One question I get a lot is how and when to start introducing technology to children. There are so many different ideas on this subject that it is hard to give a straight answer. Every family is different, and each child will have different needs and abilities.
For this reason, initiatives like “wait until 8th” and telling families they shouldn’t allow screens before age 2 can just make some parents feel bad about their parenting. Many of those initiatives don’t take into account the special circumstances and needs of individual families.
My philosophy is to introduce age-appropriate technology at various times. Then as your child masters one level, they can “graduate” to the next level. Many kids will work hard to earn the next level, especially if the next level is a smartphone and they are dying to get one.
The levels don’t necessarily correspond to the age groups, they are just a general guide. If your child is already in Jr. High or High school, you can jump right in. Try to pull a few tips from the previous levels to help them get to the next level.
Level 1: Babies & Toddlers
Obviously babies and toddlers don’t need a lot of technology. But this is a perfect age to introduce them to very simple tech. Both VTech and LeapFrog make really awesome products for this age group, and not everything is screen-based.
The VTech and LeapFrog toys will help teach your toddler colors, shapes, letters and more! I definitely loved the items we had from both companies for my babies and toddlers.
This age can also utilize a family or adult’s tablet or phone. They are definitely not ready for their own quit yet. Just make sure to lock the device to a specific app while they are using it so they don’t end up messing around with other settings or wandering into apps they shouldn’t be in.
Once they have mastered some of these toys, and are showing interest in more advanced technology you can move them up to Level 2.
Level 2: Preschool
Preschool is where kids can get a little bit more advanced with the technology they access. There are so many coding toys available now! Instead of just learning letters, colors, and numbers, they can learn coding basics to help them gain some amazing problem-solving skills.
You can even start to introduce games and toys that are interactive with tablets, like the Osmo. This allows them to still utilize physical objects, but see how they can interact with a digital world.
At this level, you can allow your child to use a tablet that is a family device or even get them their own tablet. I would highly recommend a Kindle Fire for a starter device. The price is right (you can generally find a device under $50 and sometimes even under $30!), it has great parental controls, and amazing content if you sign up for the FreeTime service from Amazon.
Make sure to get a strong case for the device, especially if it will be primarily your child’s device, and add parental controls like Bark (which works great on Kindle devices).
Kids this age can also use the family computer. Websites like ABC Mouse and Starfall are great ways for Preschoolers to learn! Since the computer opens up a little bit more access to the wonderful world of the internet, definitely make sure there are filters in place.
Filters should be on the device itself, and on the broad network. Getting a wifi router like the Gryphon will help ensure that your child doesn’t stumble across anything they shouldn’t see. However, these things still could happen, so make sure you have frank discussions with your child before giving them this kind of access about the things they could come across, and what to do about it when they do see something they shouldn’t.
If they show they can take care of these toys and devices by keeping them in good working order, putting them away when not in use, and showing they can be online without wandering into an unknown or unapproved area, they should be able to move up to Level 3!
Level 3: Elementary
This is likely where most families will actually start on their technology journey. Elementary school is when kids are starting to gain a little more independence. They are learning to do things on their own, and interact with technology a LOT more.
Many schools utilize Chromebooks during class, assign homework that can only be done online, and generally require more technology use out of your children. Hopefully, you have already laid a foundation of communication with your child so they can come to you or a trusted adult if they see something they shouldn’t in any of these locations.
If you haven’t, definitely start these conversations with your child now. Make sure they understand the dangers that can be online from pornography to predators to phishing. Prepare them in all of the things they will encounter, and when they do there won’t be any shame for them in coming to talk to you about it.
Elementary school is also a perfect age to get them some sort of communication device. I highly recommend a Gizmo, Relay Go, or other smartphone alternatives. Make sure any device you give them has the ability to limit calls and texts to specific numbers or people.
Children in elementary school should NOT have social media accounts. The COPPA restrictions require Facebook and Instagram and others to ensure that children under the age of 13 are prohibited from joining their social networks.
Kids this age CAN have some basic social aspects of their technology, like Facebook Messenger Kids from an old phone with no service (only wifi access) or through games like Animal Jam, NOT ROBLOX!
Ensure that any device that your child uses has parental controls in place like Boomerang. Also that you have filters and controls on the Wifi through a router like Gryphon. Restrict the device to make sure that your child is not able to download apps without approval and that there are set time limits on the device itself.
Have them prove they can take care of the access and devices given to them at this level. Do they remember to bring their watch when they head to their friend’s house? Have they had to replace the device due to neglect? Is everything still working properly? Are they being careful about what they say online through the communication they are currently allowed?
These are all questions that should be asked before moving your child up to the next level!
Level 4: Jr. High
By the time kids are done with Jr. High, most will have a smartphone. Honestly, before they START Jr. High most will likely have a smartphone. I like making my kids prove they can be responsible in the previous level before they can graduate to a smartphone.
I say this often, no 14-year-old boy wants to text his friend’s mom to see if they can come over to hang out. Most of the time the kids without a smartphone just end up getting left out.
In their first dip into smartphone ownership, there will need to be a lot of controls, monitoring, and conversations. I recommend multiple layers of protection including controls on the device itself like Google Family Link, Boomerang and Bark. Protecting the device on wifi network and on the service provider with programs like Verizon’s Family Safety is also important.
Whatever you do, do NOT let your child’s first phone be an iPhone. They are much harder to control and monitor than Android devices.
Make sure you check up on your child frequently. You can also allow them after they turn 13, some social media. I like to stick to apps that can be monitored like Instagram, and the other social apps that Bark can monitor. Don’t let them download anything from my top 10 list though!
As your child proves they can have appropriate conversations on their phone, take care of their device, and follow all of your tech rules, like finishing chores and homework before using their device, they may be ready for the next level!
Level 5: High School
During high school, your child is getting much closer to being out on their own. As Juniors and Seniors, they are starting to prepare for college and will need to know how to manage themselves by the time they leave the house.
Generally, I loosen the reigns a bit little by little as they continue to prove themselves worthy. At this point, if they really want an iPhone, I have no problems with giving them one. That is if they have proved themselves trustworthy enough with an Android device.
You can also open up a few more social media apps if they want to use them. At this stage, I would still limit the time they spend on their device. Lock it down at bedtime, and require approvals for apps. I would back off a bit on the monitoring though, and only spot check occasionally.
As they get closer to 18, you can remove various restrictions so they can start to manage themselves. Hopefully, if you’ve taught them well enough through all the other levels, they will be able to be amazing digital citizens!
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Sarah Kimmel is a digital parenting coach and family tech expert. She has spent the last 16 years of her career as a Microsoft Certified IT Manager supporting over 100 small businesses. During that time she started Family Tech LLC to help families understand and manage the technology in their home. She has regularly appeared as a family tech expert on KSL News, BYUtv and Studio 5, and has been invited all over the world from tech companies like Lenovo, Verizon, Microsoft, Dell, and Samsung. Find out more on her website SarahKimmel.com