Learning the ins and outs of the latest technology is a lot like learning to swim or ride a bike: The younger you are, the more naturally it comes. This is troubling news for parents who already feel two steps behind their digitally savvy children.
While assisting with traditional school work poses enough challenges, parents now need to help their children build wikis and solve math problems on iPad apps. As schools shift toward online platforms and E-learning devices, tech-challenged parents may feel intimidated.
[See photos of U.S. News's Most Connected Classrooms.]
The good news is that keeping up with the digital pace is as simple as starting a conversation, says Monica Vila, founder and "chief technology mom" of The Online Mom, a website focused on helping parents embrace technology. "You're never behind the curve as a parent completely if you're involved," Vila says.
Vila and other tech-savvy parents and educators offer some advice to keep up with your child's technology, while also keeping your family safe from digital traps.
1. Show and tell: If your child is using a device, program, or website you aren't familiar with, have them show you how it works.
"I haven't met a child who doesn't love to be the teacher of their parent," Vila says.
Mastery isn't the goal as most people only use a fraction of the features a gadget offers, Vila says, so ask your child how they use the device and then take notes.
"You get a direct short cut to what you need to know," she says.
2. Google it: It's a simple but often overlooked step to technical understanding and Internet safety, says Betsy Landers, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, and mother of three.
"Get online. Google your child's name. Google your family name. See what's out there," Landers says.
High school students—and their parents—need to be especially aware that what they post on the Internet is permanent, and poor online decisions can have severe consequences.
Google also has a multitude of tutorial videos to bring parents up to speed on everything from screensavers to video chats.
In addition, students can send their parents a personalized digital care package from Google's Teach Parents Tech site. But why wait for your child to bring you up to speed? Send one to your spouse, parent group, or yourself. Then impress your teenager by calling them from your computer.
3. Keep tech public: If your children's computers are in their bedrooms, you should move them, says Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a middle school teacher from San Gabriel, Calif., who is creating tech webinars for parents at Tween Teacher.
Wolpert-Gawron started a multilingual parent institute in her school district, where she teaches parents technology basics in English, Spanish, and Chinese.
"Eighty percent of the time we have to start with, 'Don't put the computer in the bedroom,'" Wolpert-Gawron says. "It has to be public."
What your children are doing on the computer should be public as well, Wolpert-Gawron says. Parents should "friend" their students on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and know who their online friends are, she adds.
[Use four tips to keep your teen safe on Facebook.]
Beyond keeping technology in an open space, parents should check the browser history so they know what sites their children are visiting. This video from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group guiding families through technology, walks you through that process step-by-step.
4. Get excited: Computers, tablets, and smartphones bring students out of their shells and open up exciting new avenues for learning, Wolpert-Gawron says.
[See which high schools have the Most Connected Classrooms.]
"They bring out the extrovert in the shy kid," she notes. "It encourages communication at a time when insecurity abounds."
Parents can overcome their own digital insecurities by talking to other parents and engaging with their child's teachers. Send the teachers a quick E-mail and ask how they use technology in their classrooms—you might be surprised what you hear back. Some teachers maintain class websites and blog about what the students learned in school that day.