Many holiday gifts provide kids opportunities to connect with technology, in both good and bad ways

Give young people a package deal of electronic holiday gifts, digital devices and positive expectations and strategies for using them.

For some young people, the holiday season will bring gifts that provide lots of opportunities to electronically connect with others. When kids receive cell phones, smartphones, tablets, laptops, electronic games or other kinds of digital devices, their world can expand significantly and so can the need for communicating with others in safe and responsible ways.

If you’re planning to give one of these presents to a young person you care about, consider giving them a package deal: The electronic device and strategies for using the device in positive ways. Michigan State University Extension urges you to keep the following in mind: 

  • These kinds of devices provide the capacity for being connected online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Work with your kids to create expectations (for them and you) for when to be connected virtually and when to set the digital world aside. Keep in mind that despite being avid users of social media, a Common Sense Media study showed that most teens prefer talking with each other in person as their favorite way to communicate. Help them create these face-to-face opportunities and work with them to find “techno-free” time for family gatherings like meals and other kinds of activities. Learn more about how these opportunities are key to helping kids develop their social intelligence. 
  • Talk frankly with kids about cyberbullying behaviors and be clear about your expectations for communicating in positive and respectful ways online. Share specific strategies that kids can use if they’re targeted by cyberbullying or if they witness it happening to others. Stress that their emotional and physical safety (as well as the safety of others who are at risk) is paramount and that they should never hesitate to tell you about situations they’re concerned about.
  • While there’s a lot of concern and rightly so, about tragic situations related to cyberbullying, it’s also important to help kids recognize that many young people use their voices online in powerful and positive ways. In a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, kids reported that their peers are “mostly kind” to one another online and that many use their voices to respond to hurtful messages and stand up for those who are targeted. Challenge the kids in your life to model these kinds of positive behaviors.
  • Have a discussion about the kinds of personal information to share online. Talk about the importance of not sharing or posting phone numbers, addresses, social security numbers, student numbers, passwords or other kinds of personal identifier information without checking with you. 
  • Many young people (as well as many adults) may have hundreds of “friends” on their social networking sites. It’s likely that many of these include people that kids have never interacted with face-to-face. Stress to young people the importance of never sharing a description, photos or videos of themselves with people they don’t know and come to a clear understanding of your expectations about the kinds of photos and videos that they can share online. Also make sure your kids understand how easy it is for other people to copy these and post them in other places online.
  • Be prepared to have a frank discussion with your kids about sexting, which is defined as the electronic sharing of sexually explicit photos, videos or messages. Learn more about sexting and the potentially very serious outcomes of sending or posting nude or partially nude photos of minors. 

Although many kids (and adults) believe that online information is private or can be easily deleted, help them understand that these postings can become part of a person’s long-term “digital footprint” or “digital dossier.” A short video created by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University illustrates how the digital “tracks” of personal information (such as photos on Flickr, postings on Facebook or the data a credit card company collects about our purchases) live on and can accumulate over the course of a lifespan. Share that since more colleges and employers are looking into what applicants have shared online, it’s important to keep in mind that what kids post now could jeopardize getting into college or getting a job. 

Mobile phone providers are increasingly offering parental controls that let parents manage or limit kids’ mobile phone use. Explore whether these tools would be effective in helping your kids expand and navigate their cell phone usage and help them embrace the power of these and other devices for relating to other people in positive ways. Chances are that young people will benefit from receiving all of these gifts.

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