4 Important Things for Parents To Consider When Giving Their Kids A Smart Device

By Tariq Ali

Okay, real talk. You’ve heard the scary news headlines. You’ve heard the recommendations from experts. I’m pretty sure you’ve even judged parents for it when they’re out and about. But anyone who tells me that they never let their children come near any smartphone or tablet is either lying to me, or lying to themselves.

In this dystopic hell-scape, where gigantic corporations keep pushing to us on a daily basis, and the option to opt out of surveillance capitalism rapidly becomes the province of the 1% tech elite, well… we let our kids use smartphones and tablets. Sometimes. Not always.

And I get it! That’s totally valid! But, you know, just because we let our kids use electronic devices, especially when we want them to at least sit through a nice dinner, doesn’t mean that you should do it without some precautions.

Here are some of mine:

Protect Devices Physically

“I can spot a parent by their cracked smartphone screen,ha ha!” “Ha ha ha, yes… caused by child… dropping this smartphone… instead of me… ha ha ha, yes… (starts sweating)” Photo by Ali Abdul Rahman on Unsplash

One of the first things my father got me, when my son was 2, was a second-generation iPad 2 (I think he received it for free from somewhere), and I have to say that one of the best purchases that we made was to get a shock-proof case that was advertised for “military use” (unlikely, knowing the provenance of such things). And up until the device died of battery failure several years later, that device… well, stayed in one piece.

That’s generally the first piece of advice I’d offer to parents who are planning to hand over their device to their kids. At the very least, shock-proof that device with a decent, kid-friendly cover so that your kids don’t shatter the screen at best or require you to get another device. I know it’s usually an additional cost, but it’s the difference of having the device for it’s requisite lifetime (or even longer, since kids don’t really notice or care very much about getting the latest and greatest in tech, unlike their parents), and having the damn thing shatter within 3 months (which also happened to us).

Lock Down Devices for Kids' Use

I’m not much of an iOS fan, but I have to admit that the Apple Store and the environs can be a little safer for kids in some ways, and Apple has often come out for the safety and privacy of their users. But if there’s one glaring lapse that the iOS environment has, is that their child-safety and parental supervision tools? Are terrible.

Up until recently, the only tools available for parental supervision was iOS’s anemic Guided Access tool, which is limited to newer versions of iOS, and third-party (paid products). But thanks to a recent Apple App Store policy, even those third-party paid products are gone. I understand that while there’s talk of more granular control for iOS, those remain in the future, or are likely unavailable to older versions of iOS anyway.

Google’s ecosystem isn’t exactly perfect, but Google Family Link? Is amazing. It allows you to monitor your kids’ access to the device, and with online connectivity, you can even fine-tune their access depending on circumstances like, say, for example, them being sick at home, or it being a public holiday, and the like.

Here's a great pro-tip: when your kid wants access to the smart device, get them to do something or recite something from school before you unlock it. Let's just say it took my child half a day to completely memorize his times tables. Incentives! Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

The only downside is that the tool is only available for Android KitKat and above, but at least there are other third-party options from phone manufacturers or independent developers.

Set and Communicate Meaningful Limits

It’s great that you’ve got all these tools and equipment for controlling access to your kids’ smartphone, but that, really, is one half of keeping your kids safe. The other, more difficult work, involves setting clear lines of communications and sensible limits for your kids.

“Reasonable” of course differs from parent to parent. For some parents it might mean, “While we're sitting down here having a meal so that you don't wander off and get kidnapped by someone”. Photo by Hobi industri on Unsplash

This can go from setting times when they’re allowed to watch or play something on their devices, up to and including getting their buy-in to the limits you set, which could include explaining why you’re limiting their access (as the parent of a child with ADHD, our go-to explanation is that the usage of those electronic devices can take up their energy, which might make them cranky and tired, among other things). But what’s important is that these limits are articulated in a way that they can understand so that they not only know what is being restricted, but also why.

Use Sparingly (and Set a Good Example)

That being said, the jury is still out on how much screen time is too much (although there is consensus that, you know, it might not matter too much in the end). But you know, the ability to recognize unfairness is not something that kids can’t do: I mean, heck, even monkeys can do it, what more kids, right?

Child sees parent on phone, child thinks parents on phones is how grownups be, child wants to be like grownup, child stares at phone. Parents get mad, child gets confused. See what a mess it can be? Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

The reason why I bring this up is that, like many parents, I’ve discovered that kids are way more observant than we credit them, especially with the kinds of rules we subject them to, and what kind of rules we allow ourselves. So if you want your kids to be less dependent on screens, probably the best way for you to do that might be to be more cognizant on how often you spend time on your screens, and to model the kind of behavior you want to see from your kids.

Hey, I didn’t say parenting was easy. It’s work, mate.

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