Inside Dateline: All they want for Christmas

Dec. 18, 2006 |

All they want for Christmas (Jesamyn Go, Dateline Web senior producer)

Parents of teenagers know all too well: When it comes to holiday presents, kids want tech toys.

“Every year, they want laptops or iPods, always something along those lines of technical gadgets,” says John Armand, 46-year-old Dateline producer and father in a blended family of six kids — five of them teenagers.

But in a world where most teens know more about computers than their parents, and where there’s always an unseen danger — like predators lurking in chat rooms and social networking sites — what’s a parent to do?

My parents had a particularly trying time with my 17-year-old sister last year. The cordless phone seemed attached to her ear, and trying to get her attention when she was on the family computer sometimes felt like talking to a dead log. She was instant messaging at all hours of the evening, and would minimize her screen anytime anybody walked by.

So my parents getting her what she wanted for Christmas— a video iPod— seemed to me to be just another thing that would keep her distracted.

I’m told it’s not an uncommon dilemma for parents. I talked to Susan Shankle, MSW, LISW-CP, and Barbara Melton MeD., LPC, authors of the upcoming book “What in the World are Your Kids Doing Online?” and they have some recommendations for parents, if you must get them the electronics they are asking for.

  • Talk to them about using the items responsibly. “Frame it as an opportunity for them to prove they are maturing by taking care of the items and by using them responsibly,” says Melton. “I would get across the point that getting and using these technologies is a privilege and not a right, and that the misuse can result in their being taken away.” Armand has a cell phone policy with his younger teens. “If they use it after 11 p.m., they lose it the next day,” he says. The policy, he finds, discourages them from breaking the rules.
  • Tell them you’ll be checking in. “If you’re getting them a cell phone, you may want to reserve the right to order detailed billing to be sure they are not using them during the hours they shouldn’t be -- like in the middle of the night or during class,” says Melton. If the item is a laptop or computer, depending on the child's age, the parent might want to prepare them for the possibility of their randomly checking history, chat logs, or their MySpace. 
  • Added costs? Some items have recurring costs or plans attached. “You will want to discuss any additional costs to having the item. For example, for MP3s, downloading songs requires an account be set up and there is a minimal charge for each song downloaded.  It adds up! With cell phones, who pays for the plan or the minutes? If they get games that are played online, are there special materials needed to play the game? Is a high-speed Internet connection necessary?” 
  • Don’t know a Wii from a Zune? If your child wants a gadget that’s not familiar to you, ask him or her questions. “‘What is the product function?’ ‘What do you want it for?’ ‘What are some potential problems?’ Ask your child to do some research and get back to you. If he wants it bad enough, he'll help you out,” says Shankle. She also recommends for parents to do research themselves and to use reliable Web sites.

In the craziness of the season, parents should remember to emphasize that the holiday isn’t about the presents. “Use the time as an opportunity to communicate,” reminds Shankle. “They are out of school and you probably have some time off from work. Remember, you are a role model for your child at all times. Help show them life -- as well as holidays--  is not about ‘the stuff.’”

“You can also do something with your child that helps other people,” she adds. “Make sure your teen understands that doing good work is about the people for whom you do it.”

And listen. “If you spend enough time with them, just wait. They do actually want to talk to you about their lives, their friends, and their MySpace,” adds Armand.

So my sister did get her video iPod. (My dad is a softie for his girls.) But he did use it as a chance to get a message across. On the back of my sister’s new iPod, he had engraved:

“Ginger. Call your mom. She’s worried. iClean. iStudy. iBehave. Love, Dad.”

An edition of 'To Catch a Predator' airs Dec. 23, Saturday, 8 p.m.