You know the feeling: your kid huddles over a tablet, giggling about something on the iPad. You ask what’s going on, but before you can see what all the fuss is about, the music stops and he says, “Oh, it was nothing, just one of those funny cat videos.”
When it comes to technology, the control that parents have over children is turned upside-down. Since kids catch on to technology at breakneck speeds, you can feel inadequate when trying to set “gadget” rules. But keep this in mind: you know more than you think. And it’s your responsibility, no matter how daunting it seems.
The mystery of the online world is fading as parents become more adept with technology. Last year, they started to take back Facebook, and this year, they’re expanding to take control of their kids’ digital lives. Children are exposed to technology at younger ages, and it affects their development in ways researchers are only starting to understand.
So it’s important to take charge and help raise better adults of the future. If you’re unsure, here are a few tips to help navigate the digital landscape:
Set Priorities and Stand Firm
Like many teens, my brother’s son complains he needs to have an iPhone now that he’s in high school. If you’re a parent, you’ll hear that as your kids get older: “I need an iPhone or [latest phone] to be cool.” But with so many choices, you need to focus on a phone they need and not one they want. But more importantly, buy a phone you feel comfortable with your kids having.
When they get a driver’s license, you don’t rush out to buy them a Cadillac or Camaro. You take into account what they’ll use it for to find a good fit. And that’s the same with gadgets. If you want them to call you after basketball practice or text you if they stay late for yearbook club, for example, a basic phone will do. Basic phones reduce risky behavior and range from the most modest and affordable to nearly full-fledged, smartphone-like devices. You can also customize them with apps that silence calls in moving cars, and even block the Internet altogether.
Figure out what your kid doesn’t need first, especially in an age where phones do everything except fold laundry and run out and buy milk. You’ve probably already bought them a laptop or tablet. At home, those devices are easier to watch and since they don’t need carrier contracts, they’re often more affordable in the long run.
So what if your kid can’t use Instagram during lunch?
A lot of schools are banning smartphones during class hours anyway. If you separate the “wants” from “needs,” your job as parent will be easier. If they say they need a smartphone to research volcanoes for that social studies project, they can just as easily do it on the family iPad. The days when a phone was a phone, and a computer was a computer, are over. They all connect to the Internet and you have more choices to find the best one — or combination — to fit their needs.
You’re the Parent — So You’re in Charge
Think your phone bill is expensive? Wait until you add kids to the mix.
We place a premium on mobile technology, but the financial iStruggle is a growing problem for a lot of families — those wireless bills can easily top $200 a month. In fact, the average bill cost around $50 per handset, so if you have a family of four, for example, it clocks in about $200 a month. Yikes.
Phone prices drop, but it isn’t the initial cost that hurts your wallet — it’s those fees, which don’t sound like a lot on the contract — $5 here, $10 there — but they quickly add up. And they’re recurring payments. So if you have more than one teen, it can rival a car payment or groceries. In addition to considering the sheer costs, most parenting experts recommend you check your children’s Internet activity — especially younger ones — so it makes sense to have a “family” device that’s rooted at your home.
Don’t feel pressured. If they say they need a smartphone or if you think they need one for school, you can do the same thing without handing over an iPhone. Instead, don’t flinch — put those savings toward their college savings. Once you figure out which devices and plans work best for your family, it is important to talk about what will fly and what won’t.
Janell Burley Hofmann, a blogger and mother of five, gave her 13-year-old son an iPhone for Christmas, but it came with an 18-point contract, outlining how he could and couldn’t use his phone. Her aim was to raise him into “a well-rounded, healthy young man who can function in the world and coexist with technology — and not be ruled by it.”
The contract put him on notice. She made it clear that she owned the phone and he was simply “loaning” it from her. That means he must always let her know the password, and he must always answer the phone when she calls. Among other things, it also outlines that he’ll have to hand it over promptly at 7:30 p.m. on school nights and 9 p.m. on weekends. He’s also not allowed to bring it to school — though half days, field trips and after school activities get special consideration.
Keep the Conversation Going
As parents become a bigger part of the technology their children immerse themselves in, there’s an opportunity for both to share and learn about digital citizenship. It’s as simple as asking them what websites they use as sources for homework assignments. Schools are teaching them to verify online research and they know not to trust everything they read online — and you can reinforce those lessons.
For younger kids, take the lead and explain how images — especially those that flash, shake, pop-up or contain words like “win,” “free,” and “download now” — are advertisements they should avoid. Teach them about the digital world — find moments to explain cyber-bullying, online etiquette and privacy.
For example, check their Instagram account. If you see them post an offensive comment, ask if they feel proud to be hurtful. You need to remind them, early and often, that no matter how intimate their circle feels, what they put online isn’t always safe and secure. The online world is unforgiving, and in talking with them about it, you’ll learn a thing or two as well.
It’s less about control and more about striking a balance in the power struggle that engulfs the relationship you have with your children and technology. But in the end, it’s also about sanity and safety. There are advantages to raising a tech-savvy kid, but it requires more than handing over the gadgets. Set ground rules and be more aware of the pitfalls of advertisers, bullying and securing data. They aren’t just an added benefit; they’re an increasing parental duty.
It’s a challenge, but you need to realize that even the humblest phone is a gateway to a digital “Pandora’s Box.” If you’re not ready to understand the basics and learn about it with your kid, then don’t hand it over in the first place. ♦