In today’s wired world, being knowledgeable of—and comfortable with—digital technology is just as vital to academic and professional success as being able to read, write, and do arithmetic. In fact, both educators and tech experts now refer to technological know-how as a “new type of literacy.” And it’s not hard to understand why, considering large portions of children’s everyday lives have gone digital, be it at school with a SmartBoard or laptop or during leisure time with a tablet (and other devices) for entertainment.
“[Kids] are learning the tools that everyone’s using in today’s market,” says David Baszucki, CEO and founder of ROBLOX, a user-generated gaming website popular among school-age children. “In the old days, you needed to know cursive writing and how to add long numbers. Today you need to know Twitter, Instagram, and tablet computing.”
As technology is woven into their education and social life, it’s extremely prudent—and many would argue absolutely essential—that children be raised with at least the basic skills needed to use personal computers, smartphones, and, of course, the internet in general. The challenge for parents is in helping cultivate a passion for digital learning while also making their children mindful of the risk factors at play and helping them to self-monitor their digital consumption habits.
“It’s so important for a child to have the interest in, and appreciation for, how technology plays into our daily lives,” says Michael Zigman, co-founder of i2 Camp, a growing network of STEM enrichment programs for middle school students.
Just like with reading and math, there are certain technological skills that most children should master by certain ages, though of course it varies from child to child. The first milestone: Around age 5, children should know the basics of using a computer—how to turn it on and off, how to use a mouse, and how to type on a standard keyboard, says Mike Fischthal, CEO of The Pixel Academy, a Brooklyn-based digital learning center for kids that teaches videogame design, computer programming, app development, and more. But once children start to venture online, parents need to be clear about privacy and cyber safety.
“At age 5, 6, or 7, what it means to be ‘savvy’ is [knowing] how to be safe,” says Rebecca Levey, co-founder of KidzVuz, a website where kids can make and share videos with their peers. “[Children] need to know not to give out their real name and not to share passwords with their friends.”
In many schools, students begin to do online research for class by grades 4 or 5, so it’s important that they be comfortable using the internet by that point, Levey adds. By age 10 or so, children should have regular internet access at home, though it’s a good idea for parents to communicate with teachers about reliable research sites.
The middle school years are typically a time for kids to become more and more literate with typing, online research, and even some website creation of their own. Beyond social and safety concerns, parents don’t need to limit what their child can do technologically, especially if they turn out to have a knack for areas like web design or programming. While coding may remain a mystery to many parents, it’s not out of the realm of possible skills for an 11-year-old to acquire. “If they start around age 7 or 8, they [could] create web pages, create apps, and have an idea in their brain of how the coding world works,” Fischthal says.
By the time high school rolls around, most kids should be comfortable handling almost all types of basic technology, whether it be a tablet, video game console, or the ins and outs of the internet, says Warren Buckleitner, editor and founder of the Children’s Technology Review.
While there’s no “right” age for kids to own personal gadgets, experts agree that ownership, modified by parental rules and oversight, facilitates learning and control. “To have their own computer opens up a lot of doors that a many parents aren’t comfortable with, but having something that’s theirs, something that they can mess around with and install things on, and even break, is the best way to learn,” Fischthal points out. “If you keep them away from the internet, then you’re only going to encourage them to sneak on it by themselves—and odds are they’ll find their way to something you don’t like.”
While it’s quite common for parents to allow toddlers to play with age-appropriate apps on smartphones and tablets, then a few years later permit them to have hand-held gaming consoles like the Nintendo DS, for many families, a big crossroads in digital ownership is when to buy your child a cell phone. In NYC, that often happens around age 10, according to Levey, when students begin walking home from school without adult supervision. Many families will have shared computers around this age, but by the time your children are in the thick of middle school, Buckleitner says, they’re going to want their own laptop. By high school, he says, students have the cognitive skills to more fully understand what kinds of material are inappropriate to post on the web—though, of course, that doesn’t mean they’re always going to use good judgment.
For all the ways that technology helps our children, there’s no denying that it presents risks, too. “The internet contains great things and horrible things and everything in between—and these things can have life-long consequences,” Fischthal notes. Plus, it can be hard to take a measured view of issues like cyber-bullying and child predators, because, as Levey points out, all the media attention on these issues makes those threats seem more prevalent than they are. At the same time, the threats do exist—and they’re often exacerbated by the power of social media.
“Social media rapidly amplifies the impact, and consequences of, bad or immature behavior,” Levey says. “A photo, email, or video can be shared at the click of a button, making it easier than ever for a kid to be embarrassed on a large scale.”
