Kids today: Online, all the time?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  January 21, 2010 05:04 PM

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A new study by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation shows that kids age 8 to 18 spend more than 53 hours a week online or in front of a TV screen. That's a little more than seven-and-a-half hours a day during which they're viewing or clicking away, not just at the computer, but on smartphones and video games as well.

Of course, they're multitasking, too; thanks to cable modems and cell phones, kids can be texting with one hand and typing or playing games with another, so they're managing to cram nearly 11 hours worth of multimedia content into those seven-plus hours, according to the report, which was released yesterday.

About 64 percent of the 2002 3rd- through 12th-graders surveyed said that the television was on in the background during meals, with 45 percent saying that the TV was on in their house "most of the time," even if no one was watching it. About 70 percent of them had a TV in their bedrooms; about 30 percent had a computer with internet access in their bedrooms. Media use increased substantially, the study found, once respondents hit the 11- to 14-year-old age range.

Back in 2005, the study's founders were certain that teens could not possibly squeeze in more screen time. "This is a stunner," Donald F. Roberts, a Stanford communications professor emeritus who is one of the authors of the study, told the New York Times. "In the second report, I remember writing a paragraph saying we've hit a ceiling on media use, since there just aren't enough hours in the day to increase the time children spend on media. But now it's up an hour."

My father is a scientist, and I grew up with hand-made computers that took 8-inch floppy disks -- a step up from the Commodore VIC-20 we used to have and the cassette tapes it used to store data -- and I played "Pong" regularly on the black-and-white TV in the family room. That was cutting edge, back then. Cell phone existed, but they were the size of a brick (and often called just that) and few people had them. I got my first one in my mid-20s.

Our oldest kids, who are teens and tween-age now, got their first cell phones in middle school or earlier. My youngest kids, who are 5 and 3, have two journalists for parents, so they're growing up with CNN in the background and NickJr.com on the PC in the family room. They can figure out how to work some game apps on my iPhone more quickly than I can (which isn't unusual -- the iPhone is pretty intuitive, for one thing, and as Globe Magazine staff writer Neil Swidey pointed out in his article on preschoolers and smart phones in November, "If done the right way, with the right limits, handing a preschooler a smart phone could be good not just for the parents’ sanity. It might even be good for the child’s development."

So I'm not surprised that more kids are logging more time in front of their computers, texting thousands of messages a month on their cell phones, or even going about their days with the TV blaring in the background. I think it's still up to parents to limit screen time, but I also think that increased access to technology is going to lead to increased usage.

Parents, how much time does your child spend using technology each day? Go on, include it all -- TV time, computer time at school, time spent playing games on your phone or texting their friends on theirs while you make dinner. Are you surprised by how much? Or is it less than you thought it would be?

For more information, see Barbara Meltz's post on establishing good computer habits from the start with your kids. 

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com.

 

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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15 comments so far...
  1. Hm. At 21 months, our daughter watches Curious George and Thomas the Train...and Sesame Street pretty much every day. Of course, she will turn the TV on and bring us the remote if the TV isn't on the right channel. She has an internal alarm clock that tells her when these shows are on. It's bizarre. Then again, she rarely watches an entire episode. She dances to the opening sequences, abandons Sesame Street for her play room until Elmo's World and will often spend her Curious George time in another room too.

    The only website we visit with her right now is Sesame Street so she can heear some of her favorite songs. That happens maybe once every couple of weeks now.

    The TV may be on all day, but it's tuned to the Classical Music channel when she's not watching PBS - and after she goes to bed, it's never on.

    We also turn it off during meal times. It's our only TV, and it's in the living room. We also only have one computer, in the study. We have no plans to get more or to ever put a TV or computer in her room (or ours for that matter!)

    Posted by Phe January 22, 10 06:45 AM
  1. How..?
    How do you do all that needs to be done with that much screen time?

    I just can't fathom it, at all.

    Now, we're extreme in the other way. We have one cell phone in the house, and it only gets used when we are on vacation (so, maybe 2-3 times a year). I have never owned one. We have no TV or cable. We have no video game consoles, although we do have some PC games. This all sort of happened - we just never really liked TV all that much, and when our TV came to the end of its 15 year life 5 years ago we never replaced it. Consequently, our kids have an hour or less of screen time a day during the school week (most days they get zero screen time), and we watch a movie together as a family on Sunday night, or if someone is home sick. So typical week, I'd say they have 6 hours of screen time.

