Kids and Cyber Safety: Q&A with Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, Part I

November 9, 2010
Kate Huvane Gamble

O'Keeffe discusses the challenges parents face in raising technology-savvy children, and offers recommendations for limiting Internet use and texting.

In this three-part series, HCPLive speaks with Gwenn O’Keeffe, MD, FACP—author of CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media—about the recommendations and tips the book offers for both parents and pediatricians, and the importance of understanding the importance of technology in today’s world. The book covers a wide range of topics, from helping children deal with cyberbullying to using control systems to monitor online activities, and is designed to help “steer parents through the often intimidating digital landscape where young children can be plugged in 24/7.” In addition to her work as a pediatrician, CEO of Pediatrics Now, and a blogger for MDNG: Pediatrics, O'Keeffe is also a fellow and national spokeswoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and an executive committee member of the AAP’s Council of Communications and Media—and a mother to two children.

When I was training to become pediatrician in the late 80s and early 90s, we had just old-fashioned, clunky computer systems in hospitals. We didn’t have any of this technology to interface with parents or kids or each other; we were just seeing it all evolve in real-time. I remember when e-mail was introduced in hospitals, and we all had to make the decision to use cell phones. This was all a new thing.

When e-mail first came out, it took forever to get it and nobody used it. It was kind of a nightmare; we were all thinking, why in the world would we use that? It seemed like the silliest thing in the world, plus it took forever to log on to the in-hospital system.

But then within a few years, the hospitals starting perfecting the Internet within each facility, and when I was teaching at a medical school in Illinois in the late 90s, we figured out that we could teach on that system and use it to show students what it was like to have to look up labs in a couple of days, and I started to kind of get a glimpse of the power of an Internet was. And somewhere during that time, I just started writing, and when broad-band came into our homes, I started becoming more enthralled with it. Before I knew it, I was online, and people started suggesting to me, ‘you should marry all these things together.’ So it was kind of like an accident in fate; all of these things just sort of came together.

I think that’s the way most interesting careers evolve; somebody has to take an interest in these different things. I’ve always had a strong interest in socially and family dynamics and how things affect people, and it just so happened that my interest was in the impact of technology—more the sociological effect of it.

I was interested in how to help people improve their lives from a practical point of view, just like I always have done. People would ask me to write articles to help people feel more sane about information or help make their kids’ flu better. I figured with technology, I could do the same thing, but on a broader scale.

Kids today have access to much more sophisticated technologies than their parents did when they were growing up. How can parents deal with the challenges that this presents?

That’s the thing; most parents didn’t grow up with this. This book aims to provide the roadmap for how you adjust to technology. And I think that’s what people don’t realize. Everyone says, ‘our kids will be all set, because they’ve grown up with this.’ But they’ve grown up with this particular version of the technology; there will be a new “this” in the future. If we provide this roadmap correctly, they’ll learn how to adapt to the new technology, whatever it is.

We have to be the ones to teach our kids to unplug, and to remember that there is a world beyond the screen and the cell phones that we all remember well, but our kids don’t always know how to use.

That’s part of what my book is about too—remembering that while our kids may sometimes use the technology better, we know the world better, and we know how to negotiate face-to-face interactions and privacy issues and all of those things that our kids are still learning, and are actually struggling with more, because technology makes it harder to learn. So we bring that to the table, and I think what we have to do is catch up with the technology and realize that we can not only learn the technology, but we can parent just as effectively with it as we parent in our kitchen.

In the book, do you offer specific recommendations in term of things like monitoring and/or limiting kids’ online activity?

Yes. I go through everything from how to get your kids online to teen behavior to social networking. For the monitoring chapters, I spoke with people from all of the companies that have a stake in the area, from Symantec to K9 to Spectrasoft. The book talks about where the controls are, and I go through the pros and cons of all the companies; which ones are free, which ones you have to pay for, etc.

Actually, I’m not really a big advocate of any of those programs. I think you can use them to monitor if you feel you need to do that to promote discussion, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to monitor so you can yell at your kids or lock down the computers. Some parents do that because they’re fearful of the computers and the Internet and the content out there, and they don’t trust their kids. They don’t realize that their kids are actually doing okay and that it’s difficult to stumble upon inappropriate material. I think parents worry more about that than they have to.

But some kids just have trouble searching and they end up places where maybe parents are uncomfortable. So a monitoring program can help you see where your kids are, especially if kids have friends that are questionable, and they’re entering chat rooms and on Facebook all the time—they can give you a snapshot to help you figure out if your kids are having communications that may not be appropriate, and you can use it to promote healthy conversations. I think that can have great value if you’re having trouble communicating with your child. But it can also backfire on you and make your communication—especially with teenagers—much worse, if you use it punitively.

Read Part II and Part III of the interviewBe sure to read O’Keeffe’s column, “Social Media Notebook,” in the latest issue of MDNG: Pediatrics. For more information about the book, CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media, click here.

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