Debra Scott’s daughter had a birthday wish list typical for kids turning 11 these days. She wanted a cell phone, an iPod, a PlayStation 2 and maybe a new laptop.
Likewise, Scott’s dilemma was typical for a contemporary parent: When is the right age to buy kids electronic gadgets?
“It’s not really about the money,” said Scott, who lives in the Seattle area. “To me, it’s about her not being given every little thing she asks for just because her friends have one.”
It’s a 21st century twist to age-old kid-parent tensions. Parents are used to judging when the time is right to buy junior a 10-speed or get their daughter’s ears pierced. Now they face additional duties deciding when it’s OK to let their children tune out or reach out with the likes of pocket-sized music players and cell phones. Kids pine for them, but parents are leery.
Experts in child psychology say parents should resist making such major purchases without first taking into account the child’s maturity, the family’s values and other factors.
“I think like everything else, parents have to keep an eye on their kids and how their kids are spending time,” said psychologist Debbie Glasser, founder of the NewsForParents.org Web site.
“While the issues have changed over the past 20 years, the concept of being a connected, engaged and aware parent is the same.”
There’s no magic age when children can handle an electronic device — one 14-year-old might be ready for expanded freedom while another 16-year-old might not. Experts say parents considering a purchase are better off asking some questions first:
- Can we afford it?
- What are the risks versus the rewards? For instance, will a cell phone be used mostly for chatter or for contacting parents?
- Does the child really want the device? Or does she seem to be reacting to peer pressure and advertising campaigns?
“This tendency we’re seeing is really just market driven,” said child psychologist Lawrence E. Shapiro, author of “The Secret Language of Children.” “Kids certainly don’t need these devices, they’re just made to feel that they need these devices.”
The big question is whether the child is mature enough. Parents need to decide, for example, whether their child has the self control to stay under cell phone plan minutes or to resist the urge to reveal personal information through Internet instant messaging. Parents must decide whether their child will be prone to escaping for hours at a time playing video games or listening to music through ear buds.
“Now you have all these kids plugged in and tuned out. And it is a real concern,” said Glasser, a mother of three who has heard of 3-year-olds having iPods. “I do believe there is such a thing as being so technologically connected that you run the risk of not looking at who is sitting next to you.”
There also are physical concerns. Long hours at computer keyboards have been linked to repetitive stress injuries. Some researchers are concerned about the health effects of electromagnetic radiation from cell phones, though there are conflicting findings from studies. And it is well known that long-term exposure to loud noises — the type that can be produced by, say, really loud music — can contribute to hearing loss over decades.
Deanna Meinke of the National Hearing Conservation Association said that portable music players aren’t a bad thing in themselves, as long as they’re used responsibly. In other words, don’t crank the volume up to lawnmower-like noise levels for hours on end.
“I would encourage that they have intermittent use,” said Meinke, chairwoman of the association’s task force on children and noise.
Brian Fligor, an audiologist at Children’s Hospital in Boston, said that based on his research, he recommends limiting headphone use to an hour or less a day at 60 percent volume.
Setting such limits is important, experts say. Just as parents make rules for use of the family car, they should set limits on use of computers, and gadgets.
For instance, Tina Williams of Guilderland, N.Y., bought her 11-year-daughter Megan both an iPod and a cell phone in the last few months — with strict limits. Megan’s cell phone came with prepaid minutes and is primarily for contacting her parents. It is not for chit chat. The iPod is for private use around the home, not for the mall. Williams keeps track of cell phone minutes and iPod selections.
“She cannot put anything on that iPod I don’t see,” she said.
In the end, Scott came to some conclusions on her own: She’ll wait before buying her daughter a cell phone; she wants her to earn the iPod with baby-sitting money; the Playstation will be an end-of-the-year holiday gift for her daughter, to be shared with her father.