    I just don't get how anyone can find time. We get up, they have breakfast, play legos until the school bus comes, go to school (they are 9 and 8), come home, play outside or with their toys until dinner, eat dinner, do homework, do chores. There might be about 1-2 hours after that before bedtime, less if they have some after school activity. When could we possibly fit in 53 hours of screen time? That is insane.

    Posted by BMS January 22, 10 07:51 AM
  1. BMS, I think kids who have a ton of screen time do so at the expense of play time, which is sad. That said, my little kids probably don't fare much better than average. They get up early (around 7) and don't need to head out to school until almost 9, so there's easily an hour in the morning after they complete their morning routine. On days they're in daycare or school/afterschool all day, there's another hour or two at night; but this is while they are doing other things. They rarely sit down to watch an entire program, the TV just tends to be on yet they're playing cars, legos, mini hockey etc. My mother watches them three afternoons a week and that's pretty much all TV all the time - she just always has it on in the house, even if they're doing other things.

    My 11-year-old is allegedly the only middle-schooler in the world without a cell phone or TV or computer with internet in his room (he has a laptop for school work but no internet access), so that cuts things down considerably. He has no time for TV in the morning and sports 2-3 evenings a week, so not much time at night either. His big screen time is video games, which he can play for an hour or so after school on days when no friends are around and he doesn't have a ton of homework and no practice.

    We have only one TV in the house so it's not on when we are having meals and no one watches in bed. That said, my husband has a habit of always having the TV on when he's home (and he works from home a lot) and that drives me nuts because a) it's unnecessary and b) the kids are now used to having a TV on vs. picking a favorite show and planning to watch it.

    Posted by Jen January 22, 10 08:51 AM
  1. First of all, the "time" is exaggerated because of media multitasking. Listening to music while reading internet news and installing new software; streaming a movie in the background while researching blue whales; ripping CDs and DVDs while writing your vocabulary and IMing with friends; streaming a radio station while compiling a Christmas card mailing list... These activities would all count as double or even triple the time. Just the act of having the media on is considered consumption whether or not it's begin actively consumed.

    I'm sick of the alarmist and hysterical trend to stigmatize every aspect of childhood. And I'm sick of hearing all this without balancing these numbers with the corresponding amount of media consumption by adults who sit in front of computers day in and day out while listening to muzak piped though the office speakers, and tagging songs on their HD radios for immediate download to their iPods that evening.

    Having a Kindle would be considered media consumption, but it's nothing more than having a book in electronic form so that it physically doesn't take up as much space. I'm sure we should go back to the good old days where kids smoked dope and fooled around behind the 7-11s because their parents didn't want them in the house disturbing them while they drank their martinis and cosmos.

    Sheesh, let's get a little perspective here.

    Posted by Laurice January 22, 10 08:56 AM
  1. I have 2 middleschoolers, a 6th and 8th grader, and the biggest deterent from spending 50+ hours per week engaged with electronics is keeping the kids in activities. It's easy to say when kids are small they will play outside or with toys like Legos, mine did a lot of that young, but by the time they are 13 toys hold little interest and it's tough to just play outside just like we as adults wouldn't go outside for a few hours and play.

    Luckily my kids have many activities that they love to do, (sports, drama) and insisting screen time is only allowed after all homework is done limits their screen time to about 1 - 1.5 hours per day. I feel like it is less us as parents dictating it, and more about them learning to manage their time.

    I think we have some basic rules that help. No TVs in bedrooms. No computers in bedrooms. We eat family dinner and the TV is off. My husband and I limit our screen time. Our kids have cell phones but do not have texting plans. I'm still trying to determine if we allow the texting how we make sure it doesn't start dominating our life.

    It will be very interesting over the next decade to see what impact the pervasiveness of electronics has on our kids' lives.


