Why Parents Need to Take Charge of Gadgets
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 "gadgets" 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, parents started talking back to Facebook. And this year, parents are taking step further and taking back control of their kids' digital lives. Children are exposed to technology at younger ages, and it affects their development in ways researchers are just beginning to understand. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the digital landscape and help create better adults of the future.
Set Priorities and Stand Firm
Like many teens, my brother's son complains he needs to have an iPhone now that he is in high school. If you're a parent, you'll hear this as your kids get older: "I need an iPhone or Galaxy 3 to be cool." But with a lot of choices, you're better off thinking about what they need -- instead of what they say they want -- and what you feel comfortable with your kids having.
When they get their 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 and find a good fit. And that's the same with gadgets. For example, if you want them to call you after basketball practice, or text you if they stay late for yearbook club, a basic phone will do the job, and reduce risky behavior. Basic phones 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.
If you're like many parents, you've already given them a laptop or tablet. At home, these 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 school hours anyway. If you separate the "wants" from "needs," your job as parent will be easier. If they want a smartphone, they can just as easily research volcanoes for that social studies project 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 cell 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 monthly wireless bills can easily top $200 a month. In fact, the average bill cost $47 per handset, so if you have a family of four, for example, it clocks in around $188 a month. Yikes.
Phone prices drop, but it isn't the initial cost that hurts your wallet -- it's those monthly fees. It doesn't sound like a lot on the contract -- $5 here, $10 there -- but they quickly add up, and they're recurring payments. If you have more than one teen, it can rival a car payment or groceries. But beyond the sheer costs, most parenting experts recommend that you check their Internet activity -- especially younger kids -- so it makes sense to have a "family" device that's rooted at your home. So, 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 simply handing over an iPhone. Instead, put those savings toward their college savings.
Don't flinch: you set the rules. Once you figure out devices and plans that 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. The agreement outlined how Gregory can and can't use his phone, aiming 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 she owned the phone, and was simply "loaning" it to him. That means she must always know the password, and he must always answer the phone when she calls. Among other things, it also outlines he'll have to hand it over promptly at 7:30 p.m. on school nights and 9 p.m. on weekends. In addition, he's not allowed to bring it to school -- though half days, field trips and after school activities get special consideration. The contract went viral, and parents across the nation shared the idea. In other words, the hierarchy is shifting back to parents.
Keep the Conversation Going
As more parents insert themselves into the technology engulfing their children, there's an opportunity for both to share and learn more about digital citizenship. It's as simple as asking your kids what websites they use as sources for homework assignments. Schools are teaching them to verify sources for online research. 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 -- moments that to explain cyber-bullying, online etiquette and privacy. For example, look at their Instagram. It you see that they posted an offensive comment, ask them if they feel proud and part of the group or 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 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 the digital "Pandora's Box." If you're not ready to understand the basics and learn about it with your kid, then perhaps you shouldn't hand it over in the first place. ♦