Age-appropriate use of wireless devices

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Photo: Arne Kuilman (Flickr)

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The other day a friend was telling me about how a young child sat down to read a book with his mom, I mean an old fashioned paper book, and when it came time to turn the page, the child swiped the page as if working the touch screen on an iPad or Kindle.

You can imagine how perplexing it must have been for the small child.  Was the book broken?

How many of us still receive the old fashioned newspaper? My digital native, now 21 years old, showed me how he gets his news…moving his finger along his smart phone to scroll for headlines in Google news.

It’s a very dynamic, selective process at our finger tips.

Kids are provided access to wireless devices at very early ages. Examples include:

  • Smart phones – handed over by mom or dad to young ones with an age-appropriate game
  • iTouch – which includes access to free apps like texting and chat (which do not require parental approval)
  • Webkinz toys with texting communication built in
  • Kindle – access to books, games, movies
  • Netflicks accounts on iPads
  • CyberBarbie – includes the ability to create and upload videos

So the question about what is age-appropriate in this web-enabled environment is a tricky one.

Primary objective: Grooming your child for self-governance in the network

Photo: soopahgrover (Flickr)

Provide some clarity around age-appropriate levels of access and autonomy, expressed in three basic steps. Think of it as establishing rites of passage:

1) Establish the qualifications for a responsible user for each level of sophistication and autonomy with the device and/or application (social media/texting/games);

2) Establish house rules that reflect those qualifications and your values;  and

3) Ongoing monitoring and security.

The first step is the most critical because it requires personal investment and an age-based framework for modeling the behavior you want to see in your child’s use of mobile technology. It isn’t always convenient.

Examples of  age-appropriate “user level” privileges for home

Under 2 years of age (Tiny tot):

Very limited use of screen if at all. Mostly old fashioned books, toys. This requires more personal time and attention on the part of the care giver. The interaction infants and toddlers require is human.

(Note: This “non-user” level is challenging because the devices are shiny and seductive, and omnipresent. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a study that screen time was not helpful for children under two years of age, and in fact, it could be harmful.  What young children really require is bonding with good old fashioned attention.)

Three to five years old (Early Ranger):

Device is used with a designated monitor; they are not left alone with the device/passwords are not granted. A very limited set of applications or games are permitted, i.e. a “Family approved list” for this age range. Care giver must be able to see what the child is doing. Kids this age learn passwords by osmosis and are intuitive about figuring out how to make applications work. So don’t leave them unattended. Parental controls and filters should be in place, and your child should know what “family approved applications”  for the Ranger user. Also, have some criteria for qualifying to check out the device.

Six to 10 years old (Ranger):

Devices may be issued much like checking out a library book. They are issued for a designated timeframe, and then returned. There are conditions for the privilege of checking them out (whatever criteria you decide, such as homework done, clean rooms, etc.) Parental controls and filters should be in place, and your child should know the “family approved applications” for the Ranger user.

11- 15 years old (Junior Explorer)

At this point, your child understands the importance of setting boundaries regarding who has access to his personal information (phone number, address, where attends school, etc.) and knowing the source of the apps being used. The “family approved list” of apps may be expanded to included the applications that interest your child, and there should be an understanding to seek parental approval before downloading any app.

Use of texting must be with the understanding that you will conduct random checks and that all the communications will be  “E” for everyone. Drill it into them that there is NO PRIVACY in the net.

Social media: If it is possible to hold off until your child is 16 years old to create a Facebook or other social media account – that would be ideal. For kids younger than 16, check out – a kid-friendly, hang out designed with youth and governed to ensure that there is security in their social connections and content is appropriate.

For more on parental control settings for a smart phone, go to:  Privacy breach of smart phone apps present child safety concern

16 and older (Explorer)

Photo: “PictureYouth” (Flickr)

At this point, your child appreciates that there is no privacy, that you will be conducting random checks on texts and posts to social media.  Periodically review and update the house rules for cyber secure communication with your child – especially if they are pushing for more freedoms. Listen and come up with ways to address their needs that are consistent with your family values. Have your child maintain a list of “family approved” apps that she is using and review with you periodically. As with the Junior Explorer user, your minor child should seek your approval before downloading apps – especially free ones which could contain malware and nefarious influences (including predators).

Use of the device is purpose-driven – improve or enhance daily life.  There should be a designated time in the evening that the device is retired and turned into a central place.

For all user levels, pay attention to their reactions, needs and desires, and give feedback and be flexible where you can without violating your values and personal security. Catch them doing things right.  Take an interest in what interests your children, and they will relate better to your custodian role as they pursue and assert their growing independence.



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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna ( and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.