Technology and Kids: When to Introduce High-Tech

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Family Tech

Technology for parents & kids: Hints, tips, online safety strategies & more.

The most recent report on media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds from the Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the most detailed looks at kids use of technology, shows that children are constantly using some form of device to consume media, often doing many at the same time. Whether it’s for TV watching, listening to music or playing games, tech is ingrained into the youngest generation’s  behavior – hence the reason we refer to them as Generation Tech. But although it seems obvious to many parents that different content is appropriate for different ages when they think about movies or music, many parents struggle with figuring when and how to introduce their kids to various technologies. So let’s take a high-level look at both the best new technology and kids’ high-tech habits, and when and how you can think about introducing screens into their lives.

As a holiday 2011 report revealed,  the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch were kids aged 6-12’s most-wanted gifts, just narrowly outranking computers and handheld gaming systems like the Nintendo 3DS. With more tots aged 2-5 able to play video games or downloadable apps than ride a bike or tie their shoelaces, knowing when to start your kids on different types of technology is one of the most important questions today’s digital parent must ask. Essentially, experts say, kids climb a continuum of media consumption.  It usually starts with gaming on a smartphone, which graduates to video game consoles. This leads to communicating with others, which eventually lead to iPods and then cell phones. Suddenly the whole world is at kids’ fingertips with the ability to connect to who and what they want when they want to.

That said, it’s not always easy to tell when it’s appropriate to bring technology into kids’ world. However, the following guidelines may help:

Technology and Kids: Preschoolers

While you may let your toddler fiddle with your smartphone to give yourself a bit of peace of quiet either in public or at home, there are options in terms of technology designed specifically for the pre-K set. From the V-Tech InnoTab to LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer and Oregon Scientific’s MEEP (all tablet PCs designed for tots), kid-friendly tech options start young and will often be among the first tech devices that children call their own.

While these devices have garnered many parenting and educational awards, be aware that, like video game consoles, each of these devices require you buy a specific type of cartridge, disc or app that’s designed only for the system to be able to play. And, of course, that although many will be billed as “educational” in nature, mileage may vary by system, app or cartridge. This is worth noting, as when looking for games and activities for young preschoolers to play on the computer, tablet or smart phone, we always advise looking for options that are easy-to-play and have some educational value. The best technology encourages interests in real-world subjects, and sparks interests in low-tech and outdoor complements to high-tech activity.

Remember: It’s one thing to introduce kids to tech – another entirely to encourage positive computing habits, and teach the importance of being able to pull away from the screen.

Early Elementary

As kids enter elementary school, many families will consider introducing a video game console to their household. For the past half dozen years, the Nintendo Wii has been a solid starter console, but the company’s upcoming Wii U, and popular motion controlled gaming accessories the PlayStation Move (for Sony’s PlayStation 3) and Microsoft’s Kinect (a 3D camera which makes your body the controller for Xbox 360) are all now solid choices.  No matter what a family chooses, we recommend disabling any of the online features for kids who are under 7.

Access to digital music players and toys with limited tech features (e.g. voice activated diaries or handheld educational systems) may also be introduced at this point in some households. Be careful what content you let your children consume (be sure to monitor for age appropriateness), and the manner in which they consume it. Setting time limits, off-hours and household rules governing the use of all devices is important as well, as is observing how kids interact with these devices, with whom, and to what extent.

Tweens

Before many kids make the leap to having their own phone, many have their own MP3 player or other device that can be connected to the Internet and used for texting, e-mails and music downloads, such as an iPod.  The important thing to remember here is that for devices which offer connections to the Internet, and you must stay aware of what your kids are doing, who they’re doing it with, and the way in which they choose to participate and interact in these activities.

Likewise, in terms of children who are gaming fans, by the time they enter third grade, kids will want to go online via services such as Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Both services offer the ability to link your child’s account to an adult’s so you can manage what your children can and can’t do, as well as who they interact with. Kids may also have access to portable video game consoles like the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita at this point – all of which allow online access, the passing of virtual notes, socialization, etc.

So remember: No matter what devices they are using, kids in this age bracket are going to embrace instant messaging and chat if they can, as well as features which allow them to interact or play with other children, whether it’s via your WiFi connection or through the mobile wireless connection built into their device.  Make sure they’re always only talking to people they know, and enforce your device dark times and rules that you’ve had set and have followed as they’ve grown up.

Teens

Middle schoolers who play video games are now most likely drawn to games which don’t focus on educational aspects, but rather games that are on the cutting edge of graphics, and allow them to play against their friends on services like Xbox Live or PlayStation Network.  The ESRB even has a T for Teen rating for games that are a bit more sophisticated and deal with more serious themes, but still falls short of games that are M for Mature, which is reserved for kids 17 and up.  Talk to your kids about what games it’s okay for them to play, both at home and at their friends’ house.

Similarly, on the general consumer technology front, studies show that most kids receive their first mobile handset (read: feature phone) or smartphone between ages 12-13 (although we keep hearing stories of this age being pushed younger and younger).  What parents shouldn’t do, experts say, is buy kids a full-fledged smart phone at this point. Instead, buy them a basic cell phone with strong parental controls built-in, and set specific limits about its usage. Good options for managing consumption are MobileProtector, Firefly or Kajeet, but many kids will jump straight to an Android device or iPhone – for more tips on managing this type of tech, we recommend seeing additional guides here on-site, or downloading our free Modern Parent’s Guide high-tech parenting books.

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About author

Johner Riehl

Johner Riehl is a freelance writer focusing on families, technology and online safety. As founder and editorial director for FamilyFriendlyApps.com and FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com, sites that provide reviews and recommendations geared towards families, he examines hundreds of family-friendly games and apps every year. He’s also host of Parent Savers, a podcast aimed at helping parents of newborns, infants and toddlers. TWITTER: @FamilyTechDad

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