Let Big Brother (Or Sister) Show Them The Way

But you may want to keep an eye on the content!

By Terri Hunter-Davis

It should come as no surprise that younger children learn from older siblings. Whether it’s sheer competition, simply wanting to keep up, or settling for the least preoccupied elder in the house, younger sisters and brothers glean a tremendous amount of information from older ones. From first steps — often taken at an earlier age than that of big brother or sister — and beyond, the sibling influence is evident.

Technology is no exception. Many parents — myself included — observe younger children acquiring computer, video gaming and other tech skills at an earlier age than their older siblings. How? Right at those older siblings’ sides.
Sharing skills
Sometimes it’s the result of the older child wanting to show off new skills, similar to a new reader practicing for (and simultaneously teaching) a younger sister or brother. Drawing a picture in a paint program allows the older child to practice mousing skills while the younger one takes it all in. Before you know it, you’ve got a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old with comparable skills. And it just progresses from there: as the elder child learns a new skill, the younger one is sure to notice it — and want to learn it too.

The influence is perhaps more obvious when both children are of comparable school age. As Tom McCarthy, a San Francisco father of 10- and 7-year-old daughters, notes, “They went to the same preschool and attend the same public elementary school and have had exposure to computers at both, as well as at home.” Yet the younger one does more on the computer at age 7 than the older one. “She can sit down at [the] PC or at my Macintosh and fire either up and have fun — not because we’ve taught her how, but because she has watched her sister do those very things,” McCarthy adds.

Discovering the Internet

It’s not a huge leap from basic computer usage skills to discovering the Internet. Tween children’s affinity for age-appropriate game and social networking sites is easily transferred to the younger set. In our household, the 6-year-old sees the 10-year-old playing games on Fantage, DisneyChannel.com or Club Penguin, and begs for a chance to join the fun.

There’s a similar dynamic with video game devices, from Nintendo DS Lites to Xboxes and Wiis. Sit down two children and one game, and sharing will ensue, if only to keep the younger from telling on the older! While we parents are rejoicing that they’re getting along nicely, the younger sibling is learning from the older — and probably a year or two sooner as well.

Phones are no different. In fact, your older child can probably operate a cell phone better than you can. Give the two of them a few minutes and the younger child will have mastered it, too. They’ll be showing you how to take photos, text and play games.

In general, this is a good thing. Younger children will learn these skills anyway, and learning them early can give them a head start in more formal learning situations. A kindergartner who already knows the basics of computers is ready to learn more advanced skills.

Time to separate?

But, as with most things, the devil is in the details. And here, the details are in the content, and the judgments made about what content is appropriate at any given age.

This is less of an issue when children are fairly close in age. Chances are, what you deem appropriate for your 10-year-old will probably be OK for your 8-year-old. But what if you have a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old? Do you want them playing the same video games? You might allow a 12-year-old to view selected videos on YouTube, but what about an 8-year-old? Your 15-year-old may have a MySpace account, but your 11-year-old can’t — will this pose a problem?

If the discrepancy in maturity levels is significant enough, it may be time to separate them and assign individual times on the computer. There is software to aid this: parental control programs can be customized for each child, limiting online times and filtering content.

Content decisions

Let the Entertainment Software Rating Board system for video games — similar to the MPAA rating system for films and its television counterpart — be a guide to choosing age-appropriate games for your children. (The ESRB site also includes definitions of its content descriptors, so you can make more informed decisions on content.) Consider having on hand games for all ages, so that siblings can play together; but make it clear that titles for more mature kids are not to be used by the younger set.

Consider using YouTube’s filter function (you’ll find it in account settings) to help divert content unsuitable for minors, and educate your children about downloading “clean” versions of songs and videos from iTunes. Depending on the age of your children, you might want to be the download gatekeeper, determining what is downloaded and what may be loaded onto MP3 players. These are not necessarily foolproof measures, but they offer an opportunity to open lines of communication about what is appropriate content — for older and younger children.

Indeed, you’ll want to keep those lines of communication open, as you explain why pre-teens shouldn’t be on MySpace, or why you don’t want certain versions of Justin Timberlake songs downloaded. It’s not just a matter of age or parental authority. These situations afford parents more opportunities to reinforce values with their children, which is always a good thing.

Terri Hunter-Davis is a veteran writer, editor and designer in both print and online media. Her areas of expertise include family, lifestyle and shelter topics. Terri lives in San Francisco with her husband and increasingly tech-savvy 6- and 10-year-old daughters.

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