Everyone knows that babies crawl before they walk, and that tricycles come before two-wheelers. But at what age should children get their first cell phone, laptop or virtual persona?
These are new questions being faced by 21st century parents, and there is no wisdom from the generations for guidance. You can't exactly say to your teenager, “When I was a boy, I didn't have an unlimited texting plan until I was in high school.”
Some parents eagerly provide their children with technology.
“My 4-year-old has been on the Web since he could sit up,” said Samantha Morra, a mother of two from Montclair, N.J. “My 6-year-old has an iPod and wants a cell phone, although my husband and I aren't sure who he'd call.”
What's the right approach? Studies of child development offer some middle ground. Long before the invention of the first microprocessor, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development by watching his own children. His theories bring some logic to the debate about how to support your child's growth with the latest technology.
Babies and toddlers can't use a mouse until at least age 2 1/2, and flat monitors don't offer much in the way of stimulation in Piaget's first stage, “sensorimotor.” To work at this age, technology products must act like a busy-box, with lights or sounds that respond to a child's actions.
“Preschoolers today are growing up in a digital world, and they see their parents using devices like cell phones and computers,” said Professor Sandra Calvert, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University. “They like to play with pretend cell phones as if it were the real thing.”
This pretend-play is actually an important part of the Piaget “preoperational” stage, when children first understand that they can control the events on a flat screen.
This is an age when they can take real pictures with cameras like the V.Tech KidiZoom ($60, www.vtechkids.com), and can explore interactive versions of their favorite shows on PBS Kids (www.PBSKids.org) or Nickelodeon's Noggin (www.noggin.com).
At the age a child can ride a bicycle comes the ability to search the Web, and the whole digital world starts to open up. Suddenly they're hooked on favorite video games and watching funny videos on YouTube.
But Piaget labeled this stage “concrete operations” because children still have trouble with abstract ideas. Calvert reminds parents that electronic devices should be used to “supplement rather than replace real experiences,” and encourages them to “make sure there's an overall sense of balance” in activities during this stage of life.
This is a time when parents need to keep an eye on the screen and steer children toward good sites, like Club Penguin (www.clubpenguin.com), which introduces the notion of chatting and the online stand-ins known as avatars. It also teaches them that there is no free lunch online, and that paying members ($6 a month) can have a fancier igloo.
While video game consoles like the Wii and PlayStation have fewer gimmicks, they have been known to eat up large chunks of a childhood if used unmonitored in dark basements.
Ages 12 and up
Besides being much harder to wake up, middle- and high-schoolers are reaching the cognitive functioning of an adult. They have entered Piaget's “formal operational” stage, able to juggle synchronous streams of information from phones, MP3 players and laptops. Communicating with friends is on par with breathing, to the delight of your wireless provider.
In fact, cell phones are now more or less mandatory for children at this age. Besides providing a social advantage, phones can reduce parental stress in a crowded mall, get children in touch for homework help, serve as a call to dinner – and be withheld as punishment that really works.
Parenting skills for this age include reading phone bills. Lori McCoughey of Mahwah, N.J., a mother of two, saved $200 a month by switching to Verizon's friends and family plan. There are also pay-as-you-go plans like those from Tracfone (www.tracfone.com). For $50, you get a working LG 225 camera phone, preloaded with 100 minutes. A meter counts down the remaining time.