’Tis the season for tech gifts—or is it?
Anyone thinking of buying a new gadget or game for a child should weigh the pros and cons of high-tech gifts. Consider the child’s age, interests, and abilities. The family’s routines and values, the cost in time and money, and the actual game or device—these, too, should all be assessed before choosing, or not choosing, a tech gift. Whether you are selecting a gift for your own child or for a friend’s or relative’s child, consider the following factors before you make your purchase.
There are games and devices for every age from infancy through adulthood, but that may not mean they are appropriate. While the guidelines printed on the package can be helpful, checking out a review site such as Children’s Technology Review or Consumer Reports may be more revealing. The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) discourages the use of TV or tech-toys for children under the age of two, partly because of concern over healthy brain development. When children get older, the APA strongly encourages parents to watch or play with them.
Preschoolers and early elementary students often enjoy games that offer fun learning experiences. Upper elementary and middle school students tend to prefer things requiring more imagination. By the teen years, problem-solving and competitive games are popular, often involving role-playing such as being a race car driver or a medieval knight. Teens are interested in tech tools and games that let them interact with friends.
Buying based on age-appropriate guidelines also means thinking about the amount of adult supervision required at each age. Smartphones and computers may be used by kids of all ages, but the ongoing need for parents to determine what use is appropriate based on the age of their child is paramount.
Know the Child
Does this girl spend hours outside kicking a soccer ball, or is she glued to her library books? Is that boy easily over-stimulated or distracted? Does that kid keep earbuds in seemingly to tell the world to leave him alone? Will this child share her game with younger siblings? Regardless of the recommended age for a game or device, each child’s personality, strengths, needs, and challenges are all important factors in your decision.
From the child’s point of view, it’s hard to get excited about a gift someone thinks you need, whether you want it or not! For a middle school kid, who you think needs math help, the gift of a math learning game is about as exciting as a box of tube socks.
Consider the Family
Some families spend time relaxing together over a video game or a movie, others head out to the woods to go camping. Parents may be trying to steer kids to get off the couch and go outside to play. Family values may stop a parent from adding the “latest and greatest” new technology to the home.
A loud drum simulator might be great fun for a teen, but if there is a grandparent in the home who requires a lot of rest, or a younger child who reacts badly to noise, it may be a bad choice. If a kid has dropped out of football because his parents are concerned about possible concussions, a football video game may not be a great distraction.
With technology for preschoolers, interaction with adults is often encouraged. Adult supervision is important with many of our tech choices today, but requires time and good family communication. Try to make tech gift choices that fit with the lifestyle of the family.
Tech gifts often have large price tags. They require batteries or electricity to run. When you give a gaming device, the kid will probably want to add to their game library over time. In some cases there are hidden costs. Does it require an Internet connection to play with friends? Take a minute to decide if the gift you are selecting is within the budget of the child and family—both to use and to maintain.
And don’t forget about hidden long-term costs, some of which may be health-related. Increases in childhood obesity are frequently linked to more time spent using technology instead of being active. More young people are showing early signs of repetitive motion injuries from game play and hearing issues from headphones.
How much time does the child have to do activities on this device? Does it match with her attention span? Will it eat up time that the parents would prefer be spent on homework or outdoor activities?
Does the family have the time to support it, manage the use of the game or device, and monitor interactions with other players?
Know the Gadget
Sales staff is there for a reason. Ask questions about how kids use the device and how much it costs to maintain. Try it out yourself while thinking about the kid and the family setting as well as how it will be used. You do not want to give a game and then discover that it involves behavior or language that the parents will not allow.
To get even more insight into a game or device, you can access many reviews of products online. Common Sense Media is a great place to start, but you can also find many reviews simply by typing the name of the game or device into a search engine along with the phrase “reviews for parents.” For example, “Halo: Reach reviews for parents” turns up dozens of reviews geared toward helping adults decide whether that game is appropriate for the child they are considering.
As adults, most of us have considered updating our own phones, going for a new tablet or e-reader, or even trying a voice-command TV. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that our kids are not aware of this! If you find yourself sitting at basketball practice with your laptop and cell phone in full use, they notice that, too. Do you play games for hours on your tablet but think the same behavior would be bad for your kids? Or do you text gossip with friends every day?
While the APA has suggested little to no use of TV or electronic devices with infants and toddlers, research from the Kaiser Foundation shows that 68 percent of kids under two spend more than an hour viewing these devices every day. As a parent, it pays to be mindful of how you use technology to entertain your young child.
Understanding our own use of tech gadgets for work, for play, and just for distraction, is important if we are to demonstrate balanced use to our kids.
Consider Some “Medium-Tech” Options
A friend’s son was not sure what to make of the train set his uncle gave him last year, but every time his uncle visited throughout the year, they spent a lot of time with it. They also went to train shows and added to his set. This gift of an automated toy was also a gift of time with his uncle. Highly interactive!
My own personal favorite gift for many years was a chemistry set my aunt gave me when I was seven. It led to my future success at science fairs, but also was just plain fun to use to grow crystals, predict weather, and many other things.
There are many other gadgets that may interest a kid without going into the super-new-high-tech mindset. Telescopes to see the moon’s craters, binoculars for watching garden wildlife and interesting clouds, simple sewing machines to make camping stash bags, and kits to build solar charging stations for cellphones are just a few.
Hopefully, whether you give a high-tech gift or something else, the experience will help you connect with the child. The gift may entertain or educate, but the time and shared experience is a valuable part of the gift as well.
What tech tools and gadgets are you considering this year for yourself and your family? What past purchases or gifts have endured as favorites over time?
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