By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media editor
School seems to start earlier every year. One minute you're packing for a week at the beach, the next you're wondering whether your kid really needs a spiral-bound notebook for every single subject, including PE. This year, back to school will bring another big surprise: more technology -- both in and out of the classroom -- than ever before.
Navigating this territory will be a fresh challenge to all involved. Teachers and administrators want to use tech to reach out and relate to students, without disrupting class or skimping on lessons. Parents want to make sure that kids maximize the benefits while minimizing the risks. And kids? They mostly just want to have fun -- and that often means hours spent online, texting friends, or playing games.
Added to the mix is a 24/7 pipeline that can be both a boon (homework help, research, current events) and a bust (hours-long texting marathons, Facebook drama, age-inappropriate content). Managing kids' schedules to provide enough time for schoolwork and activities with a reasonable amount of screen time is a delicate balance.
Here are some of the top concerns we've heard from parents trying to figure it all out.
What's the right age for my kid to bring a cell phone to school?
If kids need a cell phone for safety reasons, their ability to follow the rules is a better guide than their age. Make sure they're old enough to understand that the phone is a tool, not a toy. These basic guidelines should help:
• Check their school's cell phone rules and make sure that your kids understand them and will follow them.
• Choose a basic device (no Internet access, no games, no camera).
• Set clear expectations for responsible use as well as consequences for non-cooperation.
• Make sure they keep it charged -- and that they always answer when it's Mom or Dad calling!
What are the rules about using cell phones at school?
Every school is different, but most allow students to bring phones as long as they turn them off during class. Check your school's rules and make sure your kids are mature enough to follow them. In general, kids should use them sparingly: when they need a ride, if there's an emergency, or if their plans change. And always -- always -- answer when Mom or Dad call.
Should students and teachers be friends on Facebook?
First check with your school. Some have strict rules about teachers and students being Facebook friends on a teacher's personal page. (And we've heard from many teachers who frown upon the practice.) But if the teacher creates a class-wide Facebook page or dedicated Facebook Group, then he or she is most likely using it as a teaching tool. Still, you have the right to investigate further to make sure it's all legit. Some educators are making use of social learning networks like Edmodo, Schoology and Collaborize Classroom for their students to discuss issues, collaborate on projects or just assign and receive homework. Any teacher who requires students to join a social network should send home clear guidelines for how they're using it.
Back-to-school shopping has gotten so ad-heavy. How do I avoid buying into the commercialism?
You may be able to avoid the hard sell at brick-and-mortar stores by shopping online. But that won't solve the problem of your kids getting targeted with back-to-school buying messages through online games, Facebook updates and even YouTube. Help them learn to recognize and avoid clicking on these types of promotions. Beyond that, nurture a healthy sense of skepticism -- what we call "ad savvy" -- so your kids learn to view media critically.
Should I let my child bring an iPod (or other music device) to school?
Students with earbuds stuck in their ears are a common sight in the hallways, study halls, lunchrooms and even libraries of many middle and high schools. Today's teachers are pretty tolerant of kids listening to music at times during the day when they don't need to be listening to a teacher. Make sure your kid follows the school's rules and that music isn't interfering with his or her ability to concentrate (they'll probably deny that it does). Hiding behind a wall of sound also may not be a great way to make friends, so make sure the music is for entertainment -- not a way to avoid people. And remember that expensive gadgets can wander off, so discuss a replacement plan for theft or loss.
My daughter has an older model iPod Touch, but all of her friends seem to have newer, fancier ones. She doesn't need a new one, but she really wants one to keep up appearances. What should I do?
High-end gadgets have become status symbols among kids. It's up to us parents to delay immediate gratification and help our kids resist peer pressure. Consider creating a timeline or identifying a single significant goal to achieve before your daughter can upgrade. You can also pass along your old device when you upgrade (it'll be new to her) or simply set up a strategy for her to save for what she wants. She may give you a hard time, but she'll appreciate the device a lot more if she works for it or has to wait for it! And if it's something that's not in the budget, you always have the right to say no.
Does reading on the iPad or Kindle count toward my kids' daily reading minutes, or would it just be considered screen time?
As long as they're really reading, then it's legit. Stick to basic e-readers with paper-like screens that don't download apps. Bringing e-readers to school is tricky -- they can get lost, stolen or broken. So it might be best to leave them at home or make sure your kid is very careful.
My kids are going to get a rude awakening when summer's over. I plan to put an end to all the free time they've been spending on their phones and computers. Any advice on how to ease them in?
Develop a game plan -- with your kids' input -- before school starts. Consistency is important. Otherwise, the lure of digital devices can be overwhelming. Some parents allot a certain amount of "unwind" time before homework; some prohibit TV and games until all work is done. Timers work for some kids; others are motivated by small rewards. If your kid is computer-inclined, look for software programs that turn time management into a game. And remember that kids pick up tech habits from their parents, so set limits on your own use: let calls go to voicemail, don't check email after 7 p.m., and don't let digital distractions intrude on family time.
My kids spent the summer of playing video games and watching TV. How do I make sure they're ready for school?
The single greatest inoculation against summer slippage is reading. Most kids slide a little, but the ones who read a lot go back to school better prepared for all subjects. Regular skill-building sessions throughout the summer help, too. So get thee to the library and try these back-to-school boosters.
My kid's teacher encourages students to email him with questions. What's the etiquette for emailing a teacher?
Sending an email to a teacher isn't like emailing a friend. Here are some important dos and don'ts.
• Use a proper salutation, correct grammar and full sentences. Clearly state the purpose of the email (didn't understand the homework, forgot the field trip form, etc.).
• Save problems, complaints, and other issues for face-to-face discussion -- that avoids a lot of drama
• Be rude
• Overuse emoticons
• Attach long, elaborate email signatures with images, song quotes, etc.
• Click "reply all" and send superfluous messages to everybody in the class or community
Technology is a big part of school. I wish that the teachers also taught appropriate rules of behavior about how to treat others online. Where can I (and they) get that information?
You've come to the right place. Our free Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum is available for grades K-12. With lessons on everything from cell phones to cyberbullying, it teaches students to make safe, smart, and ethical decisions. Just tell your teacher!
My child's school is giving every student a laptop for use at school and home. What do I need to know?
Many schools are integrating technology into academics with programs like a one-to-one laptop arrangement, BYOD (bring your own device), One Laptop Per Child and even iPads in the classroom. Typically, the school loads all of the software that students need onto the device to ensure standardization (which helps keep teachers and students on the same page and aids network administrators in troubleshooting problems).
One-to-one laptop programs work best when there's close collaboration between teachers, administrators and families. Families should understand how the device is to be used and the teacher's expectations for homework. Most schools have a training period for students to learn how to use the device. Most schools distribute an Acceptable Use Policy so families know what's OK to do on the device and what's not. Many also come with service arrangements or guidelines around maintenance. The most successful programs acknowledge that laptops are just one tool in the learning process.
One-to-one laptop programs represent new territory, so stay engaged in the work your kid is doing on the machine, watch for signs of frustration and give feedback to the teacher about what's working and what isn't.
About Common Sense Media
Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology. We exist because our kids are growing up in a culture that profoundly impacts their physical, social, and emotional well-being. We provide families with the advice and media reviews they need in order to make the best choices for their children. Through our education programs and policy efforts, Common Sense Media empowers parents, educators, and young people to become knowledgeable and responsible digital citizens. For more information, go to:www.commonsense.org.