They teach me how to use all these things,” she said.

How much is too much?

The Campion family is in the minority when it comes to technology, and advocates the less-is-more theory.

Karen Campion, 18, said she has grown up with just one television in her Silver Spring home, and that one television is in her parents’ bedroom.

‘‘We weren’t allowed to watch TV, and my computer for most of my childhood was very old, so we couldn’t do much with it besides type papers,” she said.

Campion said she didn’t notice her family’s lack of technology until she realized how connected her friends’ families were.

She also said that she didn’t get her first cell phone until this summer, in preparation for her first year in college at Princeton University. But over time, she said, she’s grown to appreciate the restrictions.

‘‘I became a very avid reader because there wasn’t another alternative ... but it was annoying not to know what TV shows people were talking about,” she said.

Karen Campion’s mother, Kate, said that even with restricting her five children, who range in age from 5 to 19, from various forms of technology, she couldn’t completely avoid it.

She said she was amazed when one of her daughters was going to the prom with a friend whom she only contacted through Facebook, a social networking site popular among high school and college students.

‘‘It’s changed the scene for dating and friendship,” she said. ‘‘It’s a little bit of risky territory.”

Druin said parents and teachers have wrestled with teaching youths the ethics associated with proper Internet use, and at the same time helping those youngsters understand how valuable the Internet can be.

‘‘You tend to see more hype about those times when things fall apart, when kids go off and look at bad bathroom humor, for example,” Druin said. ‘‘But what’s exciting, is that it’s certainly gotten much more mobile to get more information. There’s a very different notion nowadays of where the resources are.”