December 16, 2022
A simple search for “tech gifts for kids” returns thousands of results. Every year, parents and guardians rely on the Internet for ideas on what to buy children for the holidays. As technology becomes increasingly interconnected with education and social interactions, it’s no surprise that digital devices are at the top of holiday wishlists.
In 2019, SellCell surveyed 2,000 parents to learn more about what they were buying their kids during the holiday season. According to the survey, 87% of parents planned to purchase phones, computers, and gaming consoles. Smartphones were by far the most popular gift of choice among parents.
It’s important to make an informed decision when you purchase devices that grant children easy access to the web. But with so many gadgets and gizmos to choose from, how do you decide what to buy? Here are a few questions you should consider:
Age and maturity level are crucial considerations when buying technology for children. Ask yourself, “Is my child old enough and/or mature enough to receive this gift?”
Experts recommend waiting until your child is 13 before giving them a smartphone. However, according to a study by Common Sense Media, 53% of kids in the United States have their own smartphones by age 11. This means that parents may inevitably hear the “everyone else has a phone” argument from their child.
While waiting until 13 for a smartphone is recommended, maturity and parental style may influence buying decisions. Teodora Pavkovic, lead online safety expert and psychologist at Linewize, advises parents to ease children into their first smartphone.
“When it comes to children's first experiences with device-ownership, I always recommend starting a child off with having access to the device, instead of full ownership,” she says. “In the same way that children are not ready to drive until they practice and feel comfortable behind the wheel, they are not ready to fully own a mobile device until they understand how to keep themselves and others safe online.”
The same can be said for other tech devices like tablets and gaming consoles, both of which are platforms that enable communication between the child and the outside world.
In terms of maturity level, you know your child better than anyone. If they struggle with boundaries like screen time, buying a new gaming console or smartphone might not be the best decision right now. If so, be clear about what needs to happen before you can trust them enough to equip them with big-ticket tech products.
Soft skills — such as empathy and communication — are also important considerations when it comes to gauging maturity.
“The development of “soft” skills like empathy needs to begin in the offline world,” says Pavkovic. “As children are slowly exposed to the online world, you can simultaneously start teaching them skills around digital citizenship, media literacy, and online safety behaviors.”
Phones, tablets, computers, and consoles may not be the appropriate right-now gift. Maybe you’ve decided your child isn’t quite ready for a smartphone. Are there other tech toys or gadgets you can get instead?
For instance, smartwatches (and other smart wearables) can be a great alternative to smartphones. Smartwatches aren't easily lost, they have far more limited functionality than smartphones, and they are (depending on how they are set up) less distracting in a classroom setting. If being able to contact your child - and vice versa - is your primary goal, a smartwatch could be a good incremental learning step towards a smartphone.
Alternatively, consider age-appropriate games; if you decide to go down the gaming console route, make sure you:
Check the game's age rating first
Set up all of the available parental controls built into both the console and the game itself
Create a tech agreement with you child that will outline the boundaries and expectations around their online behavior and gameplay
Co-play with your child to begin with, and as you do, educate yourself on the ins and outs of the game
Finally, you can prepare your child for device ownership with a starter phone. Starter phones provide access to parent-approved healthy apps and allow children to talk and text (to limited contacts). Smart options and Internet access are limited, if available. Popular starter phone options include Pinwheel, Jitterbug, and Gabb.
Gauging the opinions of other parents is a great way to guide and inform your decision-making. What experiences are others having with a potential product? Are there any noteworthy comments from parents in online reviews?
In addition to connecting with other parents, it’s important to do your own due diligence. Just because it doesn’t have a screen doesn’t mean it isn’t smart. Every piece of technology — from the latest iPhone model to a toy pet robot — is connected to the Internet. By design, these technologies are susceptible to hacks and bugs that may compromise safety and/or privacy, and virtually all of them require some amount of your child’s data to function as they were intended to.
If you’re considering a connected gadget, game, or software, do your research. Conduct a Google search with the word “hack” or “security” associated with the brand name to hone in on potentially concerning news.
You can also turn to parent groups on Facebook to ask specific questions to a larger audience. Their feedback can prove invaluable to your final decision. To make the most of your online discussions, search for groups that cover topics specific to your child’s age.
Every household should set healthy boundaries around technology usage. As previously mentioned, boundaries are shaped differently depending on your parenting style and the age and maturity of the child.
Create a collaborative tech agreement with your child that outlines expectations for open lines of communication and online behavior. Putting a formal agreement in place reinforces the boundaries you’ve set and acknowledges your child’s ownership over their online behavior.
Check out this article on creating age-mindful, tailored tech agreements for digital devices.
If you give your child the keys to the online world, they need the information necessary to safely navigate it. This is where good digital citizenship comes in.
Digital citizenship refers to the responsible use of technology that keeps one’s own safety and wellbeing in mind as well as the safety and wellbeing of other online users. Handing your child or teen a digital device is a major responsibility, and it’s important for youth to understand how to use technology safely, respectfully, and appropriately.
Digital citizenship paves the way for digital intelligence (the social, emotional, and cognitive abilities necessary to handle the challenges and demands of digital life). Digital citizenship entails:
Digital identity (awareness of the self and one's reputation)
Emotional intelligence (fostering healthy relationships and cultivating empathy)
Digital use (monitoring and balancing time spent on digital devices)
Awareness is a key component of good digital citizenship. Digital awareness allows individuals to react responsibly and build their cognizance of the online world over time. Examples of awareness include the ability to:
Differentiate advertising and sponsored content from organic content
Engage in positive bystander behaviors cyberbullying and other potentially harmful activity occurs
React appropriately when inappropriate and/or distressing content is encountered
Employ critical thinking in order to identify mis- and disinformation
“In addition to these, I think one of the most important skills of this digital age is being able to sense when our online interactions and activities serve and nourish us, and when they just about start to drain and potentially hurt us,” Pavkovic adds. “Teaching your children how to self-care in the digital era is one of the greatest skills today’s generation of parents can give their kids.”
There are many digital citizenship classes available for schools; reach out to faculty to see what, if any, courses your child has completed. Additionally, platforms like Common Sense Media offer plenty of digital citizenship educational resources to empower parents to learn about and communicate best online practices with their children.
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