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Back to School in a Wired World

Are electronic gadgets turning kids into multitasking pros, or are they just dragging them down?

Q.My teenager does homework, listens to an iPod, and sends instant messages on the computer -- all at the same time. Could this multitasking hinder learning? continued...

If a parent is alarmed that a teen is multitasking too much, dictating change usually doesn't work, Healy says. She suggests giving a teen a news article about the hazards of multitasking and asking, "What do you think you might be able to do about this?"

"Get your child thinking about what this means to them and their learning," she says. "Let the kid make the plan. That way, they have ownership over it."

For example, teens might find that their ability to focus improves -- as well as grades in school -- if they separate homework and active distractions as much as possible. That may mean doing only homework for 45 minutes, then taking a 15-minute break to instant-message friends, make phone calls, or update a MySpace or Facebook page.

Q. My 10-year-old daughter begs for a cell phone because all of her close friends own one. Should I give her one?

A. Teens who drive may need a cell phone for safety reasons. But cell phones "are not generally recommended for preteens," says Regina Milteer, MD, a representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media. Children that young may not be responsible enough to own a cell phone.

"But to be very, very realistic," Milteer says, some preteens may need a cell phone for emergencies -- for instance, if they walk alone from school to their home or a parent's office.

If parents decide to give a child a cell phone, they'll have more control over usage if they go with a prepaid cell phone plan, in which a parent buys minutes ahead of time and replenishes as needed, Milteer says.

What if there's no compelling reason to buy a preteen a cell phone, other than peer pressure?

You can tell your child no, Milteer says. You can talk, though, about getting a phone in the future, when your child becomes more independent and may need to touch base with you about after-school plans.

Q. My daughter in middle school is addicted to text-messaging friends on her cell phone. Why does she need such constant connection?

A. It's normal adolescent behavior, Healy says. "Peer relationships are just primary for many kids that age, particularly girls. If everyone else is doing it, the most horrible thing in the world is to feel that you're being left out of the conversation."

But out-of-control text-messaging isn't the answer, Milteer says. "You have to be patient and understanding. But at the same time, limits have to be set."

Some old-fashioned ways still work wonders, she adds. "If they feel like they need to have company and be included, invite a couple of friends over."

Another problem area: text-messaging long after parents have gone to bed. "Kids don't talk on land lines anymore," Milteer says. "If my daughter were using the phone in her room, I could hear her talking to someone. But if she's text-messaging, I would never know."

Don't let too much text-messaging cut into a child's precious sleep time, Milteer says. She recommends that parents take a child's cell phone and store it away for the night.

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