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What to Ask Before Buying Tech Tools for Kids

by Devorah Heitner

Devorah Heitner

Devorah Heitner, PhD is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and a spokesperson for Ashoka’s “Start Empathy” Initiative. Read more »

Sorry, Devorah Heitner is no longer taking questions.

This time of year, shiny new devices are on everyone's mind. For many families, gift-giving comes prepackaged with excitement, but also sometimes with anxiety, especially when something with a screen is under the gift wrap. Are kids losing out on empathy, connection and social skills?

It's not an entirely unreasonable fear. Handheld devices and tablets are amazing tools (and toys), to be sure. But their mobility and size make it more challenging to keep track of the devices themselves, as well as the ways your children are using them. How will you balance these devices' compelling nature with family life and some unplugged time? Further, not all applications are created equal. The content of some apps may not be in harmony with your family's values or a fit with your child's stage of development.

So, while a new electronic gadget may be a fabulous and much-utilized gift, it also necessitates a little more planning than a board game or a colorful sweater. When Mom, Dad, or Santa plans to bring your child a portable music device, a handheld gaming system, or a tablet computer, it is important to plan for its role in your child's life and in the media ecology of the whole family.

With a little planning, every device that comes into your home can fit into your family's values, without sucking everyone into their separate corners. Here are a few tips:

Plan before you purchase: This is not the time to buy impulsively. Both parents should be on the same page. Generous grandparents and other relatives should obtain a clear parental green light before presenting a child with a gift that will put the parents in the role of gatekeepers, app purchasers and tech support.

Ask yourself and your partner some questions: If your child is asking for a new gadget: what does she want it for? (Music? Web surfing? Games? Apps? Art making? Programming? Because her friends have one? All of the above?) What family interests can this new device support and encourage? Are there other siblings who will want access to the new machine? How will you handle that? Ask yourself if she's likely to lose it, break it, etc. Will you replace it if something happens to it?

For younger children: Especially with preschoolers or kindergarteners, you may want to buy the device for the family and make clear that the child can use it only at certain times. Plan in advance where the device will be stored and charged when it is not in use. Plan on routines, so they don't get into habits that will be hard to break.

On the content: Ideally, you want to choose content that encourages your child to connect more with others rather than less. Consider games that encourage cooperation and collaboration. Check out this list of empathy-building games and apps curated by Common Sense Media, and look out for games like AOK that are using badging and other gaming technologies to encourage kids to make a difference offline.

On the money: For a younger child, be sure to set up devices so she won't be able to buy things from app stores with your credit card. If you plan to let an older child choose some apps or music, discuss the financial parameters: How much per week or month can she spend? Consider using a prepaid account. If your child wants an account on social apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, consider the 13+ age limits from these companies, and clarify that you need to make all app decisions together.

While some mobile devices can be set up to restrict content, don't over-rely on these automated controls. They are blunt instruments and can also block some great content while failing to block everything you might imagine they would.

Talking to your child—and being with them when they are using their devices—is still the best way to know what they are using their devices for. For very young kids, locking a device off the Internet completely is a good solution if you can't be right there. A six-year-old can have a great experience playing games, solving puzzles, reading e-books and more—without needing to go online. Also, if your child uses ear buds, it is super important to set up volume control for music and sound effects.

All together now: Emphasizing fun activities that you can enjoy with your children is a proven technique for keeping the lines of dialogue open and for supporting their learning. Try some apps you can enjoy together.

And don't forget to share some of your own favorite music with your child while she's still young enough to think you are cool! Listening parties are a big part of weekends at our house. They are a great way to use technology to bring the family together. Although we may start listening on our devices, we also love to break out guitars, ukuleles and drums, and do some old-school jamming!

Before the box gets opened: Though it may interfere with the "surprise factor," I suggest having a meeting with your child before she gets her new gift. Are there times when it will be off-limits? What apps will be allowed? What will be the consequences for misuse? You may want to keep it in your own room overnight so it doesn't interfere with sleep. You are setting up habits now that will be relevant when your child gets her first mobile phone.

Include yourself in the plan: Giving your child a new device can also be a great occasion to examine your own relationship to the digital tools and toys already in your home. When you are spending time with your child, put down your smartphone or step away from the computer. Try going to the park tech-free. Modeling a balanced use of your own devices could be the most important message you can send your child about the role of technology in your family.

How have new devices affected your family’s life together? Let us know in the comments.

Happy Holidays!

Sorry, Devorah Heitner is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.

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