The seven deadly sins of technology

A smart parent's guide to managing kids' technology.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Setting the ground rules

“It’s not fair!” my teenage son recently wailed at me. “Other parents don’t know this much about technology. I want one of them for a mother!” Sure, my feelings were a little hurt by his willingness to dump me for a Luddite. But his lament gave me a window into how completely he would walk over me when it came to technology use if I couldn’t hold my own.

This lament was in response to my efforts to limit his screen time. He sees the average of seven hours and 38 minutes per day kids are consuming media, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, as a good thing. But I know that heavy consumers of media tend to get worse grades than kids who watch their intake. And sitting in front of a screen — any screen — can lead to obesity.

I was a geek before I had children. And, more than being able to hit a baseball or bake cookies, it is a skill that has served me while raising my two tech-savvy kids, now 14 and 11. Technology is a big part of growing up these days. Without my geek cred, I would have been buffeted by the winds of peer pressure far more than would have been good for my kids. As a tech journalist (among other things, I write the “Family Tech” column in Family Circle), I get to look at gear before it hits the market and decide what — and how much of it — I want my kids to use.

So I know parents have questions: Is technology making kids’ lives better or worse? Which technology should you embrace or ban? Should computers and other gadgets be treated like books and water — free and readily available — or should you “go Amish” and shut it all off? How do you control how much screen time your kids indulge in? And what age is the right age to say yes?

Of course, the answers to these questions depend on your values, your kids’ desires and abilities, and your budget. But some technologies are better than others (and when I say "better," I don’t mean technically). So here is a breakdown of the basic categories of gear your kids will beg for — and some answers that are better than “Everyone else has it.”

Cell phones

It usually starts in middle school: “Mom, I want a cell phone!” All of her friends have one, but is this the right time to give one to your child?

Personally, I think it's a little late. In middle school kids’ social lives fly into the fast lane. Throwing texting, sexting, conference-call bullying, and all-night phoners at them when they are dealing with puberty, a fascination with the opposite sex, a pressing need to bathe, and algebra seems cruel.

If you give your kid a cell phone before she's clamoring for one, you can set ground rules while you are still her favorite person. You can also take advantage of the phone as a safety tool. In elementary school she will happily answer when you call, appreciate your pointers on phone manners, surrender the phone at bedtime, and listen to any other guidance you think necessary. You can explain the hazards of sexting before she sends a naked photo to that boy she likes.

Of course, when your kid gets to middle school, she might throw half of what you say out the window, but some of it will stick. It’s not the end of the world if you wait till middle school — you’ll just have to talk louder and contend with more eye rolling and door slamming to get your message across.

Don’t be shy about using your cell carrier’s parental controls to limit hours of use and block inappropriate content. Keep an eye out for bullies. Take the phone away or shut down service when you need to underline your rules. And as she and her phone skills — and responsibility — grow, add features like unlimited texting, multimedia texting, GPS, and data as a reward.

The pros: Cell phones are convenient for parents and a great safety tool — texting “Come home for dinner” is easier than calling all over town.

The cons: Kids love this technology so much you may have trouble controlling it. Did I mention sexting?

The lowdown: A great tool if handled well. Just be sure to subscribe to your carrier's parental controls to back up your rules, and keep an eye on the potential hazards: overuse, inappropriate use, all-access bullying, and, of course, sexting.

The Internet

An Internet-connected computer is perhaps the greatest library-and-teacher combo ever invented. It can open doors to learning that were simply unavailable 20 years ago. It's also a pain for parents: Kids can slip into the World Wide Web’s seamy underbelly or get so engrossed that they forget there is a world beyond the screen. But don’t hold learning at bay because of such hassles and hazards.

You would teach your kid to cross the street to get to the library, right? Help him navigate the virtual world, and he will quickly become smarter than you can ever hope to be. First step: Explain the dangers and how to avoid them — and keep explaining them as they change. Next install parental controls just as you would put training wheels on a bike (consider Net Nanny or the Norton Online Family). Then dole out Internet time and access as your kid grows and becomes more competent.

