By Meghan Vivo

Parents often have a love-hate relationship with technology. On one hand, new technologies are constantly being created to simplify and enhance our lives, and these developments can be highly useful to the busy, overbooked parent. On the other hand, as new advancements emerge, we have to start worrying about video game addiction, Internet predators, car accidents that result from teens talking on cell phones or texting, and the countless other worries parents mull over every day.

Should today’s parents fight the ever-increasing push to modernize, or give in and accept the presence of new technologies in their lives? The question is even more complex for parents of teens with special needs like ADD, ADHD, and Asperger’s syndrome, who may be even more drawn to technology, for both better and worse. What happens if parents, or their teens, become too reliant on technology?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer that can be generalized to all families, says Aaron McGinley. The task isn’t an easy one, but for most parents, it comes down to picking and choosing the technologies that will genuinely improve the lives of you and your loved ones, while maintaining close interpersonal bonds and plenty of time enjoying active, outdoor activities.

Safety-Enhancing Technologies
Despite the dangers presented by many technological innovations, there are also a wide range of technologies hitting the market that can make a parent’s job easier and keep children safer. The following are just a few of the latest products being offered to families to make the hardest job in the world a bit easier:

Net Nanny

The Internet is a virtual abyss of information – some that can help your kids with their homework, reconnect them to new and old school friends, and stay current on world events, but also some that can be emotionally damaging, developmentally inappropriate, and just plain unsafe.

Net Nanny is a type of Internet filter software that allows parents to monitor and control their child’s access to inappropriate information and websites while allowing them to use the computer in constructive ways. With Net Nanny, parents can obtain detailed logs of their teen’s Internet activity, control when and for how long the Internet may be accessed, and receive alerts when access to a blocked or potentially dangerous page is attempted.

Innovative Cell Phone Plans

According to a Pew Internet report, nearly two-thirds (63%) of teens have a cell phone – and without limits put in place, most of these teens will spend hours on their phones every day. As a result, a number of cell phone providers have catered to parents’ demands for family cell phone plans that limit the number of talk-time minutes and texts. There are also a number of prepaid phone plans that will automatically limit the amount of time your child can spend on the phone.

Ford’s Automobile Safety System

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. In order to reduce teen driving risks, the Ford Co. has created a “MyKey” system that gives parents the power to limit how fast their child can drive, set seatbelt and speed reminders, and restrict the maximum volume of the car’s stereo system, among other safety features.
Parents can program the MyKey computer chip to trigger a set of restrictions that will be in place every time their teen drives the car. The Ford Co. anticipates that this new system will help promote safer driving by encouraging seat belt use, limiting speed, and reducing distractions.

GPS Child Tracking

According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, 836,131 persons were reported missing in 2006, about 80 percent of whom were under 18 years of age. In an effort to increase safety and help parents keep better track of their children, companies have begun promoting a new wave of GPS and RF (radio frequency) tracking devices.

According to proponents of GPS tracking, these devices can be beneficial for children who walk to and from school, active kids who haven’t learned to stay within the bounds of their yard or school, teenagers who spend most of their time away from home, or families who spend a significant amount of time in crowded public places. Some of these devices can even provide you with your child’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.

ADHD Technological Aides

Young people with attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD) or learning differences may benefit from the use of advanced computer equipment, timers, electronic schedulers, and writing aids that help them stay calm, focused, and organized.

One software program, called the Play Attention Learning System, is based on attention-training techniques similar to those developed for NASA and U.S. Air Force pilots. The system consists of a sensor-lined helmet that monitors the user’s attentive state and cognitive process while he interacts with characters on the computer screen. Users complete a series of video game-like exercises that are controlled directly by the brain, and can receive real-time feedback on their ability to focus, finish tasks, and filter out distractions.

Video Games that Teach Social Skills

Although the value of video games in the lives of young people is hotly contested, some researchers believe certain games can be an educational and entertaining way for young people, especially those with Asperger’s syndrome who struggle socially, to build personal relationships and experiment with taking social risks.

According to the results of a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one interactive computer program called FaceSay has been shown to improve the ability of children with autism spectrum disorders to recognize faces, facial expressions, and emotions. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Brain Health have used the game Second Life as a form of online therapy, in which therapists guide patients through a series of exercises during which patients may be confronted with a job interview with a “boss” character or learn to ask another avatar out on a date.

Technology as a Supplement to Effective Parenting, Not a Replacement
The consistency, safety, structure, and accountability offered by some of these emerging technologies can be helpful to many families, particularly those with children with ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, learning differences, or related conditions. But beware: Technological advancements give many parents a false sense of security.

According to McGinley, as useful as these technologies are, none is a substitute for good parenting. “It can be incredibly tempting for all parents, especially those of special needs children, to use technology as a crutch,” he says. “But there is no easy solution to raising children – knowing your child and building an authentic relationship is still the key.”

McGinley is also concerned with the message some of these technological developments send to young people. Rather than building a relationship on a foundation of open communication and mutual trust, parents who use GPS systems and other means of tracking their child’s behavior create a home atmosphere of distrust. In addition, says McGinley, tech-savvy kids often figure out workarounds to these technologies, giving parents a false perception of safety and effectiveness.

Experts are also concerned that the latest high-tech gadgets are damaging the growing sense of independence and empowerment in children and teens. “Today’s innovations are allowing parents to control aspects of their child’s life that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago,” says McGinley. “Technology can be a great tool when properly used and understood, but we still need to make sure our kids are on their way to becoming responsible, self-motivated, independent adults.”

As future generations transition into adulthood, they will need skills and strategies that can be used in real-life situations, not just in a computer game or high-tech gadget. “At Talisman, one of our concerns with the emerging technologies is that any gains made through the use of computer software or video games may be short-term, and may represent behaviors that are learned but not internalized and applied to real life,” says McGinley.

Programs that Can Help
Sometimes kids need a break from modern technologies, even the helpful ones. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, child advocacy expert Richard Louv links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s kids to troubling trends such as obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

Fortunately, technology isn’t the only answer for parents of children with special needs like ADD, ADHD, or Asperger’s. There are special programs and camps that help young people develop social skills, focus, organization, and life skills without relying on computers, video games, or other high-tech gadgets.

Talisman summer camps have helped countless kids ages 8 to 17 who have been diagnosed with special needs. With a highly structured daily schedule, a small staff-to-camper ratio, an emphasis on personal accountability, and plenty of fun and adventure, Talisman camps have been a first choice of families since 1980.

For families that need more long-term assistance for their special needs child, Talisman operates an academic semester-long program called Southeast Journeys for adolescents ages 13 to 17. Southeast Journeys offers students who may have struggled in more traditional environments the opportunity to excel academically and socially through hands-on experiential learning trips and a small group environment. Using insight-oriented individual and group discussions, students learn communication and problem-solving skills, budgeting, scheduling, healthy living, conflict resolution, and personal responsibility.

As the technology treadmill speeds up, parenting is becoming more and more complicated. While technology offers new tools that may help parents raise their special needs child, it should never replace effective caretaking, parent involvement, time in nature, and the usual childhood joys of fun and friends.