Buckleitner can reference many tragic stories about how a friendly prank or a photo from a sleepover can go viral and cause a child to have to change schools—or even prevent someone from getting a job as far as ten years into the future. “No matter how young [children] are, and no matter how far away job prospects may seem, parents should still sit down and have these conversations with children,” he says.
The fact that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have minimum age restrictions probably spares many young kids a lot of embarrassment, but scores of underage users lie about their age (often with their parents’ permission and help). And the reality is that many children will have been members of popular social sites for pre-teens like Club Penguin and Webkinz long before they turn 13, which experts actually argue isn’t such a bad thing.
“It’s so important that they’re connected to their peers,” Buckleitner says. Building friendships is a large part of any child’s social development and identity. And as Fischthal also points out, the earlier kids start having contact with each other in a digital environment, the earlier they can learn from both their positive experiences and from their mistakes.
One common viewpoint rings true for most parents, experts, and educators alike: Supervision is essential from the moment your child has access to a computer or cell phone, be it their own device or a shared one. Levey recommends that parents always know the passwords to their children’s devices and check in on which apps their child is using. Buckleitner not only agrees but he also encourages parents to insist that their children inform them of their passwords as a prerequisite for internet use. “You might make a rule that stipulates: ‘I’ll let you have a Facebook account, but you have to let me keep your passwords—not as a cop, but to manage your information and to help in case you forget it.’”
Buckleitner’s proposal might sound like a bit much to parents struggling to find a comfortable line between encouraging safe, responsible behavior online and granting their kids more independence and privacy, but most parents and kids can find a common ground that works for everyone. One suggestion that Levey has for keeping abreast of what your kids are doing online without breathing down their necks is simply to join the same social sites they do and follow them openly. In addition, Baszucki recommends keeping computers, personal or shared, in a common space at home, which makes it easier for children to understand that their online activities aren’t ever really private and can be viewed by anyone.
As in dealing with many other issues that arise as children grow up, parents concerned about online behavior should try to establish sensible rules and consequences without seeming too judgmental. The reality is that your children will end up clicking links you’d rather they not see or potentially end up getting a message you’d rather they didn’t. “It’s a part of growing up,” says Fischthal. “But don’t get mad, because then the next time it happens, they may try and hide it—and that’s when it gets dangerous.” He suggests an open door policy where kids can talk about their digital activity or things they’ve encountered online (whether intentionally or not) without worrying that they’ll be punished or restricted in the future.
And while parents should encourage children to report inappropriate behavior that they see, like bullying, they also should have conversations about not mistreating others. “A screen [can] make something feel anonymous,” Levey says, “but if they wouldn’t say something to someone’s face, they shouldn’t be emboldened to say it online.”
Striking A Balance
When it comes to technology and children, an important question for parents to consider is how much is too much. “You need a healthy balance of sitting in front of a computer and going outside and playing,” says Fischthal. “The key is in finding awesome activities that the kids will want to do off the computer.” Better yet, he adds, use that computer as a research tool for what to do in “the real world.”
When it comes to screen time, it’s helpful to have concrete guidelines in place to encourage a healthy balance. For Levey, the rules of thumb are: “Definitely no gadgets at meal time.” Levey says. “Don’t have your kids take their phones to bed with them either.”
With younger children, the biggest challenge in limiting their digital fun is facing their tantrums when you cut them off. With older children, the screen time question gets trickier because it’s so easy for them to alternate between homework and the internet’s infinite outlets for entertainment and socializing on their computers. While there are various tech devices and software programs you can use to monitor and ultimately limit device usage, a more productive path is to have a conversation about homework time and personal goals. Believe it or not, your children may even be grateful for your tips on organizing their study time and leisure time.
While insisting that their children embrace a healthy balance of time with their gadgets and time in the 3D world, parents would be wise to consider striking a certain kind of balance themselves. Call it a matter of perspective. As a child gets older, it’s so easy to get caught up in what’s worrisome about digital technology that you can lose sight of all the things that are wonderful about it. Buckleitner offers a great tip: There are almost always ways, beginning with a Google search, for parents to show children how technology can be used as a helpful tool to dig deeper into their existing interests. If they love music, they can use their smartphone to create a music library; if they love horses, they can watch training videos on YouTube. Show them how technology can enhance, not take over, their real life passions—and while you’re at it, find a few projects that you can pursue together.
Keep reading for a list of kid-friendly tech classes, camps, and social networking websites.