Opinion

With school's return, time to unplug your kids

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Once upon a time, the biggest adjustment at the beginning of the school year was to re-establish a child's regular sleeping routine. But for the parents of the digital generation, this has probably been surpassed by the need to unplug children from the limitless screen-time they enjoyed during the summer months.

It's time to wean them from months of television, movies, the Internet and smartphones. It isn't going to be easy, but their future might depend on it.

On July 16, Newsweek asked anxiously, "Is the web driving us mad?" The magazine's cover story fretted that "[t]he current incarnation of the Internet -- portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive -- may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic."

With students ages 8 to 18 spending an average of 7.5 hours a day "plugged in," more and more brain researchers are apprehensive that constant connectivity may not be for the better. So what are parents and educators to do?

Over the summer, my principal and I decided to read Common Sense CEO Jim Steyer's new book "Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age." It was time well spent.

In the first part of his book, Steyer uses statistics, research and anecdotes to address what he considers to be the three major areas in the evolving digital universe -- relationships, attention/addiction and privacy -- and what we should be prepared to face.

By age 18, the average child has spent close to 50,000 hours consuming mass media, compared to 16,000 hours in school. Steyer provides an account of a 15-year-old boy who acknowledged the "emptiness in his life and the buzz and excitement of digital games [helping] fill the void." Switching between the ultra-violent Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, the boy plays "four hours daily after school and sometimes double that on weekends."

If this young man continues down his current path, what will he be like when he graduates from high school? What will a generation of such young men look like?

Steyer's book provides media tips for children from birth to age 15. Should your 2-year-old play games on your iPad? When is it best to get your child a cellphone? A Facebook account? Steyer emphasizes the importance of parents "taking back control" of their responsibility in helping their children make "proper choices."

With the volume of teen media consumption today -- not to mention the growing questionable content -- the question thus becomes, "What standards do you give children to make their media choices?"

Television remains teens' medium of choice, in terms of daily viewing. Interestingly, the television industry was originally founded using very traditional and even Biblical guidelines. The dedication of the BBC in the 1930s (emblazoned in Latin in the original Broadcasting House which included radio and later television) stated, "This temple of the arts and muses is dedicated to Almighty God ... [with] prayer that good seed sown may bring forth good harvest ... and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are lovely and honest, whatsoever things are of good report, may tread the path of virtue and wisdom."

In America, NBC, CBS and ABC put forth a variety of programming for nearly three decades under the National Association of Broadcasters Television Code, which began with the following preamble: "It is the responsibility of television to bear constantly in mind that the audience is primarily a home audience, and consequently that television's relationship to the viewers is that between guest and host."

With these standards long discarded, there are organizations today that provide guidance on content, such as Common Sense Media, Movieguide (movieguide.org) and Plugged-in (pluggedin.com). These provide excellent resources to help parents and educators equip young people with the critical thinking and media discernment skills they need to navigate today's digital world.

Our parents and schools require such discernment skills today. Tomorrow's grown-ups, whom they are training for life, will need them as much if not more.

Mr. Murray is headmaster of Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Md.

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