When Alison Brennan was in college, she had a telephone in her dorm room — but she rarely used it to call home. "I called my parents after 11 on Sunday nights, when the rates went down," the Towson resident says with a laugh, recalling the not-so-distant past, when long-distance fees were exorbitant and parents communicated with their college-aged kids once a week (at most).
Today, Brennan is typically in contact with her three children — a daughter just out of college and living in London, a son in his junior year at American University in Washington, and another son who is a junior at The Boys' Latin School of Maryland — much more than once a week. Between texts, Facebook and Instagram interactions, Snapchat, and apps like Wiper Messenger, she and her kids might "chat" every day.
Brennan says she's careful not to be overbearing but she admits that she appreciates that technology makes it easier to stay in touch with her children. Her son in high school can quickly text her if his schedule changes, for example, and she can be readily available as a "sounding board" even for her daughter who lives across the ocean.
Navigating the ever-changing world of technology can be tricky for parents. But, as Brennan has discovered, emerging technologies offer parents numerous ways to connect with children and to make the job of parenting smoother.
"Giving the parent and child the quick ability to communicate with one another is the greatest benefit," says Mary T. Phelan, public information officer with the Howard County Police Department. Phelan also praises mapping and GPS functions, saying that maps allow children to know where they are, even in unfamiliar surroundings, while GPS lets parents make sure their kids are where they are supposed to be.
Educators say new technology can be a boon in the classroom, as well.
By the time children arrive in elementary school, they are often already "digital natives" says Shawn Simon, a first-grade teacher at Baltimore's Patterson Park Public Charter School. Simon has a master's degree in instructional technology and says she is a strong advocate for the use of technology in the classroom. Because her students have used computers and cellphones since they were very young, they are comfortable with it. Using it in the classroom helps them understand "how technology can be a tool to help them reach a bigger goal."
Simon's first-graders use tablets daily during math and reading instruction and use apps like Kaymbu, a tool that allows students to take photos of their work to save to a personal portfolio that is shared with families on a weekly basis. "They are able to gain ownership of their own work, even at a young age, and it has helped me differentiate work for my different learners," she says.
Simon's colleague Gillian Zapata, also a first-grade teacher at PPPCS, likes that technology helps bridge the gap between learning at school and at home. "A lot of reading websites make it easier for parents to navigate the tricky terrain of learning to read," she says. "I share websites with families to give them suggestions for places to go to practice specific skills. And no matter what students' home libraries look like, they are able to access quality texts online."
Zapata notes that most of her students have Internet access at home, either via phone or computer, so they can use recommended websites or find books online. Plus, "the few who don't have Internet access are able to use the public library computers or school computers," she says.
But don't use technology as a "baby sitter," warns Zapata. She recommends parents "check in with the child frequently to see what they are doing and to guide them to choose meaningful activities."
Local parent education specialist Sheena Hill, the owner of Parenting Works, echoes these sentiments and notes that when parents and children use technology together, it can become a valuable family activity.
"Watch a show or play a game together and interact throughout the experience," she says. "This real live interaction is crucial to relational and cognitive development. The sharing of screen time offers an opportunity for connection and quality time."
Hill warns against using technology as a reward or treat, and agrees that parents should work with children to determine appropriate limits on screen time and content. She suggests maintaining an open conversation about technology use, saying these discussions can help build trust and self-discipline.
When parents and kids use technology together, Hill says, it provides "countless teachable moments to discuss important values and expectations."