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December 02, 2007

TechMama's Perspective: Kids, Parents and Use of Technology

I was brainstorming on the best way to start out my Techmama's holiday gift guide, and my first thought was to put the use of technology and kids in the right perspective. Instead of just saying "here are the hottest holiday gift gadgets for kids" I really want to say "wait until your children ask for technology, educate yourself and your child on the technology, set limits - and then HAVE FUN!". So, lets go into each area in more detail:

WAIT UNTIL YOUR CHILD ASKS FOR TECHNOLOGY: This may be shocking, but we do not own a family computer. When my son was in 2nd grade, I gave him my old laptop - with Internet Controls. But only when he starting asking to go on the computer. My twins are close to 5 and the only exposure they have to computers is when they go to the Apple Store with me and sit in the kids computer section. Or when their older brother shows them an approved You Tube video. Now that my twins are heading into Kindergarten and my eldest is close to 9, I am now looking for a family computer.

So, does this mean I am suggesting everyone also keep their young kids away from computers? In another shocking statement - I say NO! When it comes to technology, the best way to judge whether your child is ready is to wait until they ask you. A great example is a friend who's son wanted to start programming basic in 1st grade! In that case, I say that child is ready to start using a computer.

A friend and her husband are both computer professionals with young kids who, after seeing their parents using computers, wanted to start using them at a young age. Another family with a seven year old that has learning disabilities found that he responded well to learning online. So they provided the seven year old with online learning CD's and games that are helping his confidence towards schoolwork - and their 4 year old is joining in the fun. Some preschoolers (like one of my twins) are already asking for an "iPod". While I know my preschooler is ready for an MP3, I decided to let him use my husbands instead of buying him his own - at least for now.

From my experience, sometime in 1st grade is a good time to bring computers into a child's life - even if they have not shown an interest yet.  At least in my local school districts, starting in 3rd grade children can use computers to type homework and have other computer related tasks. Starting kids in 1st grade at home with a family computer will give them a chance to practice typing (typing programs are great for that) and also to start internet safety training. Internet safety training will also be essential for children that are over friend's houses that have computers. So, if you have a child in Kindergarten that spends time at friends houses that have open access to computers - start safety training asap!

I have less issues with MP3 players. I believe music is a wonderful experience for any age. At the same time, I can't imagine what a preschooler would say if their teacher needs to say "Please put your MP3 in your cubby". So with MP3 players, the best way to judge if they are ready is to make sure they are mature enough to take care it. For kids that may not be mature enough (are still in the "let me throw this against the wall to see what happens" stage), then a kid friendly CD player may be a better bet.

For many years, the big sit-down-discussions between parents and kids have been the birds & bees and drugs.  These days parents need to add "Internet Safety" to that list. Starting in Kindergarten or later depending on the child, parents need to sit down with their child, in front of a computer and have an honest discussion about internet safety. And for those parents that have no knowledge of the internet, no internet controls on the computer and kids that play tricks like changing their passwords for their email accounts - get your head out of the sand! Parents need to take the time to educate themselves, before they can educate their kids. Parents need to know about cyberbullying, instant messaging, safe and unsafe websites, internet crimes, social networking, internet monitoring & parental controls (even for free), tools for families and internet security. Then, they need to educate their children.

For teens, the discussion should center on what information they should and should not share online - and safe online social networking. Discuss what sites they frequent, and if they have blogs or social networking accounts, ASK if you can take a look at their profiles. In some instances, it will be important to require tween/teens to allow you access to view their sites. Explain to them that you interest is only for safety purposes, and not to pry into their lives (nosey parents beware - you need to respect your child's privacy so don't comment on things that are not safety issues).  And if they say that their online life is private, just  explain the term "egosurfing" and that many colleges and future employers do that as a part of the vetting process. Explain to them that many online activities are not private and will be a permanent part of their search profile. The Wall Street Journal's College Journal had an interesting article called "How to Clean Up Your Digital Dirt". I also found an interesting post on Mint about how to protect your privacy on some of the popular social networking sites.

