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Thinking of buying your child an electronic device this Christmas?

Matt Archer, CEOP ambassador for TIS looks at the pros and cons of online devices

It’s that time of year where our beloved children begin to write up Christmas lists, prepped and ready for Santa to aggressively negotiate with the various providers of the latest exciting, ‘must have’ gadget. Whilst some children shun the shiny (sorry- ‘dusk graphite’) allure of technology, many will be eagerly heading to the Christmas tree on December 25th, in the vain hope that their electronic device based present didn’t need to be delivered via network rail this year.

As adults, should we be surprised? Technology is all around us and children seemed to have developed an almost telepathic ability to understand its language – even as us adults slump into an armchair having lost the battle with the ‘essential updates’ ability to change your password and mischievously lock you out.

So many jobs are enhanced by technology now and require our children to be literate in the way machines communicate with us. These devices come with high costs, but can offer unlimited opportunities for young people to explore their creativity in ways that would have been fantasies best left to the visuals of the latest sci-fi blockbuster. At TIS, we pride ourselves on being a technology driven school and making it a key part of both how we teach and how we prepare our students for life beyond our doors. Watching the children at TIS actively engage with the educational tools available on their laptops and tablets has opened my eyes not only to how much the students are enjoying learning this way, but  also how students, who may struggle with skills that many children take for granted, show a whole new level of intuition and initiative.

However, these devices present dangers, as do many things that require us to be plugged into the ever growing expanse of the internet. For parents, the horror stories of young people’s online activity act as a necessary cautionary tale. Online grooming, sexting, cyberbullying, radicalisation and 24 hour access to content we wouldn’t watch ourselves are all legitimate concerns.

So before you rush off to make a head start on the shopping, ask yourself these questions and make an informed decision on whether you should break the bank or settle for the knitted polar bear jumper instead.

How much?! Won’t this be out of date in a few months time?

If there is one thing that seems to keep pace with the number of educational white papers being abolished, it is technology and it’s ability to astound and amaze us with the latest advances. I am old enough to remember when I would hide my mobile under my bed so I didn’t have to take a rucksack out to carry it in and when a tablet was something Moses took from under a burning bush. Something that may be cutting edge in December may be yesterday’s news come the Spring. This is where it is important to decide what you are wanting from your child’s device.

Many devices that are now considered ‘older models’ will run the same software and apps as the brand new models. Case in point: many analysts suggested upon the release of the Apple IPhone 7 that consumers should perhaps wait for the new model (due around 18 months later) as this would offer a better value upgrade on the previous device. Most smartphones that were released four years ago share the same capabilities as the extortionate new models. Unless you see your child consistently dropping the phone in the bath/toilet/washing up (for the chore conscious parent) or are particularly keen for them to view YouTube videos on an aesthetically pleasing curved screen, an older, more reasonably priced mobile could be the way forward. In terms of tablets, parents should also take into account that there are many budget options available that won’t break the bank and can perform to the level that most young people require. It would seem that many consumers are following this train of thought: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/nov/01/consumers-top-end-tablets-sales-fall-dramatically.

Do your research and take advantage of the competitive market. Highest price does not necessarily mean highest quality and just because something is brand new does not mean it is the most suitable for your child’s needs.

If I buy them the device, how can I make sure they aren’t Facetiming the Ecuadorian embassy by the Queen’s speech?

One of the biggest problems with allowing children to have devices is being able to trust them to use them appropriately. Too much leniency can leave children mentally scarred after they click that link they know they shouldn’t have and what they saw they cannot even begin to comprehend. Too much dictation around the device can drain the excitement of having it and force some to be more surreptitious about how they try to circumnavigate the restrictions you have put in place. The key to keeping the children safe is discussion. Set up the device together and explain to them why you are implementing the settings. It is straightforward and can be modified as your child gains your trust about safely using the device. However, adjusting the settings on the devices is not a failsafe method of ensuring the devices are used safely. Ongoing, open discussion around the pros and cons of the internet, applications and software are healthy in order to establish an understanding of how to be safe online, both as a young person and as an adult. Don’t be put off buying something that can help harness your child’s creativity or learning potential when it is possible, with an open-minded approach, to ensure they learn to use it sensibly and safely.

If I buy them the device, how many hours of peace and quiet will it buy me?

I have spoken to many parents who have given a child a device and then come to me complaining that now their child will do nothing but play around on the device, their offspring a zombiefied shadow of their former selves hooked on a knock off version of ‘Flappy Birds’. Whilst resisting the temptation to point out the rod hovering above their backs, I would point out that all devices need to be introduced in a tightly controlled manner. The aforementioned element of trust is the key: you trust them to use the device in moderation and they trust that you are looking out for them. Overuse and over reliance can be incredibly damaging. A recent survey suggested that 235,189 young people in England (all of whom are under the age of 18) have sought support for problems related to their mental health. Whilst addiction to technology cannot be blamed for all of these issues, the capabilities of the devices can play a part. Whilst working as a Head of Year I became worryingly familiar with the abbreviation ‘FOMO’ or ‘Fear of missing out’. Often young people would come into school increasingly frazzled, stressed and anxious because they had stayed up all night on their devices, involved in group chats on various social media sites. The ‘fear’ comes from missing out on part of a conversation, being perceived as ‘weak’ for falling asleep and not contributing to the chat and the social consequences arising the next day from not being involved. My advice to parents would be to take control of the devices overnight; young people have enough on their plate without this unnecessary social pressure. The sooner a young person understands the boundaries around using the technology, the sooner they will be able to use it as a tool as opposed to a necessity. Simply, children do not need 24 hour access to their devices. I will never forget one parents look of utter bemusement during a discussion about limiting the access to a phone. ‘They need the alarm on the phone to wake up!’, she complained bitterly. The look of realisation on their face, when I suggested a simple watch could do the trick, is an image I will never forget.

I caved and bought it. What applications should I encourage them to use?

There are a plethora of applications that can get your child’s creativity ebbing and flowing, but equally there is a large range of educational tools too. ITunes U, Khan Academy and BBC Bitesize can help from the simplest concepts to the more abstract and are a strong alternative to children becoming over-reliant on Wikipedia. Issues with short term memory can be barriers for many pupils with additional learning needs; games such as Memrise help to improve these skills in a role player fashion more associated with video games. For the budding film director there is IMovie, for the aspiring artist Procreate and for the future music star Music Maker Jam. Do they fancy turning their hand to Spanish? Download Duolingo. Imagine themselves writing the code for their own apps in the future? Learn C++. Perhaps a head start on the driving theory test? There are official apps from the DVSA. With thousands of applications being launched every week, whatever area your child’s interest is in, there will be something to peak their interest. By putting more focus on how the devices can be used productively, parents will find it easier to eliminate any future addiction to the applications that can tempt the focus of young people away.

This piece is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the pros and cons of giving young people the responsibility of owning and caring for an expensive piece of kit. However, I do hope that it has given some assistance to any parents and guardians who were feeling unsure about technology’s potential for good. Healthy pre-purchase discussion and detailed research is the best course of action to ensure that your child is happy on Christmas morning, and continues to be throughout 2017.

15 December 2016

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