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Help kids handle use of handhelds

Published on: June 01, 2006

Karen Gimse learned that her 11-year-old daughter, Kimber, wanted an MP3 player when it appeared on her Christmas list last fall. After careful consideration, Santa complied, and the Redmond tween now sports an iPod that holds 30 GB of music and has video capability. For safety reasons, Kimber recently started carrying a cell phone as well.

Is this unusual? Not according to a recent study by the Consumer Electronics Association. In fact, teens appear to be seeking portable electronics in droves. The study, conducted in February 2006, found that households with teens own 50 percent more electronics than non-teen households. In addition, the top three planned electronic purchases by teens are an MP3 player, a cell phone and a video game console. The study found portable gaming consoles to be very popular among teens as well.

It's not at all surprising that handheld electronics appeal to middle schoolers. Unlike the family computer, kids have personal control of portables, and can customize them as they see fit. Cell phones help keep them informed of the latest gossip. Also, having finally achieved a measure of independence, tweens may simply enjoy entertainment that does not render them homebound.

Despite the obvious appeal to students, Vicki Clark, counselor at College Place Middle School in Edmonds, has reservations. Clark says she has witnessed middle schoolers using portable electronics to isolate themselves. "They plug in and don't pay attention to the world around them," she says. In this sense, Clark feels these devices can hinder social development.

iPod-induced hearing loss is another concern that has recently made headlines. iPods can produce sound up to approximately 120 decibels, and according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, sounds louder than 80 decibels are considered potentially dangerous. Apple currently faces a lawsuit over this, and has responded by making a maximum volume setting available as a software update for current iPod models. The update allows parents to lock the maximum volume with a password.

Kids may enjoy the autonomy that portable electronics offer them, but Clark warns that parents need to be vigilant about monitoring their use. She stresses that parents should be aware of what kind of music their kids are listening to and the video games they are playing. Games for the Gameboy Advance, for example, range from the benign "Backyard Basketball," to "Grand Theft Auto Advance," which according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) contains "Blood, Sexual Themes, and Violence."

To help parents determine what software is appropriate, the ESRB offers a comprehensive Web site ( that not only lists game ratings for every platform available, but also describes specifically the type of content each game contains. Similarly, iTunes, Apple's online store offering downloadable music, tags any song with explicit content. Parents can then use iTunes parental controls to restrict access to these songs.

Can portable electronics be educational? Absolutely. In addition to music, kids can download audio books and podcasts onto their MP3 players. Podcasts are like online radio shows, and they can be found on iTunes and other Web sites. The range of podcast topics is vast, and many of them are educational. Some pioneering teens are even producing podcasts, including North Seattle resident George Hageman, who attends Lakeside School and hosts a popular military history podcast.

Brad Shaffer, a Seattle single father of three, feels cell phones have had a positive effect on his family. His son Alex, 14, and daughter Hannah, 17, both carry cell phones. Alex and Sam, 11, use portable gaming systems as well as MP3 players. Shaffer feels that as a single father, the cell phones help him stay connected with his kids when they aren't together.

Shaffer does, however, stress the importance of setting limits with these devices. He requires the kids to complete chores, homework and baths before gaming is allowed. He has also set some rules regarding appropriate use, such as not allowing phones to be answered at the dinner table. "The kids have a decent sense of when and where to use such devices, but there have been reminders and instruction throughout the years," he says.

Clearly, if middle schoolers are ready to own portable electronics, it is only with a great deal of guidance from Mom and Dad. Kids may already know how to use them, but it's up to parents to teach them the rules: when, where and why. As Shaffer puts it, "portable electronics are tools for moving through life and entertaining oneself at times. They have nothing to do with what life is really about."

Laura Mackenzie, a freelance writer, lives in Redmond with her husband and two children, ages 5 and 1.

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