Kids And Tablets: At What Age Is It OK To Buy Your Children Their Own?

How Old Should Your Kid Be Before You Buy Him A Tablet?
cute little girl sitting...
cute little girl sitting...

The Arnova ChildPad. The Oregon Scientific Meep. The Toys R' Us Nabeo 7. The LeapFrog LeapPad 2.

Ever more of these specially made, kid-friendly, atrociously-named tablets are popping up in the electronics aisle, promising protected Internet browsing and a collection apps that parents don't have to screen for safety. Chances are, however, that when your own pride-and-joy reaches a certain age, he or she isn't going to want a tablet that's advertised during "Zoboomafoo," but rather a fully-featured adult tablet like an iPad or Kindle Fire.

For moms and dads of rising middle- and high-school students, then, here's the $199-$499 question: At what age is it appropriate to go ahead and let your kid go wild on a grown-up tablet? How young is too young?

"As a parent, you have to look at your child's maturity level and level of development," said Dr. Ari Brown, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the author of the Baby 411 series of parental advice books, in a phone interview with HuffPost. "This is not a small purchase; it's an expensive purchase. You have to decide: Is your child really going to get value out of this type of thing?"

Brown said that, based on her experience, once a child leaves elementary school, he or she is probably old enough to handle a tablet; she also echoed the prescription of the AAP that kids two years and younger should not be using glowing screens, and that she would personally "discourage parents from thinking their child has to have an iPad at five."

For Dr. Brown, the decision hinges not on the potential harms that can come with leaving a kid alone with a tablet -- if he or she has a smartphone, or access to the Internet on a home computer, those dangers lurking on a tablet are also present via those technologies -- but rather on whether a personal tablet can provide actual, tangible benefits for your child above his or her iPhone, a laptop or a tablet shared with the rest of the family.

That's a fine way of thinking about it, in fact -- asking not "Will this tablet be too much of a waste of time?" but rather "What is my child going to gain from owning his or her own tablet?"

Hilary DeCesare, a cyberbullying expert and CEO of kids' social networking site Everloop, argued that in an increasingly digital world, it's important to expose your children to different technologies early so that they are prepared to adapt and thrive in more advanced professional settings. She holds that kids as young as 2 can benefit from tablet use, as long as the parent "is monitoring what [the] child is watching."

Dr. Brown, meanwhile, said that the main benefit that her children, ages 14 and 17, have gleaned from owning their school-subsidized iPads has been an end to lugging heavy textbooks back and forth between home and school: All of their textbooks were available for download from iBooks.

Digital literacy and streamlined access to textbooks and study materials are two concrete benefits of a child's personal tablet ownership; but thinking that your child will only use a tablet for homework is like handing a bunch of foam pool noodles to a group of kids and thinking they'll only use them to float on.

"You could have your Facebook page open, you could have a computer game open, you could have a webpage open and oh, yeah, you could also have your textbook open," Dr. Brown joked.

British researchers have found that kids today are spending more and more time in front of screens, which they warn can cause inactivity and obesity if not curbed. (Do you know how long it takes to completely defeat Angry Birds?) Couple that with a recent Pew study that concluded young people enjoy reading in print more than on a tablet, and you might be discouraged by the negative habits a tablet could generate in your child.

As with any other activity, both Brown and DeCesare said, it is incumbent upon the parents to stay vigilant and scrutinize their children's tablet use for any unwanted behavior, from surfing the web to total, detrimental lethargy.

The extent to which parents can control their children's activity on a tablet varies by the device. This year, however, we've seen several of the larger tablet-makers step up and introduce new tablets with greater parental controls than ever, with Barnes & Noble and Amazon leading the charge to make full-fledged tablets more parent-friendly.

The new NOOK HD and HD+ from Barnes & Noble, for example, both offer multiple user profiles, which allow parents to select the apps, websites and media options they want their kids to be able to access. Amazon's Kindle FreeTime, for the Kindle Fire, does much of the same and lets parents set daily time limits for their children's use.

Other popular tablets also feature less-tailored parental control solutions. Google's Nexus tablets come with the ability to set up a user profile for your child, though without controlling his or her access to certain content. Apple's iPad and iPad mini both include a suite of restrictions in the settings: A parent can select which apps the child can open, and what kind of content he or she can download or experience. Parent-friendly web browsers are available in both the Android and Apple app stores.

"As a parent, you're responsible for making sure your kids dont run in the street, and also that they dont have the ability to access porn sites," Dr. Brown said. "These are your responsibilities, virtually or realistically."

And what should parents do if they gift their child an iPad this Christmas, only to find he or she is using it inappropriately or becoming totally entranced and won't leave the couch?

"If they misuse it," DeCesare advised. "Take it away."

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