Our children have so much access to technology and it’s our responsibility to teach them how to use is for good, not for evil. Smart phones, computers, smart pads and TV, technology is everywhere. 

Access to TechnologyChildren grow up carrying devices in their pockets with the ability to access all the amassed knowledge of humanity, for good or ill.

The digital age presents both unlimited possibility and frightening threats for children, families and schools in Iowa and around the world. Ever-evolving technology has added a new layer of complexity to an unprecedented array of challenges facing Iowa’s kids, the subject of a yearlong Des Moines Register special project.

Today more than ever, technology develops faster than society can determine its implications, experts say. Among the issues confronting children and parents:

• REPUTATIONS: From their first venture onto the Internet, today’s children create a digital footprint of potential permanence. Teachers and parents, often with limited knowledge of new technologies, are scrambling to coach their children how to manage the reputations they build through blogs and social media use, and to understand the potential harm of lives made public via the Internet.

The hope, teachers say, is to avoid the scenario illustrated by a University of Iowa student who earlier this month defiantly tweeted about her breath-alcohol level and arrest at a football game. That led to national news coverage — and online ridicule — of “Vodka Sam,” the nickname tied to the student’s purported Twitter account.

• BULLYING: Texting and social media have extended bullying from the school grounds to an anyplace, 24-hour scourge.

“There is concern that because students are always connected, they cannot get away from bullying even after they physically leave school,” said John Palfrey, author of the book “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.”

• DIGITAL DIVIDE: Iowa families with low or moderate incomes struggle to gain access to expensive technology and connect to the Internet. Gov. Terry Branstad considers access to technology so important that he ordered state officials earlier this month to come up with a plan to guarantee every Iowan Internet access by 2015.

The digital divide is widest for the poor, according to data from Connect Iowa, a partnership between the Iowa Department of Economic Development and Connected Nation, a national task force dedicated to increasing access and adoption of broadband communication. Just 58 percent of Iowa households with an income of $25,000 or less own a computer, compared with a statewide average of 81 percent. Only 40 percent of poor households have broadband access, compared with the state average of 66 percent.

That means the digital divide also disproportionately affects Iowa’s kids, because they’re more likely to live in poverty than adults. More than one in three children lives in a family unable to pay for such basic needs as food and child care.

The lack of exposure to digital learning compounds other missed educational opportunities that can stunt poor children’s success in school and, later, the workplace.

• PREDATORS: With Internet access comes concerns about predators who would try to lure children into scams, crime or sexual exploitation. A 2010 U.S. Department of Justice report to Congress found that federal child exploitation prosecutions had climbed 40 percent since 2006. The biggest contributor to the rising caseload: technology-facilitated child exploitation, including child pornography and use of the Internet to entice children.

Lisa Adams, a Norwalk mother of three daughters, recounted that the preteen daughter of a family friend was stalked online by an adult man. The police were involved.

“I’m terrified,” said Adams, who teaches developmentally disabled students for Johnston schools. “I don’t know what good can come from having unrestricted, 24-hour access to all this technology. Then again, I’m the one who sleeps with her phone by the bed and uses it as an alarm clock.”

• OVERUSE: Research shows that constant technology use can drift from habit to addiction. Some youths experience anxiety when cut off from their feeds for extended periods, said Candice Odgersof the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

“Many kids are glued to their phones,” she said. “It can reach a point where it’s unhealthy, especially if they never disconnect. Some sleep with their phones under their pillow, so they will hear a text come in — or feel it when the phone vibrates — so they can respond at all hours of the night because they’re worried that if they don’t respond, they will offend someone.”

In a 2010 experiment conducted by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, young people experienced withdrawal systems, including feeling anxious, depressed and “itching like a crackhead” when asked to ditch their smartphones for 24 hours.

Frequent technology use also is associated with lack of exercise and outdoor activities. In a 2009 Tucson Children’s Assessment of Sleep Apnea study, heavy use was linked to sleep deprivation, which can cause obesity, depression and other psychological troubles.

Teaching proper use

But amid this plethora of potential dangers, today’s technology also presents before-unimagined possibilities to entertain, educate and inspire.

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Access to Technology