    Posted by Jayne January 22, 10 09:01 AM
  1. "ripping CDs and DVDs while writing your vocabulary and IMing with friends"

    Does that translate to yakking with friends and fooling around with music while trying to do homework? Which one is the priority?

    Posted by qbqt January 22, 10 10:04 AM
  1. To parents of kids with cell phones: aren't you worried that the kids will get brain cancer later in life? I wouldn't let my kids have a cell phone except for an emergency.

    Posted by just cuz January 22, 10 11:39 AM
  1. Laurice..the 53 hours was actual time exposed to media. .5 hours on the cell phone while IM for .5 hours = .5 hours (not 1).

    I'm much more concerned with the impact of constant distractions then cancer. How can you do a good job on your homework while downloading and IMing.

    Posted by J January 22, 10 02:24 PM
  1. I think the numbers are exaggerated too. Today's kids are so busy with school, extracurriculars, sports, and homework, there really isn't an extra 7 hours a day they could devote to screen time--unless they went to bed at 2am. That's probably only a tiny percentage.

    We have two TVs in our house--one in the living room that is only on for 1/2 to an hour a day and another that is rarely used. We watch the weather channel as often as any TV show. We probably all spend more time in front of our computers but they are laptops, so no need for kids to have their own.

    Personally, I like the fact that my kids can Skype their grandparents and friends in other states rather simply talk on the phone. I feel it helps them maintain a stronger connection. And I feel much safer knowing I can get in touch with my child via cellphone anytime outside school hours. I also really like using my Kindle and saving a few trees. Technology is a tool, not a way of life!

    Posted by A mom January 22, 10 02:58 PM
  1. My kids are 10 and almost 8. They watch maybe 10 minutes of TV in the morning once they are ready to leave until it's time to go, and maybe an hour after homework is done while dinner's being prepared - if they aren't off playing or reading or doing other stuff. Sometimes it's more, and sometimes they play games on the Wii or the computer for a little while, but they are active and imaginative and I'm not concerned that they will somehow be adversely affected by the amount of screen time in their lives. They will not have TVs in their rooms, and will likely not get computers in their rooms. The jury's out on that one - if they get laptops, they may be able to take them into their rooms, but it's easy enough to confiscate them if necessary. Honestly, though, is it really any different if they stay up all night reading comics? Or on the phone with friends (c'mon - we all snuck the phones into our rooms once mom and dad were asleep)... Teenagers have ALWAYS found ways to stay up half the night. Technology makes it easier, sure, but if you take it away, they'll still do it.

    Posted by akmom January 23, 10 09:11 AM
  1. For me it is all about balance. There's a wealth of information (and socializing opportunities) to be found online. But kids do need to get outside too, and have physical activity and yes, person-to-person contact. What worries me is parents who might be afraid to say no to their kids from time to time or not have any boundaries. I see a lot of parents complaining about their kids texting in the car, etc. Don't like it? Don't allow it. BTW, there's a conversation about this at mothersclick.com: http://www.mothersclick.com/family-relationships/kids-8-18-spending-more-50-hours-week-plugged

    Posted by Centsability January 24, 10 07:16 PM
  1. I have no problems with my kids staying up all night reading. If they want to build with legos rather than sleep, that's their tough luck if they are tired in the morning. But having the ability to text friends, find anything they want online, or engage in or suffer from cyberbullying after bedtime? Thanks, I'll pass. Why make my job as a parent any harder than it has to be?

    I think this is where I differ from a lot of my friends. They see a lot of media as making less work for them - the kids stay occupied and out of your hair. I see it as making more work. Media is so much more interesting than homework and chores and church stuff. The more media/electronics they have, the more arguments I have to have about it. The more work I have to do to keep them from using it inappropriately. I still teach them about online safety, and politeness online, and all that. But at 9 and 8, they don't need to wander unfettered through the electronic jungle.

    Posted by BMS January 24, 10 07:21 PM
  1. I, too, can't understand how kids find the time. Mine are up at seven and out the door at eight. Afterschool activities mean that on three days per week they aren't home until 4:30. I do not allow them to immediately go for TV, Wii, Leapster or Nintendo DS (although we have all four). They can do whatever they like until I call it's time for homework, but I control all the screens. If after homework, dinner, chores there is a half hour or so before bedtime/reading time, then I don't mind...in fact, we've been known to have a family game of MarioKart from time to time. But I'd be surprised if, even on the weekends when I am more lenient with it, we amassed more than a dozen hours of screen time.

