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Is Your Child Ready for a Smartphone?

5 questions to determine if you should buy the season's most popular gift.

Child Getting Cellphone
Source: Josdim/Dreamstime

A survey conducted by SellCell last holiday season revealed that 4 in 10 U.S. parents with children between the ages of 13 and 18 (40.7 percent) planned to give their child a smartphone. It was the most popular gift choice, followed closely by gaming consoles (30 percent), cash (22 percent... probably so kids could buy their own cellphones and gaming consoles), and computers, laptops, and tablets (17 percent).

This year, due to coronavirus, kids are online more than ever. They need screens for schoolwork and to maintain social connections with peers and family. So it stands to reason that the smartphone and other types of screens will be even more popular to give.

This, of course, begs the question: Is your child ready for a connected device that could potentially give access to anyone, everyone, and everything… at any and all times? That’s an awful lot of responsibility, especially for a child who may still need to be reminded to wear a jacket during a snowstorm or to start their homework before bedtime.

Parents often want to be told the “perfect” age to bestow this gift upon their child. But, frankly, there is no such age. It’s better to carefully assess your own child to determine readiness. This can be done by asking yourself these five questions.

1. Does your child know how to manage his digital reputation?

Everything we post online stays online forever. It can be seen by anyone and everyone, and even if you decide to delete whatever it is you posted, it can be still saved and shared by others. Today, our digital reputation is often the first impression we give the world, and the Internet is flooded with examples of kids whose posting mishaps have cost them dearly. Lost opportunities to attend that dream college or to get the perfect job are not uncommon. This may be too much for a new smartphone owner to wrap his young head around.

2. Does your child know how to make and maintain safe online relationships?

Many kids are unemotionally prepared to deal with cyberbullying or being approached by a predator or know what to do if they are asked to send or receive a sexually explicit photo or message. Your child may not be equipped to deal with revenge porn or sextortion (or even know what those words mean). Even though positive online experiences are far more common than negative ones, kids still need to know what to do when they encounter something scary or harmful. If they don’t, they are just too young to be connected.

3. Does your child know how to protect her privacy and personal information?

In the excitement to sign up for new apps and services that let them share, well, everything with friends, many kids unwittingly give away too much personal information, especially when those too young to know better use social media. (Three-quarters of children between ages 10 and 12 have social media accounts, despite being below the minimum age requirement.) Does your child know that all those fun free apps and services aren’t really free at all? The cost is their personal information, a valuable commodity. And does your child know what those who harvest her information do with it, or how her online experiences are customized based upon the personal information they collect?

4. Does your child know how to unplug?

By their own accounts, half of teens say they feel “addicted” to their devices. Have you equipped your child with strategies (and reasons) to unplug from his virtual worlds and plug into “real” life now and then? Will your child even recognize when he has spent too much time online. Does he know about the “addictive” features that the tech industry employs to capture and hold on to his attention?

5. Does your child know how to think critically about the information she finds online?

Online misinformation is at an all-time high. Does your child understand that anyone can post anything online? That means she should stop to evaluate online information for its accuracy, authority, currency, and bias.

Does she understand how to report “fake” news, recognize clickbait, and know never to share something she has not first verified as true? Not knowing how to do all of this leaves kids vulnerable to media manipulation and continues to wreak havoc upon our civil discourse.

We're Just Getting Started!

Although these five questions just begin to scratch the surface of all the things kids should know before they use a connected device of any kind, they're a good place to start. If you detect your child isn’t fully educated about the topics above, consider putting on the brakes. Better yet, ask your child’s school if they are teaching digital citizenship or literacy to prepare students for a digital world full of promise and pitfalls. Because whether that smartphone, tablet, computer, or laptop arrives during these holidays or next, sooner or later, your child is going to have to use these devices. Hopefully, that means he will be using them safely and wisely.

More from Diana E. Graber M.A.
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