Commentary: Parents, putting technology under the tree? Here’s food for thought

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Patrick Snead

Patrick Snead is the head of Battle Ground Academy Middle School.

Stores are swathed in a sea of red and green, holiday music pulsates through their speakers, a myriad of evergreen trees, elves, reindeer and candy canes abound. And just the other day, I saw a man on a motorcycle dressed as Santa merging onto Interstate 65! 

There is no denying the fact that the holiday season is already in full swing. For parents, this can be a stressful time to find the perfect age-appropriate gifts for children, and more often than not in today’s world, many will use this opportunity to purchase various high-tech items such as tablets, laptops or cell phones. 

Parents today are often left to wonder, when is the right time for their child to receive his or her first smart device, and, unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Yet, research shows that the average age for children getting their first phone or tablet is getting younger and younger each year. According to the latest survey conducted by Influence Central, the majority of children today receive their first phone at 10.3 years old, and more often than not, it seems like receiving such a device has become a rite of passage for adolescents nationwide. 

As a middle school principal, I see the significance these devices play in the lives of students today each and every morning. Despite the fact that phones may not be used or accessed during the school day, children will exit their car and put on their backpacks, and more often than not, they can be spotted clutching their most prized possession in the palms of their hands. These devices provide children a connection to the world through games, social media, texts, calls, etc. So, these much-sought-after items can make quite a positive splash when received as a gift. Yet, there are numerous long-term factors and risks for parents to ponder while deciding if the timing is right to place a smart device under the tree this year. 

Know Your Child, the Laws and Where to Seek Sound Advice 

A former colleague of mine once told me, “Children are like snowflakes. Each one is completely different.” Thus, there is no secret formula that will indicate when the time is right for children to have their own phone. As adults, it is incumbent on us to consider several key factors. What is the purpose of needing the phone? Is the child responsible enough to keep up with his or her device? Will they be disciplined enough to know when it can be used and put it away when its not? Can they adhere to school rules concerning the appropriate use of technology? Smartphone addiction is a real thing, and the internet is fraught with perils for an adolescent, so it is important to set your child up for success by making sure he or she is truly ready for the added responsibility of having a phone and not being put in a position to fail.

According to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act ("COPPA") children under the age of 13 are not allowed to participate in social media unless they have explicit permission from their parents. Social media is not for everyone, and there are pros and cons that come with the territory. Parents are encouraged to learn about the apps and platforms their children want to use before granting permission, as these platforms can lead to the sharing of a great deal of personal information. 

Additionally, it seems like there are new apps and different ways for today’s generation to communicate via technology released every day. Thus, it is essential for adults to stay ahead of the curve as much as possible. The nonprofit organization Common Sense Media serves as a great resource for those wanting to know more about using technology effectively and offers pertinent information on the subject for each phase of childhood. 

Establish the Boundaries and Stick to Them 

Most children work best at school when the parameters are known and well-established. Simply put, there is nothing wrong with having expectations and boundaries tied to the use of all electronics. Basic rules, such as no electronics at the dinner table or in the bedroom, etc. 

ConnectSafely.org, an organization based out of Silicon Valley that is dedicated to educating users of connected technology about safety, privacy and security, has adopted a contract for the appropriate use of technology. This simple one-page document allows families to place clear, positive expectations regarding how technology should be used. Families can make their rules for the very beginning and continue to have meaningful conversations while reinforcing what it important. 

“Trust, but Verify” 

As a product of the 1980’s, I am reminded of President Ronald Reagan and find his “Trust, but verify” quote applicable in my daily work with tweens and 

teens. It’s important for children to be provided with opportunities to make the right choices, but adults must also be in a position to provide and enforce oversight. 

Knowing passwords, keeping up with your child’s social media presence and adding apps such as Bark, Qustodio or Kaspersky Safe Kids to monitor and restrict usage should not be though as prying or meddling; rather, they offer a “safety net” to support children are they grow and mature in their appropriate use of technology. 

Don’t Forget the Mirror Effect 

It is also important to consider what we model, we encourage, so it is imperative for us to mirror what we want children to emulate and reflect. Do we model the behavior we wish to see? If we are to expect our kids not to be glued to their screens, they we must do the same. 

Children observe how we use our technology each and every day. While working in a school where all students in grades five-12 have their own device, I constantly see and hear teachers encouraging students to put their iPad down or providing instruction and reminders on the proper use of their devices, while also trying to model the proper use of technology in front of students. In short, proper use of technology is a factor in every facet of a child’s life, whether on campus or at home, and we, as adults, need to provide the necessary guidance as children learn to hone and grow their own skills. 

There is no denying the fact that it is a daunting task to raise children in today’s technology-driven world, and all parents must decide when children should enter the digital age. As adults, we want to provide for their happiness, yet protect them at the same time, so it is important to remember during this time of giving that we are not alone in this journey, and each of us are encouraged to weigh the short- and long-term ramifications that technology provides. 

Having a plan in place that addresses your family dynamics and wishes when the timing is right for gifting electronic devices might also help make your holiday season just a little merrier and brighter, and I wish you much success in making the best choice for you and yours. 

Patrick Snead is the head of Battle Ground Academy Middle School

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