How to be an iParent

Tips for parents on navigating an app, app world

Do you remember the last time your family fought over what radio station to listen to in the car? Nowadays, with built-in car DVD players and hand-held video games, many kids are more apt to be isolated on their own entertainment island rather than squabbling over classic rock vs. Frank Sinatra. Remember being a teen and sneaking into a closet to carry on “personal” conversations on the one family phone? Thanks to cell phones, that rite of passage is pretty much obsolete.

As technological devices continue to hit the market at lightning speeds, many parents are caught between clamoring requests for the hottest new gadget and legitimate safety concerns. Experts agree that there are no hard and fast guidelines as to when certain technologies are appropriate for specific age groups, but they do agree that knowledge of technologies and open conversation can help parents make the best decisions for their families.

“Each child matures differently. Some may be ready to use cells or the internet responsibly at age 10, others not till age 14 or even 18,” explains Denyse A. Variano of the Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Some signs would include responsible care and use of personal equipment, understanding the implications of what will be vs. what can be shared, emotional and social maturity, able to follow guidelines and willingness to partner with parents. Again, no one age — that is why our whole theme is ‘talk with your child’ as these technologies are being introduced and used.”

What are the must-have technologies today?

  • Cell Phones–Parents may be shocked when their first grader comes home from their first day of school asking for a cell phone, or when their 8th grader bemoans that he is the only child in class without a smart phone. Once considered the height of luxury, more and more parents are finding that cell phones are a necessity. “I decided that it was time for my son to have a cell phone when he was forced to borrow other kids’ cell phones in order to call me,” says Katie Gordon of Ellenville, whose son Reilly was 13 when he got his first phone. “The school office phone gets locked at 4pm and after school activities go much later than that. He’s been online since he was 7 years old, he’s very tech-y and I trust him to do what’s right.” 

    There are several cell phones created for children in the 8-11 age group such as the Firefly and TicTalk. These phones, designed with kids in mind, have features such as: age appropriate games, pay-as-you-go options, and calling restrictions. For parents who want the most stringent security, phones such as these are a wise option.

    But when your child begins asking for a cell phone, be prepared for requests for the models with all the latest bells and whistles. While no parental controls are absolutely foolproof, there are restrictions available to help ensure that your child has a safe and age-appropriate cell phone experience. Because there are so many different cell phones, all with different capabilities and features, there are different ways to monitor and restrict usage. Content filters control what multimedia content can be downloaded to a phone. Usage controls can restrict functions such as what time cell phones can be used, specify what numbers can be dialed and limit how many calls and or text messages can be sent per month. Location controls can monitor your child’s whereabouts through the cell phone’s GPS system. Your service provider can advise you what specific controls are available on your child’s phone.

  • iPods/iPod Touch—Once upon a time, an iPod was merely the hottest portable music player around. Nowadays, the must have gadget of the day amongst the teen and tween scene is the iPod Touch. Aside from being a media player the iPod touch is also a mobile wi-fi platform, allowing users to access the internet through the device. Despite the trepidations a parent may have about allowing their teen to have the internet at their side all day long, there are parental controls built into the iPod touch which can restrict what websites can be visited and what content can be downloaded or purchased. For parents who want to go above and beyond, there are mobile apps available for purchase which can be downloaded to the device in order to further restrict objectionable content.

  • Video Games—You may remember heading down to the local pizza parlor to play Asteroids or Space Invaders, but this generation will most likely remember playing intricate and advanced role playing and strategy games alongside people in Japan from the comfort of their own bedroom. Parents used to worry about the effects of violent video games on children, but with most consoles offering online access, players can compete and interact with other players from all over the planet which brings more parental concern to the table. Fortunately, there are controls available on consoles such as the Playstation 3, the Nintendo Wii, and the Nintendo DS/DSi. These controls can be custom set to block video games with a mature rating, limit online functionality and restrict online gaming purchases.

When deciding whether to cave into your child’s latest request, it’s important to remember that no method of monitoring usage is completely foolproof. Children tend to be more technological-minded than adults and all too often, can figure out ways to circumnavigate parental controls. That’s why it’s advisable for parents to become famiar with the latest technologies and to have open conversations with their teens about guidelines for use.

“Be careful and consistent,” advises Variano. “Make expectations for use clear: be respectful to those you communicate with and be aware of disclosing personal information to others, both strangers and friends. Never share personal codes with anyone. Work out a plan for use with the children, rather than impose one on them and let them know you will be checking their usage histories. The best thing is to have conversations with your children early and often, and rely on trust rather than tracking systems.”

Courtney Bonfante is a writer living in Marlboro with her husband and toddler. She works in social media marketing.