Safety, Learning, Love And 'Pokémon Go'

How To Use Games And Technology As Parenting Tools
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Chris Malina

Parents can use digital games and platforms as a positive tool to strengthen their relationship with their children.

The meteoric rise in popularity of Pokémon Go over the summer has been hard to miss. About a month after its release, the mobile-based treasure hunt for animated characters within a player’s own real world surroundings had been downloaded tens of millions of times. The popular augmented reality game has sparked conversations among parents and professionals about its impact on education, mental health and children's safety, among other issues. While Pokémon Go itself is a fad that is already slowing, it foreshadows an emerging world of augmented reality experiences that combine entertainment with education.

With such a fast rise to fame, understanding the long-term effects of Pokémon Go on kids is impossible. However, what is known about other technologies can help predict how to make the use of new media, like Pokémon Go and other social platforms, a safe and positive experience for kids and parents.

For generations parents have been concerned about the negative effects of novel media formats. For instance, the printed page, radio and television all raised concerns about how they might be a danger to children. New technologies do change the ways people interact with our world, but parents can approach them as learning opportunities. Rather than forbidding media like Pokémon Go, parents can use digital games and platforms as a positive tool to strengthen their relationship with their children and as an opportunity to help build lifelong healthy media skills.

Safety, learning and love are three key responsibilities of parents that serve as useful guides when deciding if and how a child should interact with new media and technologies. When assessing unfamiliar media, parents can ask themselves several questions.

1. How can my child be safe while using this technology?

Treat technology like any other environment in children's lives. No matter a child's age, parents should know who they are with, where they are and what they are doing. With their child, a parent should set privacy settings to "friends only" on apps. Parents can consider having their child log on to apps with an email account reserved solely for that purpose and not connected to any personal information. For times when their child leaves the house to play (online or off), they should have age-appropriate boundaries in place ("the backyard" or "the park" or "no further than your school").

Parents should anticipate scenarios children may encounter when online, such as being asked to meet an online contact in person or receiving a mean message or deciding if they should go on private property to catch a Pokémon. Parents can role play with children about how to respond safely in those situations before providing access to a mobile device. None of these safety measures are one-time-deals; parents should regularly sit down with children to assess and practice online safety.

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2. How will I use this technology to show my child I care?

One of the most powerful signs of care is when a person stops what they are doing to focus on another's interests. In many cultures, people experience this care when someone makes eye contact, actively listens to concerns or remembers a key detail about another person.

New technologies can provide numerous openings to show children that type of care. Some parents play the same game as their children and then text screenshots back and forth of the levels they completed or achievements they unlocked. Others send funny texts or chat with their child about the child's online posts. New media platforms serve their users best when adults and children see them as tools for interaction rather than a distraction or babysitter.

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3. How can my child learn and grow from this new technology?

Humans are learning machines, and when fully engaged can acquire new information and skills without appearing to try. Few kids would say they are learning while playing Pokémon Go, but some of the possible lessons learned from the game include better knowledge of community spaces (PokéStops and PokéGyms are linked to public locations) and clearer communication skills (since playing in a group is recommended).

Parents can shape what children learn from new media and technology by intentionally choosing which games kids can play and talking about or playing them together. Parents can also let kids be a teacher — an adult can admit to not fully understanding how to play a game or use a media tool and ask a child for guidance. Teaching an adult will help a child organize her or his knowledge about the new media, provide a sense of accomplishment, and give both an opportunity to talk in depth about it.

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New technologies and media experiences both expand and shrink the world — increasing both the places children can access and the spaces parents need to monitor while also building more opportunities for making connections with others. The role of parents and other caring adults is to ensure that kids are safe, feel loved, and have the skills to process and learn from the world around them — whether that is physical, digital or both.

Anne Clarkson is a digital parenting education specialist with University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Programs. She writes for several online parenting resources including two UW-Extension publications for parents of teens: eParenting High Tech Kids and Parenthetical.

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