Q: Our school sends mixed messages about digital media. They warn about online safety and too much time on screens, but then send home an iPad with my third-grader to play "homework" games. I'm confused about my role as a parent in all this.
A: With today's 8- to 18-year-olds spending up to 4,000 hours a year on technology, parents have one more tough task -- rearing smart and responsible digital citizens.
"Families use technology in every aspect of life, and it's opened up a world of educational opportunities that didn't exist a decade ago," says Bill Laraway, a fifth-grade teacher at Silver Oak Elementary in San Jose, California -- in the heart of Silicon Valley. "Technology has risks and benefits, and a parent's job is to intentionally and thoughtfully teach kids the difference."
Laraway encourages parents to work with kids in four areas: focus, safety, responsibility and oversight.
"First is focus. These tools offer wonderful ways to deepen learning and expand our creative potential," says Laraway, "but they can also be distracting to students. Kids say they are 'multitasking,' but it's a myth.
"Researcher Daniel Goleman calls multitasking 'continuous partial attention,' with the brain switching quickly between tasks. It's no way for developing brains to study. Parents have to help students learn to filter out distractions, technological or otherwise, or they will have a hard time in almost every subject."
Laraway recommends Goleman's book "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence" to parents who aren't convinced.
The second is safety. Have a family policy about what to post, how passwords are stored, parental controls and so on.
"Don't scare kids, but do alert them to dangers and reinforce behaviors you want kids to adopt," says Laraway. (There are great resources at commonsensemedia.org and connectsafely.org.)
Three is responsibility. "Don't preach; lead by example," Laraway urges. "Don't be a goof online. Don't post things that will come back to haunt the family. Be kind and selective with your social media presence. Follow the Golden Rule."
Last, don't be afraid to monitor and enforce your family's policies. San Francisco parent Sean Ryan, an executive at Facebook, says, "I own every game device and tablet ever created, so we don't live in a cave, but we're pretty strict about our boys' usage and we enforce it, even if I have to look at the wireless router to confirm it.
"We limit screen time -- exempting old-school Kindles. We have borrowed more than 300 books from the library using the Kindle OverDrive system. It's just awesome."
The Ryans insist that the boys use their PCs in common areas of the home, not their rooms. "We prefer that they do homework on our desktop, since it's in the open," he says.
Their 15-year-old has what Ryan calls an "ancient" iPhone and the two younger boys' phones are used just for calling.
"We love the advantages of tech," says Ryan, "but we see how it can be abused. We're in no hurry to give them unlimited access to all forms of it -- that's why they call it 'parenting' and not 'friending.'"
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)