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Kids and technology: Age appropriate guide

Tracy B. McGinnis is creator of www.caffeinatedpen.comHer work has appeared in dozens of magazines on variety of topics. For more diet and fitness articles, click here.

What's the right age?

Technology continues to bring us the latest and greatest, and kids are just as eager as adults to get their hands on the newest gadgets. But how young is too young to let your child set up her own Facebook page or text her friends on her own cell phone?

Girl on a cell phone

It's nearly impossible to shield your children from technology -- even preschools are using iPads these days. However, that doesn't mean you have to immerse your children in electronics from a young age. Parents need to think about the maturity level of each child, as well as the consequences of too much screen time, before buying cell phones, tablets and other gadgets for their children.

Cell phones

It's pretty common to see teens talking and texting on their cell phones, but in recent years, younger and younger kids are also getting cell phones for a variety of reasons.

Whether it's making sure their child gets home safe from school or wanting to keep in touch while away from one another, some parents are opting to get their child a cell phone for those quick calls to check in -- as well as for emergencies that need attention.

If you're thinking about getting a cell phone for your child, but have concerns they may be too young, spend some time thinking about the reasons you're getting the phone and research what types of phones and service options are available for younger kids.

Kajeet has gotten recognition for being a tween- and teen-friendly cell phone service because of its parental controls -- which include blocking calls, pictures and text messaging, as well as setting time limits. With Kajeet and WalletManager, you can have your kids help pay for their plan with allowances to help teach responsibility, while at the same time giving them some of the independence they're looking for. For the safety parents are looking for, Kajeet offers GPS in addition to its parental control capabilities.

Tablets

Having a family computer in your home is great. Kids can use it for everything from playing video games to researching for homework assignments. A family computer is easy to monitor, particularly if you keep it in a common area of the house -- like the family room -- where you can keep a watchful eye on your children's online activities.

But the day will come when your child wants a portable computer -- a laptop or, more commonly these days, a tablet. And of course, it's not so easy to keep an eye on a portable device. So at what age should you allow your child to have his own tablet? There are a variety of factors to consider.

Cost -- When your children are young, you might not want to spend several hundred dollars on a tablet if they aren't quite careful enough or responsible enough yet to handle it. If you do choose to allow your preschooler or other young child to use a tablet computer, make sure it's used only with direct parental supervision.

Types of tablets -- You don't have to spring for an iPad for your child. Many companies have created special tablets for kids, from toddlers to tweens. Kids' tablets have apps and many of the other functions available on the traditional "adult" tablets. Check out these top 10 tablets for kids.

Most teens are mature enough to have their own laptop or tablet computer. Talk to your tweens and teens regularly about online safety and take precautions to keep them safe.

  • Talk to your kids about cyber-bullying and online predators.
  • Limit the amount of time your kids spend online.
  • Keep your parental control software up-to-date.
  • Become a web savvy, computer literate parent.
  • Establish rules for computer use.
  • Disable webcams without parental supervision.
  • Explain to your children that you are monitoring their activity to keep them safe.
  • Understand the privacy policies on websites that you and your children use.
  • Report any suspicious activity to the website or authorities.
  • Spend time with your kids offline.

Social networking sites

Girl on the internet

To connect with friends on social networking sites like Facebook, users need to be at least 13 years old. But with difficulty in tracking a user's age, it's important for parents to know what social networks and virtual worlds their kids are using to socialize, and at what age it's appropriate for them to be there.

If you're going to allow your kids to join a social network, consider how much personal information you want public, and set privacy settings so that only certain people are allowed to see their profiles and interact with them. Limiting the amount of time they spend on sites and protecting them from online predators are all real concerns and boundaries that need to be set before they set up their accounts.

While Facebook and others may have age requirements, other sites are specific to younger audiences and provide more gaming features. They may also be more restricted when it comes to socializing online. While these sites may seem less threatening to younger audiences, parents should never assume predators are not trying to access kids, and personal information should remain guarded.

Sites like BunkiMunki, Club Penguin, Everloop, Franktown Rocks and others offer younger children a taste of what social networking is like. However, it's important to teach your children how to interact when not in the virtual world, and make that type of interaction the bulk of how they spend their time. The KidZui browser is also a great option. It frees parents from having to monitor online activities because the browser only shows content and websites that have been reviewed and approved by an advisory board of parents and teachers.

There's no certain age when technology becomes appropriate for kids. It depends on your children's maturity levels and your own family values in terms of what you want them to be exposed to. However, by choosing age-appropriate gadgets, limiting screen time and monitoring your children's activities, they can enjoy all the benefits of technology while reducing many of the risks.

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