When my daughter, Katelyn, was 8, we bought an iPad for the family. She began using it that same day, firing up video chat to connect with my in-laws in Florida. Soon after, she was messaging friends about homework, Club Penguin, and playdates. Although I was glad that Katelyn could show her grandparents her Girl Scout patches, I worried that things were moving too fast.
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Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a clinical neuropsychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas, recommends keeping screens away from kids for as long as possible. "You can’t prevent children from using screens, but you can delay it...that's easier than taking them away once a child knows what they are," says Holland, who's also an assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical.
As it turned out, my daughter was right on track with her peers. A 2017 survey by Common Sense Media—a nonprofit that specializes in evaluating the age-appropriateness of games, movies, books, and more—found that more than 40 percent of American children age 8 years and younger have their own tablet. And the other kids surveyed? Most of them have access to their family's smartphones and tablets.
How should you handle this grade-school surge in screen use? Follow our digital rulebook to find out.
Knowing the Pros and Cons
Smartphones and similar devices can give parents a much-needed break by keeping kids entertained, but Holland cautions not to rely on them too heavily—boredom is an important part of childhood development.
Watching a screen "doesn't require a lot of cognitive effort," she explains. "When that is used as a strategy to keep children occupied, the child is not using brain functions to self-regulate and deal with boredom. If those brain functions aren’t strong because they haven’t been exercised the way the brain needs, it can be a problem later in life.”
To develop strong attention spans, young minds "need to be able to focus on things that may not be as interesting as a smartphone game," whether they're in a classroom or at a restaurant, says Holland.
With options like Messenger Kids, a messaging app launched by Facebook for children ages 6 to 12, many kids are starting to text at a younger age. "My 7-year-old son, Carter, messages his best friend all the time," says Jennifer Mason, of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. "Often it's just to say hi, but sometimes they chat about Legos or even set up a playdate."
If you decide to allow your child to text, talk to him about the responsibility that it entails.
Tell her if you wouldn't say it in person, don't say it through a screen, advise Evie Granville and Sarah Davis, creators of the website and podcast Modern Manners for Moms and Dads. "The safety (and sometimes anonymity) of sitting behind a screen makes us feel detached from the individuals who will be affected by our words. Parents need to repeatedly remind children that their online actions have real-world consequences," write Granville and Davis.
Let your child know that if he receives a text that makes him anxious or is from someone he doesn't know, he should tell you right away. With Messenger Kids, for example, parents are notified if their child reports or blocks a contact or flags inappropriate content. Parents also have complete control over who their kid's contact list with and can check in on what's being discussed, since messages never disappear and can't be hidden.
Although you may be worried that texting will actually replace in-person time spent with friends, new research on teens from the Center for Children and Families at the University of Texas at Dallas suggests that it extends it. The study found that the majority of texting was with friends. "Texting may be able to help children keep up with friendships outside of school -- whether it's a pal from karate class or someone from summer camp," says Steinberg.
Your child is probably asking you for apps that her friends play or even downloading them herself. "Be sure you have your accounts set up with parental control over all decisions," says Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of CyberSafe.
Unfortunately, you can't rely on the age recommendations in iTunes or Google Play because claims from app developers are unregulated. Instead, see if the app has been reviewed and rated by Common Sense Media. If not? "Play the app yourself for a few minutes to decide whether it's okay," suggests Dr. O'Keeffe. "Not every app has to be educational, but it shouldn't be violent or sexual."
Be especially careful with apps that have a social-media or direct interactive component, such as My Little Pony and Words With Friends. You'll need to disable that functionality if you don't want your child chatting with strangers. Unfortunately, there's not a universal way to do this—you'll have to follow the directions on each app.
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Zooming In On Video
Thanks to Skype and FaceTime, kids can easily video-chat on iPod touches, tablets, and desktop computers. And by downloading ooVoo, they can talk as a group. It's smart for you to supervise video chatting. There are privacy issues to consider, from the innocuous (your house is a mess) to the potentially inappropriate (your kid might be walking by the bathroom as you're coming out of the shower). At the very least, consider setting ground rules: Choose a location in your house for video calls so your kid is not inadvertently exposing family members. She can't answer a video-chat request until after her homework is done. And when you say it's time for the call to be over, she must politely end the conversation. Once I established these parameters, it's been smooth sailing. In fact, Katelyn feels closer to her grandparents since we bought our tablet. "Technology can enhance family life," says Steinberg. "But you need to establish boundaries."
Limiting Screen Time
Set parameters for when he is allowed to text -- turning off all electronics 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime will help kids sleep better, for instance.