A younger child should perhaps stop at an hour a day, while a teen could spend that much time on homework alone, let alone socializing and entertainment. A first grader might need to be shielded from 90% of what’s online, while an older teen needs only thin protection to keep from stumbling into the worst parts of the Web. The right parental controls can help you enforce your guidelines, limit abuse, and filter out nastiness while your kid learns to negotiate the world he's growing up in.

The pros: A vast, instant, unparalleled-in-the-history-of-humanity tool for learning, communication, and entertainment.

The cons: A vast, instant, unparalleled-in-the-history-of humanity on-ramp to Smutville. Even the innocent stuff is potentially addictive.

The lowdown: You can’t avoid the Internet (and why would you want to?). But you can make it safer for kids by offering instruction and installing training wheels till they can negotiate it on their own.

Social networks

Many kids are living out their social lives in front of an audience of — potentially — millions. Is yours ready for this? If she’s younger than 13, probably not. That’s why a host of gaming social networks have emerged — Club Penguin, RuneScape, and SuperSecret, among them — to offer a protected experience for younger kids.

Here a child’s privacy is guarded, and any attempt to use bad language or give out contact information is filtered (though it is still important to teach children exactly what personal information is and explain the repercussions of posting photos).

There comes a time — usually before kids turn 13 — when tweens outgrow these childish games. And unfortunately this time comes when they are a perfect storm of potential trouble on Facebook: Girls are discovering boys, mean girls rule, bullies know no (physical) bounds, and kids this young don’t have the skills or confidence to negotiate it all — especially if it follows them home.

Try to steer your tween to a site that keeps an eye on what gets said or blocks some of the more dangerous activities. AllyKatzz.com is such a site for girls; Imbee (relaunching soon) is for boys and girls. If you can’t keep her off Facebook, insist on being in her friends list — and pay attention — so you can offer guidance to help her navigate safely. But do your coaching offline. If you do it in front of her peeps, she will unfriend you, and you may have a hard time getting invited back in. Once you are ousted, supervision becomes very difficult.

My favorite evil-parent line? “I don’t buy Internet (cell phones, dinner, etc.) for people who won’t friend me on Facebook.”

The pros: Children can seamlessly and easily stay in touch with each other as well as that kid they met at camp or in an exchange program. It’s a good time to be a teen.

The cons: Privacy is confusing at best, nonexistent at worse. Mistakes are public and long lasting.

The lowdown: If ever the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” applied, it does here. Facebook is not for kids under 13, but there are safer ways for tweens to network. Supervising older teens is a challenge and best done with their cooperation. If you need help, check out Net Nanny.

Console games

The engaging and immersive games that come with the Xbox and PlayStation will fill every rainy day with hours of fun. Kids can even play with their friends across town through an Internet connection, which makes begging for rides to a friend’s house a thing of the past. And some games make for great all-together family fun.

But managing these machines is difficult: The parental controls are slim, and the game ratings confusing. One study found that having one of these devices in the house can lower grades.

These consoles aren’t going away, though. And once your kid starts asking for one, the tug of war has begun. If you concede, that war will extend to the games he will want to play “because everyone else is.” (Playing together is part of the draw.) Violent first-person shooters typically offer the best graphics and most immersive experience — and are wildly popular with your teen's friends. But they are violent, frustrating, and edgy. Say no to games like World of Warcraft and Halo for as long as possible, because once you open that door, you’ll have a hard time closing it. In fact, you might hatch an addict: In one study, one in 10 gamers, ages 8 to 18, was found to show signs of pathological addiction to these games.

Say yes to games you can play together, including most of the games available for the Wii and those labeled “strategy.” But be prepared: Your innocent child will probably push for games — and the console to play them on — that you find horrifying, and you may not be able to stop it. I refused to buy one for my son, so he saved up and bought his own. Now I resort to establishing rules: Homework first. It goes in the attic if grades slip. It stays in the family room where I can monitor its use. It counts against his screen-time allowance. And I ban games I feel cross the line. Like most things with kids, this is an ongoing discussion, but it is the single thing we disagree on the most.

