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Technology and Tweens: A Parenting Guide

As your kids enter their socially awkward middle-school years, they’re not only growing into respectable members of society, they’re also officially entering the digital domain. At this stage, they’ll begin securing their own e-mail accounts; instant messaging and chatting; and, potentially, taking possession of their very own mobile devices (including smartphones, iPads, portable media players and more). Naturally, parents are wondering: Which tech options make the most sense for tweens? You can find out with the following hints, tips, and suggestions for kids ages 8-12, as we discuss further in our bestselling book Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.

Important to note up-front: The tween years are a critical time for parents, as they must leverage the groundwork they’ve been laying since their kids were in preschool to ensure that their offspring have enough savvy and common sense to capably establish their first online footprints. Stressing the importance of online safety and privacy will also be doubly important, as children begin to connect and communicate with the entire world for the first time.

Note that kids this age will also discuss and inherit ideas from their friends, siblings, schoolmates and others that they come into contact with about which websites to visit, games to play, devices to buy, and high-tech services to sign up for. Even if you are confident that all your preparation and hard work towards protecting your kids from the unseemly side of the Internet is working, be aware – these outside influences will nonetheless ensure that kids are going to come across material and influences that you’d rather they didn’t. 

The subject of which technology devices and services to offer children of this age can also be a tricky one, as children’s communications, online safety, and digital citizenship skills first begin to develop. We’re certainly familiar with families who have purchased tablet PCs, eReaders, and smartphones for children of this age. However, parents who do elect to provide access to such items at this age need to be aware and cognizant of both the devices’ features and potential online interactions their children will be exposed to. Should you opt to provide access at this point, at bare minimum, take steps to configure parental controls and privacy settings before handing gadgets or online accounts over to children. Likewise, make a running commitment to educating yourself about high-tech devices, apps, programs and innovations, and maintaining sustained awareness of not only the features and capabilities all offer, but also how your children are using them.

In addition to safeguarding standard high-tech items, also be certain that parental controls are set on your TV, smartphone, and other subscription services in order to restrict content and the ability to purchase and view content on-demand. Make sure you keep all passcodes a secret from your kids, or they can easily bypass every safeguard you’ve set up. In the case of paid services, check your bills for a log of all activities and programs consumed… many services offer a full recap of everything that’s been accessed or purchased in the previous month.

Most of all, remember that as parents, if you decide to give phones, tablets or even social network accounts or e-mail addresses to kids at this age, you’ll also need to provide guardrails and guidelines. 

Video Games: It’s around this age that kids who play video games will start to want to go online via multiplayer services. Many offer the ability to link your child’s account to an adult’s so you can manage what your children can and can’t do, as well as whom they interact with.

Microsoft online safety director Doug Park counsels parents to use your child’s real age when setting up online accounts on your console: It may seem obvious, but doing so will help ensure that age-appropriate safeguards are put in place or used to their fullest. “A lot of parents don’t understand that when they create an account, they’re setting up the entire experience,” Park says.

Virtual worlds will also be a popular draw with young adults. Many provide gaming options that allow kids to play for free, but also contain “premium” content that can only be accessed by paying for them on-demand or by signing up to contribute a monthly fee.

However, online connectivity and shopping and access to age-appropriate material are just a handful of many concerns parents of contemporary gamers will face. For a more in-depth look at managing and promoting healthy interactions around gaming, and picking the right software titles, see our companion book The Modern Parent’s Guide to Kids and Video Games.

Internet and Web Access: Middle school aged children are going to need Internet access, whether as a part of everyday schoolwork, after-school activities or homework projects. In fact, many schools now offer websites that act as online portals specifically designed to supplement coursework with additional downloadable materials, and serve as communities where children, adults and teachers can interact, share insights and retrieve grades or attendance records on-demand.

