South Charlotte

Teens, gadgets and the 21st century

Last week, Charlotte Christian School hosted a free, public parenting seminar with Vicki Courtney, 47, a national speaker and author of a number of Christian books.

Courtney, a mother of three (18, 21 and 23 years old), lives with her husband in Austin, Tex., and has been featured on CNN, Fox News, and hundreds of radio programs, as a youth-culture commentator. She created (an online magazine for teen girls), and her books include "Logged On and Tuned Out: A Non-Techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-Savvy Generation."

Q. How did you get involved with all of this technology?

I started off doing events for high school and middle school girls. Girls would come up and tell me things they might not feel comfortable telling their mom. My daughter at the time was in about sixth-grade, so it was a wake-up call to me.

Q. Today's sophisticated technology has introduced a new element to parenting. Would you talk about that?

Parents feel overwhelmed. When I was young, if you liked a guy, you had to work up the nerve to call his house. Today, middle schoolers and even younger children are armed with unlimited texting plans, unlimited pictures and video. It escalates the whole scenario. It puts these kids in a position where they're not able to emotionally handle a lot of the challenges with the whole guy-girl dynamics.

Q. How much monitoring should parents do?

You can't monitor every picture and every text. I take a "training-wheels" approach. You would never take your two-year-old, put him on a 10-speed bike, give him a push down the road and yell "good luck." It's similar with technology. Don't purchase devices with more bells and whistles than you're willing to monitor or, at least, help them figure out.

Q. What did you do with your family?

We told our kids very unashamedly and confidently: "We paid for this. We own it. It is not a right for you to have this device, it's a privilege. Privileges are earned." When we first got our kids cell phones, we took off the camera/video feature and they had the smallest texting plan. As we saw the kids were responsible with the little privileges, we began to add more.

Q: Did you ever feel like you were the strictest mom?

My kids told me I was, and I wasn't. I would run into mothers who said, "I'm never going to let my child do Facebook," or "We're never going to have texting." I was more reality-based. This is going to be a huge part of their lives, so we're doing them a disservice if we toss them out into the real world with no training.... If they're getting on Facebook for the first time (in college) and discovering you can spend eight hours a day on Facebook and still not figure out what's going on in everyone's lives and flunk your college courses, they didn't learn how to practice self-restraint.

Q. Talk to me about Facebook, specifically.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is now warning parents about "Facebook Depression." A lot of adolescents, teens, and young adults who continually log onto Facebook are more likely to struggle with stomachaches, sleep disorders,anxiety issues and depression. (On Facebook), we're all projecting ourselves in a way that's not entirely accurate. You're not posting a status update, saying "my husband and I just got in a really big fight," or "my youngest just got in trouble at school." We're hearing: "I'm in Cabo and the weather is great." We're not getting realistic glimpses of people. Our children have a hard time perceiving that.

Q. Are there still some benefits to being a parent in this tech age?

Absolutely. I'm thankful for it. I would never want to come across like, "There are so many downsides to technology. Let's get rid of everything." I had a much better grasp of the kinds of friends my kids were drawn to, what they struggle with. It gives you kind of the tiny peek into the window of their soul. Also, two of my kids went out of state to college. We Skyped with them regularly, which made me feel better to know they look safe and sound.

Q. What are your thoughts on video games?

That's such a tough one, especially for boys. We went through that. I did this experiment. I was hoping my son would come to the conclusion, on his own, about what a time-waster (video games) are. I let him spend an entire summer when he was in high school getting to the next level on a video game with a neighbor kid. When it was time for school to start, there was this shock. He will never forget that. (He thought): "At the end of summer I could say I got to level blah-de-blah. It means nothing." It's not going to get you a job. You can't put it on a resume. It's not going to impress a college admissions team.

Q. At the seminar you mentioned there's some science behind that habit.

There's a dopamine rush to the brain that's kind of a "reward hormone." When you get to a level of a video game or when you win and shoot the bad guy, you get that reward-shot to the brain, and you have a craving to repeat whatever it took to get that kind of dopamine burst again.

Q. What do you say to parents who have no idea where to start?

I tell parents, if their kids are younger, be very selective about what you introduce and when, based on the time you have to monitor it. Start them with a desktop computer in a main room of the house.

Q. So you feel like if your kids get Facebook at age 13 (Facebook's minimum age), by the time they're 15 they've hopefully developed enough good habits to handle it on their own?

I usually tell parents at that point pull away, tell (your children) to change their password, take the monitoring software off. But let them know if you have any reason to believe they're involved in dangerous behaviors, whether it's drinking and driving or sexting, that you'll be jumping right back into the fray. Know, too, that kids will make mistakes. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater and say, "You've made a huge mistake and we're taking everything away."

Q. Did your children always know you were doing this in love?

Yes, we always made that clear. I tell parents we should get past the trend of wanting to be our kids' buddies and just be confident. My sons thought I knew everything because I would just say: "I'm going to know if y'all aren't using those responsibly." My youngest recently said something about "you know mom reads all of our text messages, she gets some report." I don't. But I'm thinking: "Well, it's nice you thought that. Mission accomplished."

Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.