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Managing the Phases of Your Child’s Digital Life

Fred is a nationally-recognized expert on privacy and the impact of emerging technologies on society.

In his marvelously funny book, "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe," British satirist Douglas Adams observed that "The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question 'How can we eat?' the second by the question 'Why do we eat?' and the third by the question 'Where shall we have lunch?'"

With 20 years or so of experience parenting two boys and step-parenting two others, it occurred to me that a child's attitude towards electronic devices also passes through discrete stages. Our job as parents is to understand these phases, and help our children navigate each one on their way to becoming independent adults. Some, of course, are a little trickier to navigate than others.

Phase One: Can I Play with That?

Kids are drawn to electronic devices with the same single-minded intensity with which moths circle flames. In restaurants and coffee shops, airplanes, subways -- in fact, pretty much any public space -- it's not uncommon to see kids as young as 1 or 2 playing with a smartphone or tablet. We can't entirely blame kids, of course, for the fact that they're able to get their grubby little fingers on our devices. After all, we're the ones handing the devices over in the constant search for a few minutes of peace and quiet, or simply the ability to finish just one meal uninterrupted.

As parents, we need to recognize that our kids are basically wired to desire tech toys as soon as they can sit up. We should all think carefully about how much we want to feed into that desire, and whether we should be modeling reasonable tech behavior even when our kids are very young. Your kids WILL want to play with gadgets, so make a plan with your spouse or partner, preferably before you get to the delivery room.

Phase Two: I Want One of Those!

All too quickly, your growing child will want to transition from Phase One (simple use) to Phase Two (acquisition and possession). Part of that is simply developmental: as children get older, they want to exert more control over their world and the things that they enjoy using. Another factor, of course, is peer pressure. With more and more kids carrying their own cellphones (even smartphones!) as early as elementary school, you'll hear increasingly loud pleas for gadget purchases "because Jane has one!" How you respond to those pleas will depend on your own household values and principles, so it's a good idea to have those sorted out ahead of time.

And once again, we need to recognize our own role in the distribution of devices to kids. Not only are we the ones willing to purchase the devices and provide the Internet access, but our own interests often come into play. We may rationalize a cellphone purchase on the grounds of convenience or safety, but sometimes it's really no more complicated than the fact that WE don't want someone else constantly using our phone or tablet. I suspect a lot of kids figure out that "I won't need to use your phone" can be a winning argument. Be prepared for the fact that kids can be ruthless and savvy negotiators.

Phase Three: Let Me Set That Up for You.

Your child's fascination with electronic devices is not entirely negative. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there's a real benefit to having quasi-free tech help close at hand. It's a great way to interact with kids, find out what types of programs and webites they use, and discuss some of the risks. At the same time, allowing kids to help set up and maintain technology is a great way to empower them and give them a sense of responsibility, qualities that will serve you well down the road when they are choosing elder care.

Phase Four: Hey, That's Private!

While the purchasing debates in Phase Two of your child's digital life can be unpleasant, they are minor skirmishes compared to the battles over how much privacy your child expects and how much you should give them. Beginning in middle school and accelerating rapidly thereafter, your child will expect and demand a larger zone of privacy. It's a natural aspect of the maturation process, and is a necessary component of your child's development as an individual. But children dramatically underestimate the risks of online activity, and the need for ongoing education about responsible behavior online. You will be the best judge of your child's maturity and ability to behave responsibly, but don't lose sight of the fact that her ability to do things online will undoubtedly exceed her judgment for much longer than she realizes.

Phase Five: Whaddya Mean, I Have to Pay for it??

For children who have spent the better part of two decades enjoying massively subsidized devices and access to the Internet, it can come as a profound shock that they might actually have to pay for something which they rank only slightly less important than breathing. But of course, taking responsibility for one's utility bills is a pretty standard part of adulthood. Whether your child will be willing to do so voluntarily or will have be nudged a bit will depend on their temperament, their resources, and their upbringing. In the interests of full disclosure, none of our four boys has reached Phase Five yet, and probably won't until they graduate from college. Other parents slightly ahead of us report that this transition is perhaps less contentious than some of the others, but can take much, much, longer.

Good luck to all.

Cover images courtesty of Flickr

Frederick Lane is a nationally-recognized expert on privacy and the impact of emerging technologies on society. He is an author, attorney, educational consultant, expert witness, and lecturer who has spoken to colleges, universities, and school districts around the country on a variety of issues, including student safety, electronic misbehavior, and digital privacy. Lane has written seven books, including most recently “Cybertraps for the Young” and “American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right.” During the course of his writing career, he has appeared as a guest on a variety of national media programs, including: Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”; ABC’s “Nightline” and “Good Morning America Weekend”; CBS’s “60 Minutes” and “Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood”; NBC’s “Today Show” and “Weekend Today”; as well as numerous local and national radio programs. He is currently working on his next book, entitled “Cybertraps for Educators.” Lane recently moved from Burlington, VT, where he served for 10 years as a member of the Burlington School Board, including two years as Chair of the Board. He graduated from Amherst College in 1985 with a degree in Classics and American studies, and from Boston College Law School in 1988. Lane now lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife Amy Werbel, and is the father of two boys, ages 20 and 18. Additional information about his work is available on his Web site, www.FrederickLane.com.


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