Eagle County Sheriff: In a world of expanding technology, kids are still learning responsibility (column) | VailDaily.com

Eagle County Sheriff: In a world of expanding technology, kids are still learning responsibility (column)

James van Beek
Valley Voices

Summer represents fun and sun. Visitors arrive from around the world to experience the majestic environment in which we live daily, yet many of our kids will stay indoors and go digital. From cellphones to iPads to video games and television, our kids frequently leave the 3D world to enter a new dimension, and it is addicting.

Like most adults, my cellphone never leaves my side. I could genuinely claim it was for law-enforcement purposes, but I must admit that more times than I should, especially during boring meetings, I reach for that comforting device, open up the little blue app and give in to the addiction. In earlier days, we called it our "CrackBerry"… a take on the name of the most popular model of its time. Yet as adults, we learn to balance our pleasures with responsibility; kids are still learning.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids spend 11 hours a day on media. Also, 85 percent of teens ages 14 to 17 have cellphones; 69 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds and 31 percent of those ages 8 to 10 — and that was eight years ago. Pew Research found that 72 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds exchanged more than 1,500 texts per month in 2010.

There is developing concern over young children having smartphones. Media leaders such as Bill Gates refused to allow cellphones for their children before age 14. Phones were never allowed at the dinner table, and they were shut off well before bedtime. Steve Jobs would not allow his kids to use an iPad at home.

Pierre Laurent, of Microsoft, says, "It's not that there's an intent to harm children, but there's an intent to keep them engaged." As a Waldorf parent, he adheres to the philosophy of no TV or computers before age 12. Nitin Ganatra, of Apple, requires that at any moment, she can look at the phone; "Find my Friend" is turned on, so she can always locate her son; and laptops must be used in an open area.

Karim Dia Toubajie, of PlayStation, says, "I'm aware of how these channels are designed for continual user journeys, with no defined end point." The user is never fully satisfied; they must always strive for the next level, and seemingly innocent games like Farmville can become quite addicting — and expensive, with in-app purchases — to keep on going.

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"I'll take a similar approach to my parents: I didn't get a computer until I was 11, and then it was one hour a day. I'd like my daughter to have a diverse set of hobbies and not get obsessed," Toubajie said.

"My kids accuse me of being fascist and overly concerned about tech. They say that none of their friends have the same rules," said Wired founder Chris Anderson. Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, explained that in lieu of iPads, their two young boys have hundreds of books they can pick up and read anytime.

Parents want to be accessible to their children but are also apprehensive about exposure to inappropriate content or dangerous situations. There are several "kid phone" options to address concerns. One popular model is the "KidConnect." This is not a smartphone; it will only allow one-touch calling to up to 15 preprogrammed numbers and has a panic button and GPS locator.

Apple Shareholders expressed concern about the addictive power of cellphones and its effect on mental health.

Napster co-founder and former Facebook President Sean Parker said, "It (Facebook) literally changes your relationship with society," and "it's a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."

In fact, expanded cellphone use by teens has correlations with increased mental health issues, including depression and suicide.

Teen suicides now outnumber homicides, and smartphones could be playing a significant role. According to Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist, "Loneliness seems to be a major factor in why smartphones and social media can contribute to worsening mental health."

MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle said, "Social media allows teens to communicate with lots of people at once, but that communication may not lead to connection." A social media "friend" is only a contact. A child can become emotionally distraught upon discovering this misperception, causing feelings of rejection and abandonment.

My next column will be on the very real dangers of online predators, how social media can invite danger and ways of protecting our young ones. Be safe, get outdoors … summertime is playtime.

James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at james.vanbeek@eaglecounty.us.