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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Owning Cell Phones, iPods And Other Tech Toys

If you're the parent of a tween, this will come as no surprise: The "toys" they covet are a whole lot pricier than what we played with. They tap into modern technology to an extent far greater than the Trimline phones or
boomboxes that were the equivalent of tech toys back in our day.

What parents should be mindful of with these gadgets is the price one inevitably pays: not just the cost of any particular device, but the control one may relinquish as youngsters access more media sources.

Cell phones

There's no double-edged sword quite like the cell phone. Its benefits are obvious: convenient access between parent and child; ready availability of important numbers; and for those who still have them, keeping the household land line free. It can also provide a good context for teaching responsibility - learning not to lose it, when and how to use it appropriately, and staying within one's allotment of minutes.

Many of the drawbacks are clear too: abuse of costly features such as text messaging and downloads; potential loss of an expensive item; use at inappropriate times and places, such as at school (and possible confiscation as a result). There are less obvious drawbacks: using camera/video features to embarrass others, harassment, and access to inappropriate content are a few.

Pre-paid plans with limited minutes, restrictions on text messaging and GPS trackers are some of the features you should consider when deciding on a phone for your child. Firefly Mobile's phone fits the bill, with pay-as-you-go or monthly service (or add it to a family plan with your cell provider). Providers such as AT&T allow parents to cut access to select content or block purchase of ringtones and other downloads; T-Mobile also offers a plan that shuts off all but essential call features when the monthly allotment runs out.

One thing to be aware of, not just for children but for oneself: Cell numbers are often recycled, and your new number may bring the previous owner's old text subscriptions. Those subscriptions can add up to a hefty bill before you've even memorized the number. They also can expose your child to inappropriate content. Read about one parent's experiences in this Washington Post article.

Video games

While Nintendo's wildly popular Wii appears to surpass such other game platforms as the Xbox and PSP, parents of tweens are more likely to hear pleas for a more modest device: the ubiquitous DS Lite. Small enough to hide in a backpack, in colors to satisfy both genders, and carrying a not-too-offensive price tag, this gadget has enjoyed wide appeal.

But two of its selling points - portability and affordability, especially of the game cartridges - are potential drawbacks as well. With used games selling for $20 or less and new ones averaging $30, it doesn't take more than a couple of birthday gift cards to warrant a trip to the local GameSpot. And while the DS platform is widely used among tweeners, it isn't exclusive - a considerable number of game titles are aimed at teen or adult audiences.

Vet your child's game choices, just as you would the television programs he or she watches. Learn the ESRB game rating system - it's similar to that of television and motion pictures - and reinforce what's acceptable and what's not.

If your child is new to the DS or other game platforms, be proactive and suggest some games. Pokemon is a perennial favorite; a newer popular choice is Animal Crossing, which takes advantage of Nintendo's Wi-Fi capabilities (other game platforms offer Wi-Fi too). If your child uses this, you should discuss your rules of Internet access, particularly regarding chat.

MP3 players

There are several MP3 players that are designed for younger listeners, with fun designs, reasonably generous capacity and, in some cases, prices that parents won't choke over. Some come with pre-loaded music, or you can load your own.

But tweens are brand savvy. And like generations before (including ours), they probably won't find their favorite tunes in our collections. Thus you have 10-year-olds clamoring for iPods and Zunes. The competing platforms, from Apple and Microsoft respectively, offer not only the music (and video) player, but an online market from which to buy music, videos and more. And with iTunes gift cards sold at supermarkets and drug stores, it's much more convenient than visiting the mall or the local record store.

But these are candy stores you might not want your child shopping alone. In case you haven't been listening (and you should), many songs by popular artists (Gwen Stefani, Fergie, Justin Timberlake, to name a few) include language you wouldn't want your kids to sing. Accompany your tween to the iTunes Store or Zune Marketplace and note that they carry "explicit" and "clean" versions of music hits and videos. And even among videos labeled "clean," you should decide which videos are appropriate. TV shows and feature films carry the familiar FCC and MPAA ratings.

Another resource for assessing electronic content is Pause Parent Play, which offers content information on movies, television, music and video games.

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