However, kids are going to come across inappropriate material once they’re set free online. Bearing this in mind, the key to successful parenting of older children as relates to technology isn’t just being engaged in children’s lives and putting proper safeguards in place – it’s also teaching them to know how to identify questionable content, and what to do when they come across it. Children must also be encouraged to come forward with questions or concerns, and provided open forums for dialogue and strong support systems that can address these issues.

Don’t simply let kids’ lives, or Internet activities, speed by in a blur as you set your awareness to cruise control. Instead, check in regularly with your kids about how, where and in what ways they use the Internet. Ask them what sites they like to visit, services they use, apps and programs they prefer, and to what extent and in which ways they’re choosing to interact with these resources. Be specific when seeking out pieces of information, e.g. where they turn to exchange messages with friends online. But also be thoughtful, and consider the bigger picture: How children use the Internet, and alongside whom, is every bit as important as the specific program or service which facilitates these interactions – as is the way such exchanges make them feel, react or see topics from different perspectives. Start asking questions, and you may be surprised by just how grown up many children’s online universe are – and in just how many ways they’re learning to process information about and interpret the world around them.

E-mail: Many families allow their kids to sign up for e-mail accounts around the age of nine. However, services themselves often restrict usage to older children, i.e. Google, who requires kids to be 13 to register for their own Gmail account. Although (as with any similar service) there are reports that some families were able to request and receive accounts for younger children, the launch of Google+ and heightened public concerns surrounding children’s privacy have caused Google to exercise growing care when enforcing age limits.

One option for children seeking a first email address, or concerned parents, is to set up a Zoobuh.com account, which costs $1 per month. This service allows you to preview your children’s e-mail before they receive it.

“If you are going to let a child under 13 years of age have an e-mail account, you should absolutely connect it to your own account,” says Symantec’s Merritt. She recommends actively overseeing their online activities here, and setting up so-called “whitelists” and “blacklists” that restrict who they can and can’t e-mail, respectively. The monitoring of children’s accounts also acts as a strong deterrent to kids that may prevent them from sending or receiving inappropriate materials. Should another child consider forwarding unwanted or undesirable material, your child’s warning that you check their account may prompt second thoughts from sprouts who’d rather avoid aggravating a concerned adult. Again, keep in mind that any monitoring activities you conduct should be treated like training wheels and that once kids have matured and grown in experience to the point they’re capable of self-managing, you’ll want to take them off.

Cell Phones and Mobile Devices: Although many wait until children reach their teenage years to provide access to cellular phones, 13 is rapidly becoming a common age at which some kids receive their first handset. Parry Aftab from Wired Moms suggests that parents keep several tips in mind when providing young adults with their first phone. For starters, she reminds parents that you don’t have to buy smartphones loaded with connectivity features – basic “feature phones” that lack downloadable apps, streaming multimedia access, and high-end Web browsers are often a safer alternative. A common mistake, experts agree, is when parents opt to buy kids full-fledged smartphones (e.g. the iPhone) and provide them with unlimited online access before they’re prepared for or even need to use these devices or surrounding capabilities. Buying a basic phone with fewer gee-whiz technical features and strong parental controls, and setting and enforcing limits about its usage, is often the wiser choice.

Aftab also offers a strong reminder about the effect that mobile devices can have on children’s academic performance, cautioning parents that cell phones don’t belong in the classroom, unless teachers’ specify a pressing educational need for them to be present. These devices aren’t just distracting, Aftab points out – they’re also often used to pass notes, cheat on tests, or otherwise distract from children’s studies. Also worth pointing out, she suggests, is that even when supplied to children, these devices are provided strictly as privileges, and that parents should ultimately remain in control of them and revoke usage rights if either family or school rules aren’t followed.

In addition, kids this age will quickly embrace instant messaging and chat functions, whether through online services, dedicated desktop software programs, or via mobile devices. Make sure they’re only connecting to and conversing with people they know, educate them as to the potential dangers of meeting strangers online, and don’t be shy about researching and tracking these interactions if you feel there’s a potential problem.