    Posted by RH January 25, 10 11:35 AM
  1. why cant they have technology or pc that is child appropriate???
    i bet parents would spend just as much money on them. so for the businessworld it is still an opportunity. the question is what is child appropriate?
    well, i would like one that is geared toward educating a child.
    a limitation on the ichat and the timing should have a slot.... they can adjust im sure if that is the choice they have to live with.
    fb should also have at time slot too. fbooking is time consuming in front of pc and sitting down. how about PE?
    computers should have an introduction much like when you ride a they should carry precautions. like stating that ichat is not a substiture for socializing as in gatherings, or birthday party.
    computer should be turn off the same time every night.
    kids should be encourage to have some time to read.
    when a child learn to use this tool in a proper manner, they can get rewards.

    Posted by mary ann adolf February 1, 10 01:41 PM
  1. It is no surprise that the online world offers opportunities (education, entertainment, creativity) and threats (addiction, stalking, bullying). What is surprising is the inability for school programs to catch up to a technology-driven generation. More on this and three great online tools for kids on a recent post: http://digitalpopuli.com/online-kids/on-kids-parenting-and-the-real-time-web/

    Posted by Cristian February 8, 10 05:23 AM
 
15 comments so far...
  1. Hm. At 21 months, our daughter watches Curious George and Thomas the Train...and Sesame Street pretty much every day. Of course, she will turn the TV on and bring us the remote if the TV isn't on the right channel. She has an internal alarm clock that tells her when these shows are on. It's bizarre. Then again, she rarely watches an entire episode. She dances to the opening sequences, abandons Sesame Street for her play room until Elmo's World and will often spend her Curious George time in another room too.

    The only website we visit with her right now is Sesame Street so she can heear some of her favorite songs. That happens maybe once every couple of weeks now.

    The TV may be on all day, but it's tuned to the Classical Music channel when she's not watching PBS - and after she goes to bed, it's never on.

    We also turn it off during meal times. It's our only TV, and it's in the living room. We also only have one computer, in the study. We have no plans to get more or to ever put a TV or computer in her room (or ours for that matter!)

    Posted by Phe January 22, 10 06:45 AM
  1. How..?
    How do you do all that needs to be done with that much screen time?

    I just can't fathom it, at all.

    Now, we're extreme in the other way. We have one cell phone in the house, and it only gets used when we are on vacation (so, maybe 2-3 times a year). I have never owned one. We have no TV or cable. We have no video game consoles, although we do have some PC games. This all sort of happened - we just never really liked TV all that much, and when our TV came to the end of its 15 year life 5 years ago we never replaced it. Consequently, our kids have an hour or less of screen time a day during the school week (most days they get zero screen time), and we watch a movie together as a family on Sunday night, or if someone is home sick. So typical week, I'd say they have 6 hours of screen time.

    I just don't get how anyone can find time. We get up, they have breakfast, play legos until the school bus comes, go to school (they are 9 and 8), come home, play outside or with their toys until dinner, eat dinner, do homework, do chores. There might be about 1-2 hours after that before bedtime, less if they have some after school activity. When could we possibly fit in 53 hours of screen time? That is insane.

    Posted by BMS January 22, 10 07:51 AM
  1. BMS, I think kids who have a ton of screen time do so at the expense of play time, which is sad. That said, my little kids probably don't fare much better than average. They get up early (around 7) and don't need to head out to school until almost 9, so there's easily an hour in the morning after they complete their morning routine. On days they're in daycare or school/afterschool all day, there's another hour or two at night; but this is while they are doing other things. They rarely sit down to watch an entire program, the TV just tends to be on yet they're playing cars, legos, mini hockey etc. My mother watches them three afternoons a week and that's pretty much all TV all the time - she just always has it on in the house, even if they're doing other things.

