On July 12, a tearful Amy Polumbo appeared live on TheTodayShow to talk about some incriminating photos she says someone used to try to blackmail her into forfeiting her Miss New Jersey title. When she posted the pics on Facebook, the social networking site that's all the rage for the college set, Polumbo thought they could only be accessed by approved personal friends. She learned the hard way that even semiprivate Web sites are often an open secret. (Ironically, Polumbo had campaigned for her state crown on a platform of protecting children from online predators.)
Such is the ever-changing world of Internet technology. Facebook. MySpace. You Tube. "Social networking" is the new buzz phrase online, with these Web sites supplementing or even supplanting previous forms of communication. (Text messaging is sooooo 2006.) With new sites for teens debuting almost weekly, how can parents possibly keep up to protect their kids from spammers (at best) and stalkers (at worst)?
They have to try, urges Connie Neal, author of MySpace for Moms and Dads: A Guide to Understanding the Risks and the Rewards (Zondervan, May). "The parents need to know what's going on, and they're not always going to go to a Web site to find out." When Neal, whose own kids are now 16, 18 and 22, leads workshops for parents and teens, she asks them to come up with one word that describes their feelings about MySpace. The parents often free associate with words like fear, predators and confused, while their teens choose terms like friends, community and connection. "I'm trying to help bridge that technology gap, because the kids understand the technology, but they need the parents' wisdom and experience to be safe," she says.
Neal is concerned that there are some things Christian parents just don't understand. "I think they think this is a fad that they hope will go away," she explains. "But this is as revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution." She also worries that some Christian parents default too quickly and thoughtlessly to the Christian alternatives to MySpace, without doing the necessary research. "A Christian MySpace alternative is not necessarily safer than MySpace," she says. "MySpace has hundreds of people on board who do nothing but track predators. But the Christian sites don't usually have the kind of money or resources to track all of that." What's crucial is that parents are involved, monitoring their kids' activities online.
That theme is echoed in other up-to-date tech books for parents of teens and tweens, a new but growing subcategory in Christian publishing. Harvest House has MySpace, MyKids: A Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Kids & Navigating MySpace.com, a February book that has been endorsed by MySpace itself (accessible through the site's Safety Tips page). Young author Jason Illian—already a hero to many Christian parents for his stance on abstinence as a contestant on the TV show The Bachelorette —also offers $50 workshops online to help parents learn how and why to navigate MySpace.
Multnomah has Generation NeXt Parenting: A Savvy Parent's Guide to Getting It Right, published last September. Author Tricia Goyer, a GenX mom of three teenagers, says that emerging technologies "aren't all bad. In fact, they can be used to bring families together." The book is formatted differently than most traditional parenting titles: chapters are supershort; graphics and subheads are used throughout; and sidebars feature real parents' experiences and stories about raising their kids.
Harvest House author Mary DeMuth similarly stresses the importance of "authenticity and reality, not formulas" in these parenting books. Her Authentic Parenting in a Postmodern Culture (July) emerged during her family's two-and-a-half year sojourn in France, which she calls "a hotbed of hyper-postmodernity." Technology, she says, is a wonderful opportunity for connection, but can also portend the opposite: atomization of the family.
In the Marketplace
If technology is growing more sophisticated by the day, what's the market like for tech-specific parenting books when the tech scene changes so rapidly? Longevity may be a problem, but for now, publishers feel these books are meeting a need. "I think generally, parents seek out books when they have a problem," says Sandy Vander Zicht, associate publisher and executive editor for Zondervan. In her research, the bestselling parenting books in the CBA are those by household names—James Dobson, Gary Chapman and Stormie Omartian—but books dealing with specific issues are a close second. All other things (including author recognition) being equal, the specific problem-oriented books perform better than general how-to guides on parenting. "Boundaries with Kids sells better than Raising Great Kids, for example, by a margin of three to one, even though they're by the same authors [Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend]."
Getting the word out about any book requires going after media exposure, and B&H Publishing Group has a multilevel campaign planned for the September release of Vicki Courtney's Logged on and Tuned Out: A Non-techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-Savvy Generation. According to Bonnie Batey, key brands marketing manager, Courtney will do a national blitz of paid radio "Virtue Alerts" to help parents stay abreast of the latest technology, while continuing as a regular talking head in national print and TV news segments about Internet safety.