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BACK TO SCHOOL: Gauging a child’s readiness for technology

By: Katie Ward Beim-Esche

A new school year means new technology. How do you know if your child is ready for a cell phone, tablet or computer?

It all comes down to the child’s maturity, how the piece of tech is being used, and the parent’s ability to understand how their child is using it. No two children are the same.

Kids have access to more technology than ever, way earlier than they ever have. According to a 2016 Influence Central report, “Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today’s Digital Natives,” a child’s average age for their first cell phone is around 10, and most kids set up their first social media account by 11 years old.

That can be a wonderful thing, but it comes with risks. Giving devices to your children is not a decision to be taken lightly.

As a parent, take stock of the situation. Ask yourself why you have begun to think about this now. Your answer will determine the level of technology required.

Will the device primarily be used as entertainment on trips or at home? A tablet may be more appropriate than a smartphone, and a tablet with 3G or 4G capabilities will have greater access in more places than one restricted to Wi-Fi.

Influence Central reported, “Phones have risen on the list of devices kids look to for entertainment on car trips and remain second only to iPads and tablets as the engagement option of choice for the road. Tablets have taken off for this purpose, increasing in usage from 26 percent to 55 percent. Phones come in at 45 percent, up from 39 percent in 2012.”

Is there cause for concern apropos medical conditions or emergencies? Are there logistical issues like rides, checking in or scheduling events? You may be satisfied with a basic cell phone, rather than a smartphone, if the goal is primarily calls and texts.

Is your child feeling left out socially, perhaps in middle or high school where a large portion of social interaction takes place on social media? Without a doubt, there are scary stories about kids and technology. Sexting, cyberbullying, online predators, etc. cause many parents to ban smartphones or tablets for their children.

Regardless of the device, address digital safety now, rather than later. Have a calm, open discussion about safe practices online. Talk about “tricky people,” not just “stranger danger.”

Make it a priority to set up parental controls on the devices in your house. This includes computers, of course, but also tablets, phones and game consoles. The Influence Central report indicated that parents are “getting a bit more diligent about what their children can see/access online – 27 percent now use online programs to control and filter sites or platforms, compared to 23 percent four years ago.”

Security providers like Norton have settings you can toggle on and off, but there also are specific programs like Qustodio, Mobicip and ContentWatch.

For detailed reviews, publications like PC Magazine, Consumer Reports and Digital Trends release comprehensive breakdowns of parental control software. The wide variety of programs covers several levels of complexity, a range of price points and varying support for certain operating systems.

As with so many digital discussions, this one comes back to parents doing their research and staying in touch. There are scads of kid-friendly apps, sites and devices; look at potential downloads to see if they list an age range.

Ask your children about the games they’re playing. It’s important to learn about the media they’re interacting with and gauge how much is educational vs. entertainment.

Set ground rules ahead of time, both for technical points [apps, data usage, etc.] and basic principles [no smartphones at dinner or in bedrooms, no access to certain websites or kinds of content, etc.]. Discuss how to strike a healthy balance between screen time and family time, indoor and outdoor. Be a good role model by monitoring your own technology usage.

Check in with your children, your partner and yourself regularly to assess whether changes are needed on any front. Tech privileges are not a once-and-done event.

Of course, once given, technology is tough to take away. Smartphones are to modern kids as cars were to their parents. Past a certain point, it’s an inevitable, non-negotiable part of growing up and interacting with peers. Just as having your car keys taken away would have been a crippling blow to your independence and social standing, having a smartphone taken away today is a huge deal. Think long and hard before bringing down the hammer.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that reviews content and products for families, recommends parents consider these questions for kids wanting cell phones:

  • Do your kids show a sense of responsibility, such as letting you know when they leave the house? Do they show up when they say they will?
  • Do your kids tend to lose things, such as backpacks or homework folders? If so, expect they might lose an [expensive!] phone, too.
  • Do your kids need to be in touch for safety reasons?
  • Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons?
  • Do you think they’ll use cell phones responsibly – for example, not texting during class or disturbing others with their phone conversations?
  • Can they adhere to limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded?
  • Will they use text, photo, and video functions responsibly and not to embarrass or harass others?

Read more advice at www.commonsensemedia.org/cell-phone-parenting.

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