    My 11-year-old is allegedly the only middle-schooler in the world without a cell phone or TV or computer with internet in his room (he has a laptop for school work but no internet access), so that cuts things down considerably. He has no time for TV in the morning and sports 2-3 evenings a week, so not much time at night either. His big screen time is video games, which he can play for an hour or so after school on days when no friends are around and he doesn't have a ton of homework and no practice.

    We have only one TV in the house so it's not on when we are having meals and no one watches in bed. That said, my husband has a habit of always having the TV on when he's home (and he works from home a lot) and that drives me nuts because a) it's unnecessary and b) the kids are now used to having a TV on vs. picking a favorite show and planning to watch it.

    Posted by Jen January 22, 10 08:51 AM
  1. First of all, the "time" is exaggerated because of media multitasking. Listening to music while reading internet news and installing new software; streaming a movie in the background while researching blue whales; ripping CDs and DVDs while writing your vocabulary and IMing with friends; streaming a radio station while compiling a Christmas card mailing list... These activities would all count as double or even triple the time. Just the act of having the media on is considered consumption whether or not it's begin actively consumed.

    I'm sick of the alarmist and hysterical trend to stigmatize every aspect of childhood. And I'm sick of hearing all this without balancing these numbers with the corresponding amount of media consumption by adults who sit in front of computers day in and day out while listening to muzak piped though the office speakers, and tagging songs on their HD radios for immediate download to their iPods that evening.

    Having a Kindle would be considered media consumption, but it's nothing more than having a book in electronic form so that it physically doesn't take up as much space. I'm sure we should go back to the good old days where kids smoked dope and fooled around behind the 7-11s because their parents didn't want them in the house disturbing them while they drank their martinis and cosmos.

    Sheesh, let's get a little perspective here.

    Posted by Laurice January 22, 10 08:56 AM
  1. I have 2 middleschoolers, a 6th and 8th grader, and the biggest deterent from spending 50+ hours per week engaged with electronics is keeping the kids in activities. It's easy to say when kids are small they will play outside or with toys like Legos, mine did a lot of that young, but by the time they are 13 toys hold little interest and it's tough to just play outside just like we as adults wouldn't go outside for a few hours and play.

    Luckily my kids have many activities that they love to do, (sports, drama) and insisting screen time is only allowed after all homework is done limits their screen time to about 1 - 1.5 hours per day. I feel like it is less us as parents dictating it, and more about them learning to manage their time.

    I think we have some basic rules that help. No TVs in bedrooms. No computers in bedrooms. We eat family dinner and the TV is off. My husband and I limit our screen time. Our kids have cell phones but do not have texting plans. I'm still trying to determine if we allow the texting how we make sure it doesn't start dominating our life.

    It will be very interesting over the next decade to see what impact the pervasiveness of electronics has on our kids' lives.


    Posted by Jayne January 22, 10 09:01 AM
  1. "ripping CDs and DVDs while writing your vocabulary and IMing with friends"

    Does that translate to yakking with friends and fooling around with music while trying to do homework? Which one is the priority?

    Posted by qbqt January 22, 10 10:04 AM
  1. To parents of kids with cell phones: aren't you worried that the kids will get brain cancer later in life? I wouldn't let my kids have a cell phone except for an emergency.

    Posted by just cuz January 22, 10 11:39 AM
  1. Laurice..the 53 hours was actual time exposed to media. .5 hours on the cell phone while IM for .5 hours = .5 hours (not 1).

    I'm much more concerned with the impact of constant distractions then cancer. How can you do a good job on your homework while downloading and IMing.

    Posted by J January 22, 10 02:24 PM
  1. I think the numbers are exaggerated too. Today's kids are so busy with school, extracurriculars, sports, and homework, there really isn't an extra 7 hours a day they could devote to screen time--unless they went to bed at 2am. That's probably only a tiny percentage.

    We have two TVs in our house--one in the living room that is only on for 1/2 to an hour a day and another that is rarely used. We watch the weather channel as often as any TV show. We probably all spend more time in front of our computers but they are laptops, so no need for kids to have their own.

    Personally, I like the fact that my kids can Skype their grandparents and friends in other states rather simply talk on the phone. I feel it helps them maintain a stronger connection. And I feel much safer knowing I can get in touch with my child via cellphone anytime outside school hours. I also really like using my Kindle and saving a few trees. Technology is a tool, not a way of life!

