It’s that time of year again. Your child has latched onto the dream of owning their very own fill-in-the-blank-device, and they’ve begun their campaign to convince you that they neeeed one or they will be the laughing stock of all their friends.
Suddenly, these beautiful children that you brought into the world, who can’t put together two coherent words when you ask them a simple question, have miraculously summoned all their powers of persuasion to construct an elaborate sales campaign–complete with PowerPoint slide deck–to make their case.
Sure, we did the same thing when we were kids. I remember badgering my mother for the Star Wars Death Star playset to go with all the action figures I’d already accumulated. Maybe for you it was a Barbie Dream House. Or a remote control car. Or an American Girl doll.
The difference, of course, was that these wish list items couldn’t connect us to the interwebs and all the information, people, and potential trouble that today’s devices can. The impact of today’s Christmas gifts is exponentially much greater than any plastic thing Mattel produced in the 80s and 90s.
As you decide whether or not to give in to your little used car salesman, here are a few things to consider.
Any tech device is going to be more sensitive than a toy without circuitry or a screen. And while many handheld devices are becoming more durable, one wrong drop can still mean disaster.
If you’re buying a screen device, consider buying a screen protector: a clear, adhesive sheet of plastic that sticks to the screen. Don’t go with the cheapest on this, as there are a lot of low-quality ones out there.
Also look at cases that are available for the gadget. Something with a cushioned, rubbery inside and a hard plastic outer piece work well. Book-style “folio” covers are good, too. Just be sure they hold the device securely and protect corners when dropped.
One additional note, from personal experience: Be sure to set expectations about keeping the device in the case. My youngest didn’t like how the case obstructed the power button to his Kindle Fire, so he often removed it from the case. Guess what his screen looks like right now?
You should ask the question: Can this thing connect to the Internet? And then just go ahead and answer: Yes. Because in the world of electronic gadgetry, it probably does.
Mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, certainly. But also wearable technology, gaming systems, and a growing number of toys.
This brings with it two concerns.
- What can my child get to through this device?
- What information about my child is being tracked or recorded, and how is it being used? Do a little research on the specific device. Google data security <device> and look at some recent information.
Along with understanding how the device may connect, be sure to learn about the parental controls that are available for the device. These may be on the device itself (like restrictions on an iPhone) or may involve changing settings on the service (like Amazon, for the Kindle.)
Some controls allow you to set time limits as well as content limits. Again, a good Google search with the device name and the words parental controls will give you all you need.
For those devices that allow internet browsing, you want to explore your options for filtering that internet connection.
One approach is to purchase filtering software and install it on each device. Do your homework on this, too. For example, Chromebooks are great, but won’t work with some filters because you can’t “install” anything on a Chromebook.
Look at solutions that filter at the router level, like Router Limits, Disney’s Circle, or Koala Safe. The limitation, of course, is that the device is not filtered when away from home or on 3G/4G. Some of these companies are developing add-ons to handle phones and tablets on the go.
Yes, I know, it’s no fun to give a gift and immediately put stipulations on it. We don’t want them to feel like the gift they’ve wanted all year has a handful of strings attached.
Fair enough. But our Lite-Brites, Cabbage Patch dolls, and G.I. Joe sets couldn’t connect us to the world in an instant.
If you already have digital expectations in place, good for you. Do they need to be modified for this device?
Another thing to consider is how the device might affect them physically.
One of the most obvious issues is sleep, as there have been many studies that link late-night screen use and sleep disorders or problems. Consider apps that block “blue light” on devices that allow it, and certainly limit screen use for any device at least an hour before bedtime.
One gift growing in popularity–and decreasing in price–is a virtual reality (VR) headset. Two health concerns expressed about this immersive piece of equipment are the effect on vision (the screen is so close to the eyes) and the dizziness that many feel when using VR. The impact of these known issues on young, still-developing eyeballs and brains is worth considering.
The final question to ask may seem a strange one: How will my child actually use the device?
You might buy a smartphone so they can text, download those great flashcard apps for studying, and keep track of their homework and grades. Just don’t be surprised when you check their phones after 7.3 minutes of use and discover 26 different game apps and a stupid one that turns people into zoo animals.
The English teacher-turned-librarian in me was a little too optimistic when each of our boys got a Kindle Fire. I had homey images of them curling up with a good book on their new screens and reading for hours. Yeah, whatever. I don’t think either of them has read one book on those things.
To be clear, my boys are both strong readers, but they prefer physical books to reading on a screen. The point is to understand and anticipate “actual use” before buying the next device.
Santa didn’t read our family media plan
So, these questions and considerations are fine if you are the one buying the device for your child. But what about grandparents and other family members who want to bless your child with the gift they’ve been asking for? Or what about that accumulation of gift cards or Christmas money, and now your child is begging to take them to Toys “R” Us?
Those are delicate conversations to have, especially with Grandma and Grandpa, who may be even more out of the loop when it comes to the issues with today’s toys and devices. You can be clear with them about your own concerns, and try to educate them with some of the same considerations above. Still, the gift may just magically appear under the tree.
Ultimately, you are the parent and the wellbeing of your child is the key. You must still set limits and have conversations with your child. The fact that this device was a gift doesn’t change that.
What experiences have you had with “digital” gifts? What do you consider before buying your kids a gadget like these?