Kids and Cyber-safety: Q&A with Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, Part II

November 12, 2010

In this part of the interview, O'Keeffe talks about the importance of establish boundaries for text messaging -- and setting a good example.

In this three-part series, HCPLive spoke 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.

Click here to read Part I.

It’s funny; I was against texting initially, when we made the decision to allow our children to have cell phones. I had to be dragged into the idea. I just saw them texting incessantly and not getting any work done—I didn’t realize the advantages to it until I allowed them to get it. And I realized that if we didn’t get an unlimited texting plan, we were going to go broke pretty fast.

So we did cave, and I think it helped because I was getting an iPhone at the time, so we found an affordable way to do it. And I also realized that when one of us—my husband or I—is in a meeting, or the kids are somewhere, it’s quicker to text than to send an e-mail and check it, or for them to call. It’s quicker and a little more private, and you can say a work quicker than picking up the phone.

There are some family advantages that we found with texting that I never could have imagined before had we not done that. There are also times when I feel that the kids use texting when should learn to pick up the phone and call their friends, or just shut the phone off.

We’ve had to teach them some boundaries; especially in middle school when they first got their phones, their friends would text and text and text, almost to the point of badgering. And I saw feelings getting hurt and kids getting badgered—not quite to the point of harassment and bullying, but approaching that level. And it wasn’t because they were really being bullied, but because they didn’t know how to communicate. They were learning those boundaries of when to start, when to stop, how to get someone to leave them alone—and that was just normal social peer stuff. They were learning how to use the technology, and I think that’s where parents really have to step in and figure out what’s happening and ask them to be less involved.

You have to have family rules, and I advocate that in the book, where you have to have house rules about how you’re going to use these technologies. You have to stand by them yourself and use the same rules that you have your kids to use, and have them sit down and tell you what’s happening with that text line and show it to you, so you can sort of explain to them why it’s appropriate or inappropriate; how do they handle it; and feed them some ways of getting out of it—even dictate a text to them. Or tell them that it’s okay not to send a text back. Sometimes they don’t realize that they don’t have to respond, and you have to coach them a little bit.

And a lot of families don’t realize that they can have that role with their kids, and that they can also take the phone away. You own the phone and you own the plan, so at some point, you have to say to them, ‘you’re shutting it off now, give me the phone.’ I’ve done that with both of my kids at times when I thought they were getting either too sassy or violating whatever rules we’ve set up, and they needed a break from the technology. Take it away. Just tell them, ‘we’re taking a break now.’ And do it as a family. Put all the cell phones on a shelf and say, ‘none of us are calling, texting, or surfing the web. We’re going to sit and have dinner.’

How important is it that parents set a good example for their kids in terms of using mobile technologies?

It’s very important. I remember one dinner shortly after we all got our phones—we were just enthralled by them. I had my iPhone, my husband had his BlackBerry, and my kids were able to text their friends, and we must’ve had 20 minutes were none of us were talking to each other. So my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘this is crazy. We’re not doing this again.’

So we quickly created a ‘no cell phones at the table’ rule, whether we’re out to dinner or at home. This was right after we got our phones, and we just realized how quickly you can get pulled into it, and we just said, ‘enough, this is crazy.’ If we’re at dinner, we’re not going to answer the phone or have cell phones anywhere near us. Period.

Click here for Part III

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


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