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Will Tech Gifts Rot My Child's Brain?

From an iPhone to Nintendo Switch, a tablet to a smartwatch, what's on your kid's wish list? How can you make sense out of what tech experiences are positive? How do you match technology choices with your kid’s maturity?

After over a year of Covid, our perception of technology has changed. It’s gone from parent enemy #1 to a lifeline. Even my 89-year old mother happily zoomed her committee meetings. But now what? Will be go back to being anxious and outraged about technology now that things are opening up again? Between the Facebook files and use of the term ‘addiction’ without regard to diagnostic criteria, you may be trying to figure out what makes sense today. Getting kids off their devices is going to be a much harder sell than ever before. As my grandma used to say, “how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

When you’re 11, two years of Covid represents about 20% of your lived experience. The developmental changes from any two years in childhood represents not just a big percent of your experience but significant difference in a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social maturity. We adults may be a little road-weary from the pandemic. Our kids are entirely different people. Technology has been the lifeline for young people whose developmental tasks are outward focused, relying on the company of peers. You may see may think it’s time to get back to normal and ‘rein in all that screentime,’ but your idea of normal may not match up with that of kids. For them, life flows from offline to on and back again; technology is integrated more than ever in their new normal. So don’t be shocked if even very young kids ask for tech this holiday. Cellphones may be at the top of the wish list this year precisely because they are multi-function devices and not just a portal to Instagram.

There are lots of ways to evaluate a child’s readiness for a cellphone, starting with identifying the benefits and the risks. You may be surprised at how ideas and expectations have changed post-pandemic. (You can also see the Cyberwise Chat on Cellphone Readiness and free downloadable checklist.)

But tech isn’t just about cellphones.

The increased use of phones, tablets and computers means kids have a lot more familiarity with all kinds of things that digital device can do: from moviemaking, drawing and video games to apps like Headspace to address anxiety. (Yes, believe it or not, kids are asking for Headspace subscriptions.)

Broader experience also means they will be interested in learning more about how to make digital experiences themselves. Why do you think TikTok is so popular?

This makes the holidays a perfect opportunity to introduce your child to some gifts that will further expand their interest in technology as well as help prepare them for more career opportunities. According to research funded by Capital One, 82% of middle-skill jobs required digital skills. These jobs also pay more than non-digital skill jobs. Jobs requiring advanced digital skills pay twice as much as those without them. Digital skills and digital literacy have become a minimum standard for career opportunities. Research also shows that students need a foundation in digital skills to succeed in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math.) A STEM education is more and more important because the growth of STEM careers will far outpace non-STEM ones. You may not be worried about your 10-year old’s career choices, but STEM education helps all students, and it emphasizes the same foundation that is backbone of media and digital literacy – critical thinking. Critical thinking enhances problem-solving, creativity, the ability to question, find, and evaluate information, understanding how the world works, and collaboration.

Your child may “hate math and science,” as some of mine did, but give talk to them about making a video, creating a soundtrack, building a Minecraft mod, negotiating a trade for a rare, legendary pet in Roblox or even the value of likes and followers on YouTube and you will see their eyes light up. Surprise! All these are based on digital skills and most on what we’d consider STEM.

Look for ways to expand your kids’ appreciation of technology and increase their skills by giving them more ownership over the skills. Robots that draw what you program or LED lights a teen can program to pulse with their favorites tunes on Spotify (another big holiday ask).

And don’t underestimate the humble mobile phone. You may be worried about Instagram, but kids are using their phones for everything from research to movie making.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge is a media psychologist–a social scientist who applies expertise in human behavior and neuroscience, along with 20+ years as a media producer, to media and technology. Working across the pipeline, from design and development to audience impact, she translates structures and data into the human stories that create actionable consumer engagement strategies. Dr. Rutledge has worked with a variety of clients, such as 20th Century Fox Films, Warner Bros. Theatrical Marketing, OWN Network, Saatchi, and Saatchi, KCET’s Sid the Science Kid and the US Department of Defense, to identify audience motivations, develop data strategies and hone brand stories. Dr. Rutledge was recently honored as the 2020 recipient of the award for Distinguished Professional Contribution to the Field of Media Psychology given by American Psychological Association’s Division for Media Psychology and Technology.


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Larry Malley
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