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COMMENTARY: Are parents’ smartphone worries misplaced?

We have all seen it — children, sitting together with smartphones, texting and otherwise communicating without use of voice or eye contact. Annoying perhaps, but not necessarily the threat to their healthy development or civilization that alarmists allege.

Smartphones hardly pose challenges parents have not seen before. Telephones, TVs and PCs provided children with speedier communications, broader access to information and — to the horror of adults — more convenient methods of escape from their supervision and guidance.

And parents are delinquent in their responsibilities if they deprive children of smartphones, for example until high school, because teaching youngsters to use those devices responsibly and safely is too nettlesome.

We should all want to raise self-sufficient adults, who are capable of earning a decent living in a prosperous nation. Seen in this context, the smartphone is an essential device but only a transitional one. Its successors may not have screens, alpha/numeric keyboards or be held in your hand.

Already, the smartphone permits us to do a lot of tasks more effectively than by relying on paper diaries, libraries, calculators and other tools now relegated to the fast disappearing industrial age.

Just as young children once learned to hunt, harvest and prepare food — first by imitation through play and then by instruction and guided participation — nowadays they must learn to manage the tools of the digital technology at an early age — not suddenly when they enter high school or college.

The visual literacy and agility with symbolic language obtained through constructive play on an iPad by a very small child is just as important as phonics and the wisdom of Aesop’s fables — or their modern reinvention on Sesame Street.

The problems smartphones pose for children are well documented — obsessive use, bullying, pornography and predators — but those are hardly new problems to childhood.

Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood on Long Island, good parents worried endlessly about too much TV and transistor radios smuggled into bed, bigger kids shaking down smaller children for lunch money, dirty pictures circulating among boys, and gangs. My friends and I somehow emerged competent adults, because our parents engaged us instead of locking us in our rooms with an encyclopedia.

Makers of iPhones, Droids and popular apps provide mechanisms for parents to monitor children’s activities and limit the time spent and content children access on smartphones, but software is no substitute for parenting.

If you can’t find a security system a hacker can’t penetrate, trust me, your 10-year-old has a friend who can beat any software you put on his device. And hardly a healthy trusting relationship with a child — or habits of self-control and responsible behavior — can be cultivated by parents who put an electronic tether and 24/7 security camera on his smartphone.

In the end, parents must set limits directly — shut down cellphones alongside their children at dinner and bedtime — explore the web with their children and talk with them about what is good for them and not.

In all ages, parents come up against reckless childhood behavior and its ingenious methods of escape. Smartphones make these times no different or more challenging.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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