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Cutting A Favorite Teen Technology A Little Slack


A while back my son, during in his junior year at high school, gave my wife and I a big pitch on why he needed and should have a cell phone. He's the third child in our family and, unlike his mother and two older siblings, definitely falls into his father's footsteps in his love of all things electronic. Even so, we had dodged the cell phone bullet to that point, and although it was tempting, I appreciated my wife's feelings that a phone, with its expected dozens of text messages, would be yet another distraction from homework and other important tasks.


(Frankly I felt a little sad about the decision, because I knew that if cell phones had existed when I was a teen I would have wanted one just as badly.)


At the same time, while journalists and researchers continue to build Internet chatter over the possible negative effects of texting, social networking and a myriad of other online activities -- many of which I have reported on in this forum -- I feel there are more positive benefits to all of these beeping devices than I usually give them credit for.


These feelings of wanting to cut technology some slack were further prompted after perusing a recent article in Toronto's Globe and Mail on yet another study that shows teens are planting themselves in front of TV and computer screens for over seven hours per day. Scrolling through the article I found some comments from Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a guy I have come to respect for his interesting and balanced perspective on media and technology.


Dr. Christakis adds his support for the core of the article, suggesting the proportion of adolescents who are heavy media users (roughly 10%) aligned with a similar percentage of North Americans who are identified as suffering from true Internet addiction. He also states how difficult it is for science to keep up with studying new technologies, saying, "It takes us years to get a study funded, then years to conduct it and in the meantime, Twitter comes out."


But then he reminds the reader of a very important point. Paraphrasing, Dr. Christakis says there is nothing wrong with teenagers communicating with each other and we, as parents, need to resist lumping all technologies together. Texting is not the same as playing World of Warcraft. He reminds us that most of the research on negative effects of screen time is linked to the frenetic, hyperactive pace of produced media.


"If you're writing long emails online or penning 10-page love letters, there's nothing wrong with that," says the doctor, adding it would almost be easier if all technology was bad. "If media were like cigarettes, we could just say,  'don't do it.' But we can't."


Obviously 140-character text messages are hardly compositions of artistic splendor. However, if used in moderation, I really don't see texting as any different than the hours I spent talking on the phone with my friends during my adolescent years. In my son's case, he has selected a text plan that limits the number of messages he is allowed to send, which I'm hoping will not only save him money but will give him incentive to not let himself get carried away with a constant texting habit.


Over the past year, my two oldest kids, now both young adults, have also become cell phone users. Ironically, with three cell phone wielding offspring, I'm finding myself texting more than ever as they send me messages during the day about various topics. While we are still a very verbal family whenever we are together, these texts have been a nice way to keep in touch -- and even share a heartfelt moment.


"Hey! I'm on my way home. We need to drop off some other people first, so I'll be a while." texts child number three one recent evening after seeing a movie with friends.


I write back: "Okay. Pop in and let us know when you're here." referring to our usual check in at the bedroom when the kids get home late.  But I wanted to say something more. Hesitating for a moment, I added, "love you!" to the end of the text, hoping that wouldn't be too much fatherly gush to read while with his friends.


A moment later, another response returned: "Will do. Love you too!"


Suddenly, I love text messaging.


Rod Gustafson



Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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