For more information on what tweens/teens are doing online, I suggest reading  Anastasia Goodstein's book "Totally Wired". Here are some websites that have internet safety information: NetsmartzSafekidsWired Safety, GenNetWise, Ypulse and Common Sense Media. CBS News has some interesting links on their "GenTech" post and Psych Central has resources listed for Internet Safety.

When it comes to computer games, it is also important to let your child "ask" before you buy. Common Sense Media had an relevant post titled "Is My Kid Ready for a Gaming System". We waited until my son asked (ok - he begged) for a Nintendo DS Lite, so this year (he is 8) we let him have one. He was also old enough to understand the limits we put in place for it's use. I know other families who introduced gaming with younger kids, but also with time limits. Which is a great transition to the next subject...

Most technology gadgets have some type of screen (even MP3's have video capabilities). So with all kids, tweens and teens - it is important to set a screen time policy before bringing technology into the house. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest 1 - 2 hours of screen time for children. The only exception should be for children doing their homework. Teens may need more time if they are interested in social networking, but parents need to make sure their use of technology does not become an obsession. The "screen' time can apply to computers, DVD's, and computer games. During the school week the limits may be less then on weekends.

The limits need to be clear and enforced, or it will be hard to keep it up. Some parents use a reward chart with screen time as the reward. Screen time "tickets" can also be used. The New York Times just recently had an article called "An Allowance That's Measured in Minutes, Not Cents" that discusses giving allowances in screen time. I posted in the beginning of this year about Allowances, The Next Gen with other ideas.  Another interesting article came from Psych Central and Stanford University about the effect of children's requests after screen time.

THE "TEST": If your child shuts down the computer when you walk over, wants to spend hours in front of their "screen", has trouble keeping to limits or has exhibited personality changes then they may be addicted to their technology. The addiction can run the gamut from "their favored " activity to their preferred world. One of my favorite tests is the following: Take your children to a park or a completely technology free space. Can they "play", interact and enjoy the experience? Or ask your children to sit down and have some non screen family time together (maybe playing games, listening to music or just being in a room together reading). Can your kids spend non screen time together with you? Another test for tweens and teens is do they spend more time with real life social networking or online? Do they have a real network of friends, or does their social life exists mainly online? I say "test" but really these are ways to help parents ensure their children are using technology in a positive way, instead of technology using them.

I took my three boys to a park and just played tag for an hour. No toys, technology or even any sports equipment - just trees, grass and crunchy fall leaves. We all had a great time (even mom passed - she shut off her BlackBerry).  I also suggest having one part of the house without any technology and plan regular family time in that space. We are a family with three boys in a small three bedroom house, so we cleared out our garage and turned it into a playspace - without any technology (other then an air hockey table). Our family computer (when we find one) will be in our family room, where it's use can be monitored. I may consider purchasing a portable DVD projector that can be used in the playroom for special movie nights.  A friend and her family spend one night a week playing games in their technology free living room. Another family spends time once a week in a quiet room just reading together. Families with small houses (I grew up in a small apartment) can find a space to have technology free time together - even if it means just shutting off all technology -and leaving all cell phones/PDA's in a basket by the door.

One of my favorite hobbies is spending time online blogging and social networking (yes, even Facebook). I also enjoy a good movie and even had a blast playing the Wii. So why should I deny my kids the same experience, when they ask?  If I have provided a safe environment (Internet Controls), internet safety education and clear time limits then my family is free to enjoy technology. And so should yours!

Appropriately so, my last word on the subject will come from one of my favorite friends I made through blogging - Grace Davis. She was interviewed on Alpha Mom and explained her very healthy view on her daughter's use of technology. Here it is, enjoy....


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It's definitely about balance. My entire world is tech related. I work full time as a web manager/graphic designer, I have a virtual freelance business that provides design, business productivity and lifestyle mgmt and I run a blog and host a podcast. I love technology and the kids have always seen me totally immersed in it. Not only is it my job, but I truly love it. In saying that, my kids are mini tech geeks, but my kids also go outside and hang out and play with their friends every weekend, they still ride bikes and we play board games and watch movies together weekly. There has to be balance; a little old mixed in with the new.

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