Wake up and smell the silicon: Between smartphones, tablets, apps, portable media players, computers and connected video game systems, technology has permanently and irrevocably invaded kids' lives. Happily for today's family, it can be an immensely rewarding and uplifting part of household hijinks, as long as parents and children observe a few simple rules. Following are essential hints, tips and advice for adults hoping to make connected devices a healthy part of the home. For more, you can check out The Modern Parent's Guide high-tech parenting series, which is free to download online.
Make a Commitment to Education
Dozens of software programs, apps and child-friendly web browsers promise to block questionable online content. But software's no substitute for proactive parenting. As many new ways to connect constantly emerge or evolve, technology's a moving target. The only way to meet the challenge is to constantly keep tabs on and personally try out new advancements. Ongoing research and hands-on trials are essential: You can't teach the rules of the game if you don't comprehend them yourself.
Keep Connected Devices in Common Rooms
It's tempting to let kids keep computers, video game consoles and other Internet-ready devices in their bedrooms. But screens should be confined to common areas of the home. Beyond allowing you to monitor kids' play patterns and time investment, doing so also lets you see how sprouts utilize systems in context and whom they interact with. This provides a sense of children's general computing habits and way in which kids employ devices. Ancillary benefits are also substantial -- i.e., not having to worry about anyone sneaking down to play World of Warcraft at midnight -- apart from Dad, that is.
Use Parental Controls
Don't ignore the basics: From Windows 7/8 to the iPad and PlayStation Vita, most mass-market computing and entertainment devices offer parental controls built-in. System settings -- optionally guarded with a password -- can limit access to questionable content, the Internet or hardware itself, or filter material by age-appropriateness. Solutions make it simple to block R-rated movies and mature games, limit access to devices during off-hours, prevent downloadable purchases and/or confine online interactions to pre-approved friend lists. Thankfully, even clueless grown-ups can configure them in minutes without reading the user manual.
Guard Your Personal Information
The Internet can be a wonderful place, but it's also an intensely public one: Keep your personal information private. Intimate as social networks seem, everyone is ultimately playing a character. Many healthy relationships can be formed online. But it never hurts to stay paranoid. Knowing this, never give out personal information such as names, addresses, birthdays or telephone numbers, or reveal when you'll be out of town. Likewise, use online services' built-in tools and custom privacy settings to limit access to photos, status updates or videos of yourself only to pre-approved viewers.
Create and Enforce House Rules
Help kids understand the difference between right and wrong by setting house rules the entire family agrees to on appropriate content, when/how it's suitable to use high-tech devices and when access is prohibited. Limiting screen time is important, too: While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours daily, some parents offer more or less time as a reward or punishment for good or bad behavior. (Others treat use of high-tech devices as a privilege, reinforcing positive habits by letting kids earn time by doing chores or performing well in school.) Note that kids should feel comfortable approaching you with questions as well concerning house rules and questionable content -- open, honest discussion is paramount.
Long story short: Technology can be a hugely beneficial part of kids' lives. But to realize its full potential, you've got to prepare them to meet its ups and downs, and commit to cruising alongside them on the roller coaster ride.