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Digital Families Gather for First-Ever Tech Confab
Twelve-year-old Jacob Resnick sat in a stately armchair in the lobby of the Sheraton Society Hill, contemplating the animation he just created on his laptop.
This wouldn't seem unusual, if not for the fact that pretty much every kid meandering through the hotel seemed more absorbed in electronic devices than swimming pools or sightseeing.
In fact, 275 kids, teens and parents gathered at the hotel last weekend not to celebrate independence in the birthplace of America (though they got to do that, too) but to attend the Digital Family Summit.
Tech conferences happen all the time, all over the country. But this one was billed as the first geared toward families. It also happened to be organized by a Jewish couple: Adam Gertsacov, a professional clown and University of Pennsylvania graduate who now lives in New York City with his wife, Stephanie Schwab, a social media consultant.
Families paid $400 to attend the conference, which included interactive workshops, panel discussions with prominent bloggers from all over the country, evening parties and a private viewing of the Liberty Bell.
On Sunday, local blogger Cecily Kellogg encouraged a room of 23 parents and children to explore newer platforms like Google+ and Socialcam, if they hadn't already. Whatever the tools, though, she cautioned, building a following online "all comes back to good content." A young girl videotaped as she spoke, while at least half of the rest of the audience bent over phones, iPads and laptops.
Down the hall, bloggers honed their writing skills with an Entertainment Weekly editor and learned ways to amp up their Wordpress sites with a local expert.
Later that day, Simone Bernstein, the 20-year-old cofounder of VolunTEEN Nation, a nonprofit that lists volunteer opportunities for youth around the country, urged her young listeners to employ social media to make a difference. She gave them a list of tips for effectively using Twitter to attract involvement. Above all, she told them, don't be afraid to ask other people to help out a worthy cause.
"Ask, ask, ask -- there is nothing against asking," she said. "Nobody wants to turn down a 13-year-old kid."
Founders of a nonprofit aimed at ending poverty in Appalachia followed Bernstein's presentation by challenging attendees to propose a way of expanding their mission through social media.
For Resnick, who traveled from the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for the weekend, the most interesting session was a workshop on creating animation with a program called Scratch. He tilted his laptop to show off the scene he spent an hour and a half building: A stick figure pitcher drawn onto a photograph of a baseball stadium lobbed a ball to a waiting batter, who easily cracked it out of view and rounded the bases to home plate.
Resnick said the conference also got him thinking about starting a sports blog. Outside of school, he records a monthly show for the Mets baseball team along with one other paid "kidcaster." Blogging could be fun, he said, but also a lot of work, based on what he heard at the conference.
"It's not just -- start it," he said. "There's a lot of different elements you have to put into it, like having to deal with it every day and how you can get readers and viewers and how you can make money off it."
Blogging seems to run in the family. His mom, Robin Zachary, posts about her work as a freelance wedding art director at propcloset.com. His aunt, Yael Resnick, runs an online magazine called Natural Jewish Parenting (natural-jewish-parenting.net).
Havertown mom Jennifer Cohn Isayev admitted that she didn't have any interest in the conference at first, but her sister suggested that her daughters would like it, so she tagged along "and had the greatest time."
"I felt like I was in a different country, there were so many new words -- like a whole new language," said Isayev.
She and her older daughter came home and each started a blog. Isayev said she plans to use hers to record funny stories she hears during her work as an audiologist. Sofia, 11, titled her blog "Kids All the Time," and said she'll use it to talk about her life and other things that kids are into. Sofia said she rarely goes a day without using a computer or her mom's iPad, and she's anxious to be old enough to start using Twitter and You Tube.
"I kind of feel like I need to know what's going on" through technology, she said.
While Isayev hasn't allowed her girls to have cell phones or create Facebook profiles yet (the site requires users to be at least 13, though many kids enter a false age to get around that), they still use the computer to play games and text using iPod Touches.
"I guess I spend a lot of time" online, said Leah, 8, though it depends because "if my sister's on, she never gives me the computer."
While the summit didn't have a Jewish angle per se, at least one communal organization directly benefited from the event: Gertsacov donated leftover food, toiletries and other giveaways from conference sponsors to the Jewish Relief Agency, which distributes food and other necessities to low-income Jewish families in the area.