Of potential interest to today’s parent – studies show that most kids receive their first mobile handset between the ages of 12 and 13. But before many kids make the leap to having their own phone, more possess their own digital music (MP3) or portable media player, handheld video game system or mobile device that can connect to the Internet and be used for texting, e-mails and song downloads, such as an iPod. However, adults may not always realize just how much power they’re placing at children’s fingertips.

“When many parents give 10 year-olds an iPod, they’re not realizing that they’re giving them a pocket computer,” says FOSI’s Stephen Balkam. So don’t just fully research and understand the features and capabilities of any high-tech device before putting it in kids’ hands. Be sure you are also closely watching the apps they download, services they subscribe to, and programs they use, and consider setting up built-in controls or installing third-party software to filter the content children consume. Also, be aware that if such options are offered, kids will likely be syncing connected devices to wireless networks, giving them full access to the Internet as well.

Social Networks: Although kids technically can’t join social networks until they’re 13 years old, they’re by now going to be heavily exposed to popular mainstream sites and services such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest. Even if they can’t ostensibly register for an account while still a tween, know that many workarounds exist as well, as children can easily utilize another family member’s Facebook profile or search for Twitter users and tweets without even needing to be logged into the service. Take caution, care, and appropriate steps to educate children about social networks, content contained within, and potential issues and influences they may be exposed to through them. At the very least, it will help lay the groundwork for future discussions, which will soon become unavoidable as kids get older and usage amongst their friends becomes more ubiquitous.

Tips:

  • At this age, you still should enforce a transparent password policy with your kids. Make it clear that you need to know their account information for any activity or program they’re using that requires a user login. Keep detailed notes on this information, and set rules that if you discover that any inappropriate activities or actions have taken place, these can be grounds for immediate restriction or loss of privileges. Just as you as a parent shouldn’t be doing anything online that you wouldn’t be comfortable showing your family, there shouldn’t be anything that your kids are doing online that requires being kept secret as well.
  • Teach kids what they need to know to spot something fishy, whether a piece of questionable content or unscrupulous individual. Ensure they’re equipped by this age with a basic awareness of predators, criminals, shady characters, online scams, and potential sources of erroneous facts and misinformation. Cultivate a healthy sense of skepticism without instilling a sense of fear or powerlessness, and let kids know that they have a place to turn when questions or concerns arise.
  • Each family should also, by this stage, have a discussion about buying new apps, music or digital downloads, what types of content is acceptable to consume, and how it may be enjoyed – then set a household policy that all members agree to abide by. Be sure to consistently apply and enforce it as well.
  • Treat texting like calls when kids are first starting out with cell phones. Restrict its usage, then relax the reins slightly, relenting more as kids learn to become more responsible users. But always be careful about the plan you select, and certain to regulate and enforce policies about appropriate access times, uses and messaging limits.
  • While placing your family’s main computer in a common area may help deter some of kids’ more ill-advised explorations, it’s important that you check up on their activities if they’ve been left alone with the PC. Don’t forget to check your browser’s history and find out which sites they’ve been accessing. Likewise, you may also wish to do so regularly with mobile devices, to see what your kids have been up to recently – and whom they’ve been up to it with.
  • Discussions should continue at this age regarding online safety, netiquette, and digital citizenship, and progress into more complex topics or trains of thought, e.g. some of the consequences that may arise from the online bullying of other children. Now is also a vital time to revisit the subject of what is and isn’t OK to share online, especially given the ready availability and permanence of information uploaded to the Internet. As many smartphones offer built-in digital cameras, you should also be teaching kids the importance of protecting both their own and others’ images, and not distributing photos or videos of third parties without their consent.
  • Know your cell phone plan inside and out, and make a point of reviewing bills and statements on a regular basis. There’s no reason for you to be surprised by exorbitant charges or unusual activity at this point.

For more on these topics, also be sure to see Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.

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