I was at a birthday party over the weekend for a 13-year-old whose parents got him a mobile phone for his birthday.
He was thrilled with the gift, and his parents were thrilled that he was thrilled. But it was made clear that later, after the party was over and friends and family members had gone home, there would be A Discussion About The Rules.
One thing didn't even need to be discussed; although the family's cell phone plan allowed unlimited texting by every family member, the parents had already arranged with the mobile phone company to disable texting during the hours when the new phone owner would normally be in school.
Many kids will get tech-related gifts this year, and in many cases parents and children will need to come to an understanding. Some children aren't allowed to take their phones to school at all. Other parents like the child to have a phone, which sometimes comes in handy for after-school conversations, especially if the child is old enough to stay after school for extracurricular activities or sometimes goes home with friends. Those parents may simply insist that the phone be turned off and put away during school hours.
In some cases, for phones or laptops or tablets that use data over the cell phone network, the discussion may need to be about limiting the amount of data used. The device's data plan may not support non-stop streaming of movie or video content, and so the parents may need to make sure that there are agreed-upon limits (and consequences for disobeying them).
Some devices come with parental controls that can limit access to certain web sites or other types of device usage. If the device doesn't already come with parental controls, there are parental control apps that can be downloaded and installed from Google Play, the iTunes store or the Windows Marketplace. PC Magazine, in a story last summer, listed NetNanny, McAfee Family Protection, AVG Family Safety, eBlaster Mobile, and K9 Web Protection Browser among parental control apps for smartphones.
Some of those apps allow parents to go back and view a record of how the device has been used.
In some cases, an expensive tech gadget like a tablet or a laptop may end up being shared among family members. One advantage of Chromebook laptops, a stripped-down laptop running Google's Chrome OS operating system, is that most of what the user does on the computer is saved to the cloud and tied to an individual Google account. That way, each family member using the device can log in using a separate Google account and can have their own documents and settings handy.
Of course, parents need to be aware of what their children are doing online. Suspicious friendships or conversations need to be checked out, to make sure that they don't involve online predators.
Tech gifts can be a great thing for a child -- with potential for both fun and education. It's a technological world, and children need to be a part of it and to be prepared for it. But parents need to make sure that involvement takes place in a way, and at a pace, that's right for their individual child.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.