    Posted by A mom January 22, 10 02:58 PM
  1. My kids are 10 and almost 8. They watch maybe 10 minutes of TV in the morning once they are ready to leave until it's time to go, and maybe an hour after homework is done while dinner's being prepared - if they aren't off playing or reading or doing other stuff. Sometimes it's more, and sometimes they play games on the Wii or the computer for a little while, but they are active and imaginative and I'm not concerned that they will somehow be adversely affected by the amount of screen time in their lives. They will not have TVs in their rooms, and will likely not get computers in their rooms. The jury's out on that one - if they get laptops, they may be able to take them into their rooms, but it's easy enough to confiscate them if necessary. Honestly, though, is it really any different if they stay up all night reading comics? Or on the phone with friends (c'mon - we all snuck the phones into our rooms once mom and dad were asleep)... Teenagers have ALWAYS found ways to stay up half the night. Technology makes it easier, sure, but if you take it away, they'll still do it.

    Posted by akmom January 23, 10 09:11 AM
  1. For me it is all about balance. There's a wealth of information (and socializing opportunities) to be found online. But kids do need to get outside too, and have physical activity and yes, person-to-person contact. What worries me is parents who might be afraid to say no to their kids from time to time or not have any boundaries. I see a lot of parents complaining about their kids texting in the car, etc. Don't like it? Don't allow it. BTW, there's a conversation about this at mothersclick.com: http://www.mothersclick.com/family-relationships/kids-8-18-spending-more-50-hours-week-plugged

    Posted by Centsability January 24, 10 07:16 PM
  1. I have no problems with my kids staying up all night reading. If they want to build with legos rather than sleep, that's their tough luck if they are tired in the morning. But having the ability to text friends, find anything they want online, or engage in or suffer from cyberbullying after bedtime? Thanks, I'll pass. Why make my job as a parent any harder than it has to be?

    I think this is where I differ from a lot of my friends. They see a lot of media as making less work for them - the kids stay occupied and out of your hair. I see it as making more work. Media is so much more interesting than homework and chores and church stuff. The more media/electronics they have, the more arguments I have to have about it. The more work I have to do to keep them from using it inappropriately. I still teach them about online safety, and politeness online, and all that. But at 9 and 8, they don't need to wander unfettered through the electronic jungle.

    Posted by BMS January 24, 10 07:21 PM
  1. I, too, can't understand how kids find the time. Mine are up at seven and out the door at eight. Afterschool activities mean that on three days per week they aren't home until 4:30. I do not allow them to immediately go for TV, Wii, Leapster or Nintendo DS (although we have all four). They can do whatever they like until I call it's time for homework, but I control all the screens. If after homework, dinner, chores there is a half hour or so before bedtime/reading time, then I don't mind...in fact, we've been known to have a family game of MarioKart from time to time. But I'd be surprised if, even on the weekends when I am more lenient with it, we amassed more than a dozen hours of screen time.

    Posted by RH January 25, 10 11:35 AM
  1. why cant they have technology or pc that is child appropriate???
    i bet parents would spend just as much money on them. so for the businessworld it is still an opportunity. the question is what is child appropriate?
    well, i would like one that is geared toward educating a child.
    a limitation on the ichat and the timing should have a slot.... they can adjust im sure if that is the choice they have to live with.
    fb should also have at time slot too. fbooking is time consuming in front of pc and sitting down. how about PE?
    computers should have an introduction much like when you ride a they should carry precautions. like stating that ichat is not a substiture for socializing as in gatherings, or birthday party.
    computer should be turn off the same time every night.
    kids should be encourage to have some time to read.
    when a child learn to use this tool in a proper manner, they can get rewards.

    Posted by mary ann adolf February 1, 10 01:41 PM
  1. It is no surprise that the online world offers opportunities (education, entertainment, creativity) and threats (addiction, stalking, bullying). What is surprising is the inability for school programs to catch up to a technology-driven generation. More on this and three great online tools for kids on a recent post: http://digitalpopuli.com/online-kids/on-kids-parenting-and-the-real-time-web/

    Posted by Cristian February 8, 10 05:23 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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