Is technology making kids’ lives better or worse? Which technology should you use and which ones should you avoid? Should computers and other gadgets be treated like books and water — free and readily available — or should you 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?
The answers to these questions depend on your values, your kids’ desires and abilities, and your budget. But some technologies are better than others. Here is a breakdown of the technologies your child might be using — and whether you should welcome or avoid them.
Because they are so convenient and let parents and children stay in touch, more and more parents are giving their elementary-school kids cell phones. But if you give your kid a cell phone while she’s still in elementary school, be sure set the ground rules right away.
Use 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 enforce your rules. And as she and her phone skills — and responsibility — grow, you can 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.
The cons: Kids love this technology so much you may have trouble controlling it.
The lowdown: A great tool if handled well. Just be sure to use parental controls to back up your rules, and keep an eye on the potential risks: overuse, inappropriate use, and bullying.
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 difficult and at times frightening for parents to control: Kids can get so engrossed that they forget there is a world beyond the screen, and they may find sites they shouldn’t see. 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 have access to this tremendous learning tool. 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 getting Net Nanny or the Norton Online Family). Then give your child Internet time and access as your kid grows and becomes more comfortable and competent using it.
As a rule, a younger child should use the Internet no more than an hour a day
The pros: An incredible tool for learning, communication, and entertainment.
The cons: A difficult-to-control tool – with risk that your child spends too much time and sees things she shouldn’t.
The lowdown: You can’t avoid the Internet. But you can make it safer for kids by offering instruction and installing training wheels till they can negotiate it on their own.
Many kids’ social lives are now more online than on the playground. To make sure they aren’t playing unsafely online (since it’s hard to know who they are playing with online) there are some safer places for playing online, what are called gaming social networks. Club Penguin, RuneScape, and SuperSecret are some social gaming networks that offer a protected experience for younger kids. The downside is that many are so addictive you’ll have a hard time getting your child to stop.
Here a child’s privacy is protected, 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).
The pros: Children can play games that keep them interested and entertained.
The cons: You may have a hard time getting your child to turn off the computer. (And you’ll constantly be hearing, “Just wait until I get to the next level.”)
The lowdown: Proceed with caution when using social networks. Kids have a hard time stopping themselves from playing.
The engaging 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 agree to getting one, that war will extend to the games he will want to play “because everyone else is.” (Playing together is part of the draw.) 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. So establish rules and stick with them: Homework first. (And if grades slip, it gets put away.) Keep it in the family room so you can monitor its use. And ban games that are too violent.
The pros: Beautiful graphics, advanced technology, and the ability to play with people who are too far away to meet with in person.
The cons: Addictive and too much 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.
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, such as Spore, SimCity, and The Sims. Steer clear of games like World of Warcraft. 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 learning games like The Sims, and they will have fun while — maybe — getting a little smarter.
Handheld gaming devices
Gaming devices like Nintendo DS http://www.nintendo.com/ds , PSP http://us.playstation.com/psp/ , and iPod Touch http://www.apple.com/ipodtouch/ 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.
TV isn’t what it was a generation ago. 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.
Along with using parental controls, keep the TV in a family room (not your child’s room, which can interfere with his studying and sleep) and let you child now how often he’s allowed to watch. Also, try picking programs you can watch together and turn it into a fun (if infrequent) family activity.
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.