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.
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.
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.
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.
With new phones, tablets and laptops debuting every month, rapid advancements in technology can quickly turn a beloved tech device into an outdated waste of space. Bu although throwing them away is a convenient option, the impact of the billions of pounds this e-waste could have on the environment are frightening. So whether your computer has stopped to functioning or you’ve simply decided to upgrade, here’s a look at top options for how to recycle your electronics.
Greener Gadgets – Presented by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the Greener Gadgets site is designed to help you easily find areas where you can recycle your old electronics simply by entering your zip code. Greener Gadgets is part of the organization’s “eCycling” effort to facilitate the recycling of one billion pounds of electronics every year. In the first two years of service, the number of eCycling centers has grown by more than 50%, and the number of pounds collected has nearly doubled.
The Greener Gadgets site also offers lots of information on ways to cut down your consumption and educate yourself about using less power and resources. In addition to tips for “Living Green” and “Buying Green,” the site features a handy calculator that helps you figure out how much your electronics usage costs, encouraging you to cut back on your consumption. You can quickly tabulate your monthly and yearly power costs for dozens of different devices.
uSell – uSell offers a chance for consumers to make a few dollars as they put their still-functioning devices directly into the hands of buyers who are experts at refurbishing and reselling electronics. The site lets you list your cell phones, digital cameras, MP3 players, tablets, game consoles and eReaders up for auction, and once a buyer is secured, you receive free mailing materials and shipping to send it along.
Goodwill – In partnership with Dell, Goodwill accepts most forms of electronics at their collection sites, regardless of brand or condition. Simply make sure you find a nearby location that accepts them, and drop your item off and receive a tax-deductible donation receipt.
Manufacturer Sites – AT&T and Verizon offer customers the chance to bring in any cell phones or other accessories to their store for recycling, with the Verizon program dedicated to providing refurbished phones to victims of domestic violence. LG’s Ecomobilize site allows you to find easy ways to either drop off or mail in your device, including the ability to request mailing info simply by texting a message to LG.
Retail Sites –Best Buy allows consumers to bring in up to two items a day per household into any of their US stores for recycling. Office Depot sells small, medium and large boxes for $5 – $15 in which you can place however many electronics you can fit and bring it back to the store for recycling. Staples offers in-store collection bins for small items, and will accept larger items such as monitors, printers and copiers, with a limit of six items per day.
Additional Electronics Recycling Resources
Earth 911 – Helps you find recycling centers for many types of goods, including electronics.
Call2Recycle – Offers a map of locations to recycle old cell phones and rechargeable batteries
eRecycle.org – A site set up specifically for California residents to find information and locations for electronics recycling
Even before their first birthday, most kids these days are intimately familiar with images and entertainment presented to them via screens. Whether it’s the TV, a tablet computer or a smart phone, screen time is almost an inevitability for youngsters, especially if they have older siblings – hence the reason parents need more information and tips on kids and screen time, including answers to the #1 burning question about it: How much is enough?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for kids under age two, and limiting an older child’s use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than one or two hours a day. While this system may fit into the lives of preschoolers, these guidelines must be adjusted as kids grow older. And this isn’t even to touch on the debate about “bad” screen time vs. “good” screen time, although certainly a case could be made that a toddler watching Signing Time DVDs or a middle schooler watching a documentary about healthy eating habits is more valuable than time spent watching meaningless cartoons.
Looking to better manage the role of high-tech devices in your kids’ lives? Here are five tips to help your family keep an eye on screen time
Establish Ground Rules
Kids need to understand that time spent in front of high-tech toys shouldn’t be provided as an inalienable right, but rather earned as privilege.
Specify the exact days, times and circumstances when it’s okay for your kids to be on the computer , using the smartphone or playing video games. Are homework and chores done? Is their usage interfering with a family event? Establish these guidelines ahead of time so there are no questions as to what is acceptable in your family.
It’s also a good idea to start your quest to limiting screen time at a young age. Allowing a half hour a day of tech-related screen time for preschoolers, separate from TV watching, works for many of the modern parents we’ve spoken to.
As kids grow older, many families push the daily screen time allowance up to one or two hours and add or subtract time as a reward or punishment for good or bad behavior. Some families choose to lump all screen time together, while others may specifically call out TV time, computer time or video game time. Beginning at a fixed base level, such as an hour per day, can make a good starting point, giving you some wiggle room to add or subtract time based on children’s behavior.
Consider Common Areas and Curfews
Where possible, make sure all devices and Internet connections are located in common areas of the house. Doing so not only allows you to keep abreast of online interactivity, usage patterns and who kids are interacting with as well as how. It also lets you be present when devices are used, monitor playtime and keep kids (or Dad) from secretly sneaking online to play World of Warcraft at 3AM on a school night.
Setting an electronic curfew in your house may also help curtail late night use and improve your family’s overall health by encouraging everyone to sleep when they should. Choose a time such as 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., depending on your kids’ ages, after which there’s no more use of electronics. Create a common docking station for all devices in your bedroom, where all digital devices must be checked in before bed time, and assign a curfew for each one of them.
Set Device-Free Times
Also, make sure to set aside device-free times that the entire family can spend together. Parenting experts such as Richard Rende, PhD, associate (research) professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, suggest that the use of technology isn’t necessarily what’s dangerous for kids as an impediment to healthy development. Instead, problems can arise if all the technology and connecting is done at the expense of other proven developmentally healthy and necessary activities.
Many parents require kids to experience one hour of outside time for every one hour of video game or screen time. We encourage you to experiment and find what’s right for your family.
Set a Good Example
Setting a good example is potentially more important than establishing these rules. Make sure you don’t get caught up dedicating your focus to your phone or other screens over your kids.
Whether it’s at the dinner table, or during a weekly Friday night movie or game night, being present and engaged for your kids will ensure a more engaging and rewarding family activity, and show them that it’s okay to disconnect from their screens and connect with others.
Translate Screen Time into Real Life
Play along and engage with your kids about the activities they’re doing on-screen. They’ll love telling you about what they’re watching, and treasure the time you are able to play together. Many parents would love to chat with kids about books, but fail to see how games, apps and TV shows also engage their imagination.
If possible, translate the games and activities kids are doing in real life. If they are enjoying an alphabet tracing app, prepare some worksheets that highlight the same skills. If they’re playing Angry Birds (or watching you), set up your own Angry Birds course in the house. If they’re watching Dr. Who, consider working on a project based on a theme of the show. Screen time’s positive or negative effects are often all what you make of them.