Darien parents weigh in on the tech generation gap

When risky teen behaviors are discussed by parents the topic invariably turns to sex and drugs. However, in an increasingly digital age, the problem plaguing parents now is something nearly everyone has: a cellphone.

As part of the "Middle School Parent Exchange" program at Middlesex Middle School Wednesday, Principal Debi Boccanfuso moderated a panel to address concerns parents have with controlling their kids' behavior.

"I know there are some of you with burning questions or ideas," Boccanfuso said to encourage attendees to speak out. "We've done this three or four times and it always worked out very well."

Before beginning discussion, Boccanfuso wrote down topic ideas from the audience and ones that she felt were relevant.

The issues ranged from why students in seventh and eighth grades are learning about suicide to balancing homework loads.

However, the hot topic was the use of technology and the problems that can arise with younger students accessing social networking sites and using cell phones.

Boccanfuso opened the discussion about cell phones with a story about a recent incident at Middlesex where a text message was sent to a number of students that contained information that was "just plain mean."

Most, if not all, of the parents in attendance seemed to be aware of the incident, but Boccanfuso explained how the situation was handled.

"I was in a meeting and I got a page that five girls were in the office who wanted to see me," Boccanfuso said. "They all had a text that was very similar to a mean Facebook page. None of the information in the text was about suicide or alcohol or anything like that," she said. "It was just mean."

The text message incident served as a means for Boccanfuso to tell parents about how difficult technology makes it for parents and school administrators to always know what is going on.

"I hate technology," Boccanfuso said, prompting scattered laughter and nods of agreement. "I think it's cruel that we put stuff like cell phones in young kids' hands and expect them to know how to use it properly."

Grant Evans, a social worker at Middlesex, briefly talked about his experience with his son and social networking.

"My son was going into college just as Facebook was coming out," Evans said. "I had to go through the process with him of explaining how to manage his reputation."

Evans recalled how he could hear his son typing on the computer one night, but the typing kept getting faster and faster.

"I didn't have to be in the room to feel the tension in the keyboard," he said. "I went in to talk to him and I knew something was wrong without knowing what was going on."

Evans pointed out that people seem to have a tendency to try to solve Internet problems immediately by responding.

"Sometimes you make the problem much worse by responding," Evans said while explaining some of the pitfalls of social networking. "The worst thing is to feel like you are being misunderstood."

Boccanfuso joked about her own experiences with her children and social networking, and the need for kids to understand the impact of what they put online.

"I remember when we used to have to take pictures, develop the film and then care enough to show them to people," Boccanfuso joked. "Now you can have pictures up minutes after they are taken." She admitted that her kids had Facebook pages before she was aware of them but once she found out, she set up her own page to help her monitor online activity.

"The reality is ... this [technology] is not going away," she said.

One suggestion echoed by many in the audience was purchasing phones that don't have camera or text capabilities, having youngsters charge their cell phones somewhere other than their bedroom so they can't text at night, as well as getting passwords to Facebook pages.

Boccanfuso established lines for when her children would be able to get cell phones and lap tops.

"If you can make your kids wait just a little longer, make them wait," Boccanfuso said.