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Challenge: Kids and Technology

Giving your child a smartphone or tablet this holiday season? Read this first

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A lot of parents (and maybe Santa) will be giving kids smartphones or tablets as holiday gifts.

I spend a lot of time in the community speaking to parents in the community about the three Big Bads; pornography, cyberbullying and sexting, but I am not anti-technology — in fact, I am quite a fan. There are loads of safety and social benefits to technology. Like money or alcohol (or the Kardashians), I don’t think smartphones are evil in and of themselves. I think it’s more about what you do with them … and, though I am aware and deal regularly with the dark side of media use amongst tweens, I also see opportunities for our kids to learn and grow into thoughtful digital citizens.

The fact that the bad news is part of the deal is not a signal to avoid technology or "protect" our kids from the internet. Rather, it’s a call to start the "Tech Talks." Much like the sex talks, it’s about a bunch of regular, smaller talks which ideally begin the moment we put a connected device into our child's hands. So, I’d like to share a couple of thoughts with parents for this upcoming season.

Your child WILL be online in some way. Things have changed a lot in the last couple of generations, but these things seem pretty future-proof. In 50 years, there may or not be television the way we know it now, but there will be some connecting device we carry around with us. As parents we need to help teach our offspring to manage their devices well, and I advocate starting this when they are relatively young and still kinda/sorta open to our influence.

Some parents don’t want to go there, but I find myself frequently explaining to parents that this is what basic parenting looks like now: seatbelts, sunscreen, helmets, vegetables and solid digital citizenship.

All roads lead to the internet. We know this now. And our kids need to know how to behave online just we taught them to behave in restaurants. And we didn’t wait until our kids were 17 to do that, did we? Yes, there were mess-ups and spills and we had to get our meals to go sometimes … but our kids learned how to behave in restaurants. Many parents are leery about teaching digital citizenship. It can be really intimidating, frustrating and as messy as a plate of dropped pasta, and it’s so tempting to stick an iPhone in a stocking and say, "Happy Xmas, have fun!"

But we would never do that with a set of car keys, right?

So why would we do that with the whole internet?


The first step to helping your kid be safe and smart online is knowing what your child will be doing with their screens — setting age-appropriate limits, sharing your expectations around behavior and your values, and listening to theirs.

The second step is a basic understanding of where your child will be online. As I explain to my own children, the internet is not a thing — it’s a place. A place populated by millions of others, which makes it super-important to pay attention to behavior (both the others’ behavior and your own). Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook are likely going to be the first places they want to explore. Familiarizing yourself with these platforms is not that different than checking out the skate park or meeting the parents of a friend before a sleepover. In fact, it can be easier, because you can do it from home. But don’t worry that you need to know the ins and outs of every online platform. They can be as different as snowflakes, but the platform doesn’t matter as much if you are clear about your values and expectations, while they are on it — and those won’t change much. HOW the app is used is generally more important than what the app is.

The third step is keeping an eye on them while they learn and grow. The biggest mistakes parents make with this step, in my experience, is failing to explain to the kids that we are monitoring them and/or going at the subject as if they are already doing something wrong. It is important not to approach your kids’ screen use differently than you would any other stage of independence, such as walking home by themselves, using the stove or staying home alone. And clearly explaining to them that you are going to be monitoring their online behavior benefits everyone. This helps provide them a sense of safety as they try something new, gives us a window into their world, reminds them that there is always an audience when it comes to online interactions and helps them develop muscles of restraint and self-control.

In fact, I encourage families to create a family policy or contract for tech, and to make it into a family project. Kids are much more likely to follow the rules if they help create them (and way less likely to complain about the consequences, if they helped come up with them). On my website,, there are template downloads for making family contracts — there is even specifically one for smartphones, and I invite parents, whether your kid has a new device this season or not, to check them out and do whatever you can, however small, to increase your family’s collective digital citizenship and safety this holiday season.

RELATED: Check out our Parents' Guide to Social Media on TODAY

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