The pros: Beautiful graphics, impressive technology, and the ability to play with people who are too far away to meet with in person.

The cons: Addictive and too much immersive, realistic violence. Managing use is difficult for parents.

The lowdown: Step into the console gaming world carefully because these games are engaging and an enormous time-suck for kids who already have a lot on their plate.

Computer games

Even if you win the “console game war” and your home remains free of one, many of those engrossing games are also available for the PC. There are computer games, though, that are educational enough that high school teachers embrace them as teaching tools. So computer games can’t really be lumped together based on ratings or age.

If your kid is consumed by Civilization (or similar games in that line or Spore, SimCity, The Sims, and other “sandbox” games), you might want to turn a blind eye as he soaks up a working knowledge of history and hones his political strategy. But when his interest turns to World of Warcraft or other first-person shooters, take heed. Fortunately, you can use Windows (or the parental controls in Internet Explorer's Content Advisor) to limit the game content that can be played on his computer. And the technical requirements of most highly graphical first-person shooters will quickly exceed anything but an expensive gaming machine, which you can at least insist he buy for himself.

The pros: Some games are not only fun and engaging but also educational and brain expanding.

The cons: Others are addictive and violent.

The lowdown: Keep the gaming on a PC, and you will have a lot more control of the games being played (simply use Windows parental controls). Steer kids toward strategy and sandbox games (like The Sims), and they will have fun while — maybe  — getting a little smarter.

Handheld gaming devices

The Nintendo DS, PSP, iPod Touch, and their ilk have the power to turn what was once a parental endurance test — the six-hour car ride — into a relaxing opportunity to reconnect with your spouse, even with the kids in the back seat.

These little units also deliver the most playtime you are likely to get for your dollar from any toy. It’s even possible that, in younger kids, handheld games that require some reading will push a child to learn.

And for all this, there is a downside: Kids will want to play them during dinner, all night, and (rudely) when Grandma is visiting. This can make them seem like the bane of a parent’s existence. But the very thing that makes these babies portable also makes them easy to manage: A handheld is small enough that you can simply take it away and lock it in a drawer. In fact, once you get the hang of this drawer-locking trick, this device can be used as an incentive to do chores or finish homework, thereby helping you to teach the concept "work before play."

The pros: Entertaining, inexpensive, and portable, these devices can ease car rides and waiting-room time by keeping kids quiet and happy.

The cons: Kids never want to put them down, which can be maddening to parents who’d rather see their children reading.

The lowdown: These are great if you are willing and able to take them away or set clear rules for their use. Allow them only in the car, for example, and kids will go quietly anywhere you want to drive.

TV

Do kids still watch TV? Now that they have the Internet, texting, computer games, a Wii, and an Xbox 360, it might seem as though television is a thing of the past. And, in fact, a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children are spending less time in front of the TV: 25 minutes less in 2009 than in 2004.

But TV just moved to the computer, cell phone, and gaming console, and kids are snacking on it while engaging with those devices. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about the boob tube. Thanks to limitless cable channels, a lot of questionable content is being delivered right to your living room. And cartoons run 24 hours a day. Look up the parental controls your cable provider offers — you can probably password-protect certain channels, programs, ratings, or times of the day.

Given that most TV shows can be delivered to your computer, a lot of parents simply turn off cable altogether. I shut off everything but the most basic cable years ago, and we access everything we want through Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Unbox. (We bought a $99 Roku box, but there are lots of devices that will do this.) It saved us money since we only pay for what we watch, and I never have to argue about how much Cartoon Channel or Disney the kids can watch.

The pros: TV is mindless fun parents can relate to.

The cons: There are so many channels and shows that kids are watching way too much of it.

The lowdown: Take control of your TV, and your family will be healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.