When Are Kids Ready for Technology?Kim Boatman
Like most teens, Alison Piccoli, a 13-year-old Hollister, Calif., eighth grader, stays connected with friends through text messaging. But dad Patrick thinks Alison is too young for the next step in social networking, visiting MySpace.
"There are all the issues with predators. And the kids go after each other on those sites," says Piccoli, 41, a program manager for an aerospace defense company. "I imagine it will be years before we let her on MySpace."
For Piccoli, wife Kristi, a 39-year-old nurse, and many parents today, age-appropriate use of technology is a driving concern. They struggle to evaluate just how old their children should be to safely surf the Internet, handle instant messaging, use cell phones and set up social networking sites. As the age levels at which kids acquire new technologies drop -- cell phones are commonplace these days among the elementary school set -- the worries increase.
"The kids are inundated with technology," Patrick Piccoli says of Alison and her brother Zachary, an 11-year-old sixth grader. "We worry all the time."
Here are some steps to help set safe guidelines for kids and technology:
Evaluate your child’s maturity. Will your child be able to handle situations that might arise with the use of a cell phone or MySpace? How would they handle contact from a stranger? Peer bullying?
Understand their world. If your child tells you all his or her friends have a cell phone, don’t dismiss the social pressure he or she is feeling, says Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation (Palgrave Macmillan 2007).
"When I was a kid, Mom used to say 'If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?'" says Rosen. "For many kids, the fact that all their friends are doing something is really important."
In an era where kids don’t hang out in parks or malls as much because of time restraints and safety concerns, technology provides a social connection, says Rosen. If your child is lagging behind his peers in use of technology, it can mean social isolation.
Talk to other parents. You can work as a group to establish guidelines about the acquisition and use of technology. Make sure at least one parent in your circle is well-versed in the latest technological applications, says Rosen. He regularly reads Anastasia Goodstein’s blog at Ypulse to stay current on youth/technology issues.
Educating yourself and then discussing the use of technology with your child is critical, says Dr. Paul Donahue, a Scarsdale, N.Y., clinical psychologist and author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters (St. Martin’s Griffin 2007). "Much like we wouldn’t give the 12-year-old the keys to the car, these are fairly sophisticated privileges that kids need to show they have the responsibility to handle."
Donahue offers general age guidelines for technologies kids are clamoring for:
Children 12 and under shouldn’t access the Internet without a parent’s permission. You’ll want to be at your 6- or 7-year-old’s side as they surf the Internet, says Donahue. And you’ll want to use parental control software to limit your child’s access to inappropriate material. Keep the computer in a public space in your home. It’s reasonable to allow high school age kids computer access in their rooms, but you’ll want to impose clear limits related to pornography, violent web sites and other off limits material.
MySpace itself says participants should be at least 14, but Rosen estimates that 15 percent of kids under 14 are using a social network. Young kids can be exposed to inappropriate material and cliquish or harassing behavior. "They say more than they should. A lot of kids don’t have the maturity or sophistication to handle that, in many cases, before 10th or 11th grade," says Donahue.
Texting or instant messaging
Seventh and eighth graders who’ve demonstrated some maturity should be able to handle texting and instant messaging, Donahue says. "My experience is that often children get into IMing and texting at an age before they’re ready to handle it." Again, bullying behaviors are an issue, he says.
Generally, says Donahue, a kid can likely handle the responsibility of a phone in middle school or junior high. It’s important to spell out how you want your child to use the phone. Make sure you’re aware of the phone’s many functions and how your child might use them. Kids get into trouble taking indiscreet photos of peers with cell phone cameras. Some schools ban phones because of cheating. And GPS features can pose problems if they allow, for instance, a boyfriend or girlfriend to track your child at all times.
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