If there's one guarantee for the coming holiday season, it's that the latest electronics will be at the top of nearly every child's wish list. Last year's most-requested item was the Apple iPad, and with the long-awaited iPhone 5 scheduled to land sometime this fall, it's likely that Apple will have another lucrative mid-winter gift season. Other manufacturers of popular electronics -- Samsung, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Motorola, HTC, Nikon, Canon, etc. -- will not be far behind.
But parents thinking about microchip-laden presents need to do some homework first. There are four critical questions that you should be able to answer before giving Johnny or Jenny the latest gadget. First, what are the capabilities of the device? Second, what are the legal risks of using or misusing the device? Third, is Johnny or Jenny mature enough to understand those legal risks? and Fourth, are you comfortable with discussing those risks with your child?
The first question can be answered best by talking to salespeople, other parents who have bought the same device, and by doing some research online. The focus should be on understanding the types of information that can created by the device (photos, videos, texts, programs, etc.) and how that information can be communicated to others.
In most cases, the answer to the second question will be one of the following: cyberbullying, cyberharassment, or sexting (which in most states falls under the jurisdiction of child pornography laws). Make sure you understand the criminal laws in your state that cover those offenses and discuss them with a lawyer if you have any questions. You can't effectively discuss these risks with your child unless you understand them yourself.
Like many parents, you may be looking for a simple answer to the third question – when is my child mature enough -- but there really isn't one. Each child matures at a different rate, and you will need to carefully gauge whether your child is capable of understanding what types of behaviors are illegal. The bottom line is that he or she needs to be mature enough to not only to understand and respect the long-term consequences of violating school policy (or worse, state or federal law), but also mature enough to behave accordingly.
In many ways, the answer to the fourth question is the most important. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of discussing cyberbullying or sexting with your child, then it's both dangerous and unfair to give them a gadget that makes it possible to do either (let alone all of the other cybertraps into which children can fall). Keep in mind that a smartphone is not just a phone -- it's a world-wide publishing platform for information, and the consequences for misuse can be profound.
As parents, we put a lot of time, money, and effort into keeping our children safe and healthy. From car seats, to bike helmets, to swimming lessons, and driver education courses, we do our best to ensure that our kids don't get injured as they mature to adulthood. It's time that we starting taking similar care with the electronic devices they so eagerly desire.
About the Author:
Frederick Lane is an author, attorney, educational consultant, expert witness, and lecturer who has appeared on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC, and MSNBC. He has written six books, including most recently Cybertraps for the Young. For more information, please visit www.fredericklane.com.