BY PENELOPE M. CARRINGTON
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
They probably would’ve partied well into the night if a curious neighbor, who knew the parents were out of town, hadn’t wandered over. The neighbor said the commotion drew her to the home, but the real shock was overhearing the horde of teens lie to their parents about their whereabouts using the very device many parents consider the high-tech way of keeping track of their kids.
The events themselves – throwing a party while the parents are away, saying you’re one place when you’re really another – are hardly innovative. Many of today’s parents did the same in the years before their parents’ rules made sense and their own hairlines started receding.
What’s different is the technological component of the scenario. Cell phones, the Internet and all the advances that have evolved with them have wired teens to the hilt. The shift has forced parents to be plugged into their kids’ virtual lives as much as their physical ones.
Teens can be and have been lured away from home by online sexual predators – in some cases, to their deaths. They’ve been seduced by porn and had their identities or those of their parents stolen.
“When I came in the house, my parents shut the door and no one else had access to me,” said Emily DeCarlo, a mother and special-education teacher at James River High School, in recalling her childhood. “Now, you shut the door and tell your kid to go to their room and they’ve got the Internet in there. They’ve got the whole world to talk to.”
And teens aren’t just communicating by computer.
Fully 84 percent of American teens ages 12 to 17 reported owning at least one desktop or laptop computer, cell phone or personal digital device such as a Sidekick or a BlackBerry in a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The Washington-based nonprofit organization, which studies the impact of the Internet on life, surveyed teens and parents for a 2005 report, “Teens and Technology: Youth Are Leading the Transition to a Fully Wired and Mobile Nation.”
This fully wired reality has created an electronically nimble generation with unprecedented access to people, places and things. Such access at the fingertips of youths who are ever more mobile, susceptible to peer pressure, still maturing and inclined to experimentation, has created an equally unprecedented parenting challenge.
Who are their children talking to? What are they doing, especially online? Both are now more complex endeavors as many parents scramble to learn – then keep up with – technology many of their children began mastering in preschool.
“We tend to think of access to the Internet as being with a computer, which has a certain size and location. But technology advances are such that everything is getting more mobile and more interactive with more multimedia,” said Nancy Willard, mother of three and executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore.
“We can’t think of the Internet anymore as the computer that’s in the family room,” said Willard, whose children are 10,12 and 14. We have to think of it in larger terms of how are we going to impart [our children] with the knowledge, the skills and the values to make the right choices in those areas.”
Counselors and other experts as well as parents interviewed for this story said the way to do that is by adapting the family rules, expectations and values to keep pace with technology. Getting to know your child’s friends means learning about the real people behind the screen names on their instant message buddy lists.
Finding out where they’re going means looking over their shoulder while they’re online and asking questions. It’s also checking where they’ve been online and questioning unfamiliar phone numbers that show up on cell phone bills. It’s calling the house they said they were going to.
Nancy Chavis, a Richmond area mother of girls 18, 13 and 9, said she trusts her kids, but not blindly. She has driven by the house where they said they would be.
“I’ve always taught my kids, ‘I’m going to trust you until you prove me wrong. And if you do, then it will take a long time for you to earn that trust back. I don’t want to ever find out that you’re not at Jenny’s house,'” Chavis said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by nearly a dozen parents of teens and preteens. Most believe a combination of clear, specific ground rules and usage monitoring have averted problems in their families.
Tim Billups, who is up on the latest technology because of his job with the city of Richmond, said he and his wife have been fortunate not to have had problems with their 13-year-old daughter. She has a school-issued laptop but rarely goes online. She also carries a cell phone but adheres to her parents’ strict rules about its use, Billups said.
He said he and his wife often tell their daughter: “You’ve got to remember, we used to be 13, 14, 15 and 16, so there is really not a lot you can get over on us.”
Other parents spoke of the curveballs thrown by their otherwise obedient children. One parent had to confiscate and hide the child’s school-issued laptop the minute the child got home. Otherwise the child would be surfing forbidden Internet places, thanks to a wireless Internet connection the computer accidentally picked up. Another parent recalled the $400 phone bill that resulted when a teen and a friend logged on to a pay-to-use server where they visited porn sites in another country. That teen worked for months to pay off the debt.
Given the ever-changing nature of technology and the fact that teens tend to test parents and their rules, educator Catherine Moffett said it’s crucial that those rules be made clear. Often.
“I know what kids will say,” said Moffett, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Counselor Education. “They’ll say to their parents, ‘You don’t trust me,’ and parents need to say, ‘You’re right. ‘Trust has to be earned. My job is not to trust you, it’s to protect you.'”
Ask area teens what they think about the intense focus on cell phones, the Internet and what they’re doing there and many say the parental concern is overblown. The problem, they said, is that parents don’t understand the technology or how it fits into their lives.
James River High School junior Bree Reamy, for example, said the Internet simply offers an easy way to communicate.
“It’s not really that I’m drawn to the Internet. Yes, I go to random sites when I’m bored, but it’s not my No.1 priority,” she said.
Henrico High School freshman Sheila Palmer and Highland Springs High School sophomore Travis Schmidt said instant messaging – exchanging e-mail messages in real time with people logged on to the same IM server – makes keeping in touch less time-consuming.
“You talk to more people at one time,” said Palmer, who is in the International Baccalaureate Program at Henrico High and has 30 to 50 people on her IM buddy list. “I have a lot of work to do, so I can’t really take time out to talk to one person.”
But there are exceptions.
“Online you can talk to people that range from friends to acquaintances, but when you talk on a land line, it’s a really, really good friend,” Palmer said.
Palmer’s distinction mirrors the findings in the “Teens & Technology” report, which said that despite teens’ appetite for technology, 52 percent prefer to use a regular phone.
That should reassure parents. So should the fact that area teens said they understand their parents’ concerns. They said they know about the dangers of online predators and identity thieves.
That’s why teens with blogs – online journals – at sites such as MySpace.com said they don’t post specific information that would help someone find them in the real world. They also block those with unfamiliar screen names and let their parents know when they’ve been sent suspicious or unsavory e-mail or text messages.
Common sense in cyberspace, Reamy and other teens said, comes with age and experience.
“If I was 13 and I saw someone without a picture on MySpace, I wouldn’t think of it as anything. But now it’s like, ‘Duh!’ It’s probably not a 13-year-old from Florida,” said Reamy, who said real teens will post their pictures. “I kind of realized there are bad people in the world and don’t take candy from strangers. I’ve come to realize that my parents are right.”