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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.

What's the right age for cell phones and other tech gadgets?

The Online Mom is often asked about the appropriate age for kids to start owning their own tech gadgets. Whether it's a first cell phone, a gaming console, or a laptop, parents often struggle with the decision, fearing that their child is too young or they are opening up the floodgates for other must-have devices.

Most of the time, we advise that it's a personal decision, based on parents' assessment of their child's maturity and whether they have "earned" the right to use what is often an expensive piece of equipment.

If you're wondering whether now is the right time to buy that first cell phone or computer, here are a few other things to consider:

Will your child use the technology?

It may be great for your child to be the first person in her class to own a cell phone, but if she's the only one, who is she going to call or text? Most cell phones purchased for kids under the age of 11 sit in a kitchen drawer gathering dust. Similarly, an expensive laptop with all the bells and whistles is a waste if all they are going to do is visit Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters. Wait until there is a real need.

Does your child respect expensive things?

If your tween has a habit of breaking everything he gets his hands on, then maybe it's too early for that $170 Nintendo 3DS. Similarly, if you're always going to the Lost & Found, it might not be a good idea to buy him an iPod for the school bus. When it comes to gadgets, start them off at the lower end of the price range – an iPod Shuffle vs. a iPod Nano, for example. If they can still find it a year later, then maybe it's time to move up!

Smartphones are for smart people

A smartphone is not just a phone; it's a camera, it's a GPS device, it's a gaming console, and it's a gateway to the Internet. OK, your child might not use these features and you can always lock down Internet access, but then why give him the device in the first place? Don't buy your child a smartphone until they are smart enough to use it.

Don't buy them technology you don't understand

Even very young kids know their way around a keyboard and by the time they get to the tween years, they might have already passed you by on the digital superhighway. However, you don't have to be a hardcore gamer to know that M-rated games can be highly inappropriate and that your kids shouldn't be playing online with a bunch of strangers.

Research the technology and the gadgets that your child is asking for. If the devices are Internet-enabled, find out how you can control access. Lots of parents have purchased the iPod Touch only to find out later that it has built-in Wi-Fi and can access the Internet from almost anywhere. When it comes to video games, check out the ESRB game ratings and rating summaries.

Talk to friends and other family members and find out if there is any risk attached to the gadget that your child wants. Don't let your child talk you into giving him something that you can't monitor or control.

Don't be afraid to take gadgets away

Just because you gave your child a cell phone or an iPod, it doesn't mean that it's theirs to use wherever and whenever they want – at least not while you're still paying the bills! Don't be afraid to take tech gadgets away if they are being misused or if rules are being broken. A friend of mine has a strict rule that no cell phones or iPod Touches are allowed on sleepovers. A perfectly sensible rule when all the kids are on sugar overload and they think it would be fun to start texting the new girl at school!

Monitor total screen time

A recent survey found that the average American child is still watching four hours of television a day. Add on video gaming, computer time, and texting and it's surprising that they ever get up off the couch. Don't let tech time be an add-on to TV time. Carefully monitor total screen time and be firm about shutting down gaming consoles and computers when the allotted time is up.

Beware the webcam

Our tweens are growing up in a world where face-to-face means a video chat and YouTube is way more entertaining than TV. Almost every computer and laptop now comes with a webcam, and kids know how to operate that webcam before they can add fractions. Be very careful how the webcam is used, particularly as they get older. Webcams never belong in the bedroom – and that's a rule you should try and enforce until they head off to college!

Do you have a rule for buying those first tech gadgets? Share it with The Online Mom!

Comment by Danielle, posted 8/25/2011, 7:02 AM:

Hi, I'm surprised there's no mention in this article of the potential cancer risks, especially to children, posed by cell phones. The World Health Organization recently posted a statement regarding this issue, as described in the following articles: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/05/31/who.cell.phones/index.html http://www.webmd.com/cancer/news/20110531/expert-panel-cell-phones-might-cause-brain-cancer
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