Readers of my column are familiar with my ongoing struggle to keep up with the latest technology: my clumsiness with gadgets, my struggles to send text messages, upload digital pictures, my inability and/or unwillingness to navigate the social networks. Meanwhile, my 18, 15, and even my 10-year-old, take every new technological development in stride and whiz around on the computer as swiftly and comfortably as if they were Michael Phelps cutting through the water at the local swimming pool.

It turns out that as a parent, I am not alone in my technological inadequacies. The use of the Internet, cell phones, and technology in general by teens and tweens has created what some experts are calling “the biggest generational gap since rock-n-roll”. However, along with the educational benefits that come with fingertip access to information and the social benefits that come with the ability to connect to such networks as Facebook and MySpace, come new risks to our children’s safety and well-being.

These risks can be damaging and even life-threatening, according to the eye-opening PBS Frontline documentary “Growing Up Online.” This documentary is considered “Must-See-TV” by the guidance team at Community Middle School in Plainsboro. They are presenting a special program at the school that is open to all parents, and invite the public to come.

“Growing Up Online” explores the impact of today’s technology on adolescents through the eyes of teens and their parents at two public schools in Morristown High School and Chatham High School. The documentary will be screened at the Community Middle School Theater, 55 Grovers Mill Road in Plainsboro, two times on Thursday, January 29. The first screening will be held from 9 to 10:30 a.m.; the second from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Both screenings will be followed by discussions led by the CMS guidance team about the complicated new lines being drawn between the real and virtual worlds of today’s kids.

“The anonymity of the Internet helps young people drop their inhibitions, so when they go online, they use bad words, threats, language that is extremely sexual, things they would never dare say to anyone face-to-face or in public,” explains guidance counselor Faith Scibienski. “If they were adults, what they were doing might send them straight to the police or the courts. We have to balance responding to something slanderous, libelous, even possibly criminal, and turn it into a teaching opportunity for our students.”

Many parents believe that the biggest threat to their children from the Internet comes from sexual predators and strangers, and there is no question that everyone should be aware of that danger. However, there is a more common danger from their peers that often slips under the radar.

One particularly moving segment of the PBS documentary is about a teenager who asks his father for advice because he is being bullied at school. His father coaches him on appropriate responses, including fighting back. A few weeks later, his son commits suicide. It is only by looking at his computer E-mail exchanges that his parents realize that he was a victim of “cyber-bullying,” a new Internet variation on the theme of the schoolyard bully.

“It’s no longer the bully on the playground so you can go home after school and you’re safe,” says guidance counselor Lynn Fisher. “Before this technology, if kids were having a hard time in school they could get a break. Now they can be bullied 24/7. All they have to do is go on Facebook, turn on their phone – it’s relentless. The bullying is also silent and invisible to parents, which makes it even more dangerous.”

“As adults, we’re learning how to balance and adapt to the technology and what it can do, both good and bad, but the kids are not equipped emotionally to deal with the power they control at their fingertips,” observes fellow guidance counselor Colleen Pedersen, a parent of tweens and teens herself. “For a lot of kids, the Internet opens up a world they wouldn’t have otherwise, because they’re shy, inhibited, and they have a hard time interacting face-to-face.

“The positive is that they can share interests and abilities, and create a world they wouldn’t have otherwise. But there is a dark side to the Internet and that is why it has to have controls and be monitored. Educating parents is the first step.”

These are challenging times for parents, yes, and it is an unusually challenging time for educators as well, especially those in guidance who are often on the frontlines when it comes to a child’s social and emotional adjustments in school.

“Students often come to us because they hear about something and are upset enough to bring it to our attention, or there is the student who is so embarrassed he can’t face the other kids in the hallways and he doesn’t want to come to school because of the shame,” says counselor Ellen Burgess, also the parent of tweens and teens. “They may also be unwilling to speak up because at this age, kids have a huge sense of their rights, so they want to handle everything themselves. They might be angry or upset and they consider any questions from their parents an invasion of their privacy.”

Given the blurring of the lines between school and home created by technology, where does a school’s liability start and end when it comes to recognizing and responding to a student’s safety? How much right to privacy does a 12-year-old have? Is it different for a 15-year-old? How can parents stay on top of their children’s use of technology to communicate when they don’t know how to use it themselves? These are just a few of the questions that are making parenting in the Internet age more challenging than ever.

Glenda Graves of Plainsboro, who has an 11-year-old sixth grader at CMS and a 12-year-old stepson in another district, has started a new social group for parents of tweens and teens aimed at getting them away from the computer and videogames. You cancheck out her website at www.meetup.com/TweensTeensMeetup/).

“I feel like children are losing their social skills,” says Graves. “They can be sitting next to each other and not even talk to each other – they prefer to send a text message. Kids today don’t want to play outside. They socialize via the Internet and cell phones. And when you have the computer as a barrier, it’s easier not to be nice. You can’t see hurt feelings.”

Graves plans to watch “Growing Up Online” at CMS and hopes other parents will join her.

“So much of what is going on with young people and the Internet is uncharted territory,” comments Lynn Fisher. “The technology can be our best friend, but it can also be a monster. Kids must be taught how to be smart and how to use the Internet in a way that is safe and respectful of the feelings of others. And parents – even if they don’t understand the technology and are overwhelmed – have to become involved. It is their child’s happiness and safety that could be at stake.”

Check out the CMS Guidance website for more information. www.wwprsd.org/CMS (click link for “Guidance”)