Parents get wired to be part of children's lives Harried: Mothers and fathers use technology at work and at home.

August 10, 1998|By Beth Frerking | Beth Frerking,NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Sydney Rubin, a public relations consultant in Bethesda, sends articles on being a parent to her son's father via the Internet. She regularly e-mailed two other room parents at her son's elementary school last year. She also explored vacation spots in her home state of Texas on the Internet.

Meanwhile, Rubin never travels without her cell phone. Her nanny has the number. So does the school nurse.

But Rubin knew she personified life as a "wired" parent recently when, during her son's soccer game, she retrieved a few messages via her cell phone. A business associate had left a message, so Rubin dialed the number.

As she watched the game, phone in hand, Rubin noticed a woman across the field answering her cellular phone. She was the woman Rubin was calling. Turns out their children played on the same soccer team.

Forget phone trees. They're passe. These days, many working parents employ a host of high-tech tools to mesh their personal and professional lives. Granted, we're talking about a fairly select group: more educated, slightly older and decidedly more affluent than the average American.

These parents debate school policies and post PTA notices via e-mail. They trade child-rearing tips and communicate with their children's teachers over the Internet.

But it's not just online communication at work here. Parents fax team rosters back and forth. They arm roving children with cell phones so they can check in. And many wouldn't dream of leaving home without their cell phones or beepers.

"Cell phones are lifelines for working mothers," Rubin said. "It enables me to attend soccer games and school fairs. Without my cell phone, there wouldn't be afternoon trips to the park. My son uses it to call his father from the back seat of the car and check in when we're out in the evenings."

Rubin might be considered cutting-edge, because she runs a company, Ignition Strategic Communications, that specializes in high-technology issues.

But Rubin doesn't think she's all that far ahead. Neither do high-tech analysts, who say parents increasingly have turned to e-mail, faxes, cell phones and beepers to stay in touch in a way telephones alone don't allow.

Consider beepers. Once the purview of doctors, lawyers and drug dealers, beepers have gone family. The Strategis Group, an independent analyst for the wireless communications industry, reports that pager use has more than tripled since 1992, to about 50 million from 15.3 million. Motorola Inc. was one company that recognized the niche early and marketed small, brightly colored pagers specifically designed for families.

The number of adults online has more than doubled in recent years, to 51 million in 1998, up from 22 million in 1996, according to Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., firm that analyzes how people use online services.

Men still comprise the bulk of online users. Many started using the Internet for business but have extended that to personal use.

Daniel Parish, a Houston attorney, originally became Net-wise through his work for an oil company.

But his online acumen now serves his home life, too. He and his 7-year-old daughter take part in a YMCA-sponsored scout and camping program for dads and their daughters.

"Virtually the only way we communicate is by fax and e-mail," said Parish, who helps disseminate camping dates and meeting schedules. "If one of the dads doesn't have an e-mail account, then it'll go out by fax to everybody."

The number of women online during the same period has nearly tripled, to 22 million from 7.7 million, Forrester researchers found. Women now represent 43 percent of all adults online. An enormous amount of that traffic involves e-mail.

In this particular demographic group, not having an e-mail address address invites a level of ridicule normally reserved for those unfortunates with rotary-dial telephones.

Two years ago, when Barbara Dake, a mother of four in Palo Alto, Calif., served her first stint as PTA secretary, nobody had e-mail. She took a few years off and has now returned to serve on the PTA again. But without her own e-mail account - her family's computer has been on the blink - Dake reports feeling hopelessly incommunicado. She's already had to apologize to grumbling PTA members who must arrange to send her - gasp! - hard copies of policy memos.

"I can't tell you how out of the loop I feel. I am being harassed at school. People are giving me a very hard time, and I'm not going to be able to function on the PTA if I don't get e-mail," Dake said. "If you want to talk to the principal, she tells you to e-mail her."

So to have inoperative e-mail - well, you can imagine Dake's chagrin. Even as she spoke to a reporter by telephone (the regular, wired home phone), Dake waited for a Stanford University computer technician to arrive. (Her husband teaches at the Stanford Medical Center, and they live on campus.)

Once e-mail is installed, Dake said, she may regain her son's respect. But until then, he remains exasperated.

"Mom," he said recently in a withering tone, "we're only a step above the Amish."

Pub date: 8/10/98

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