When my daughter, Katelyn, was 8, we bought an iPad for the family. She began using it that same day, firing up FaceTime to connect with my in-laws in Florida. Soon after, she was iChatting with 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.
As it turns out, she's right on track with her peers. A recent report by the research firm PlayScience found that more than 40 percent of 6- to 9-year-olds own an iPod touch and 14 percent even have their own smartphone. And the other kids surveyed? Most of them have access to their family's smartphones and tablets. Although your child probably has been playing electronic games for a while, the floodgates open around this age, as children use their improved reading and writing skills to text, video-chat, and request new apps, explains Scott Steinberg, author of The Modern Parent's Guide high-tech-parenting series. How should you handle the grade-school surge? Simply tap our digital rule book.
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 so that you control all the digital decisions," says Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of CyberSafe. "You need to check out an app before you let your child play." Unfortunately, you can't rely on the age recommendations in the iTunes Store or Google Play because claims from app developers are unregulated. Instead, Dr. O'Keeffe suggests seeing if the app has been reviewed by Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org/app-reviews), a nonprofit that specializes in evaluating the age-appropriateness of games, movies, books, and more. 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.
Since the iPod touch comes with free texting over Wi-Fi, 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 him that people shouldn't text anything to each other that they wouldn't say face-to-face," says Steinberg. "Explain that written words can often be more hurtful than spoken ones." Also 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. 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. Although you may be worried that texting will actually replace 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.
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."