Digital literacy for my children

My son isn’t even two years old yet, but as of today he has an email address and an iCloud account. He joins his elder sister, who received both the email and the iCloud account with the iPod she received for her 5th birthday. Yes, my two children are connected to the world at large via electronic means that I was only able to really get into as a college student. It may sound absurd to many other parents (and other fathers in the Minnesota Dads at Home organization that I am a part of have told me so), but instilling our children with digital literacy and responsibility is important to us.

Of course other parents have called us crazy. Her own computing device? What’s to stop her from getting sucked into that little glowing screen? What about getting her outside and getting her active? Shouldn’t you be shielding her from the great, big, evil, electronic world? Is she just a little couch potato now? For the record, we haven’t seen that giving her an electronic device of her own has stunted her desire to play with other toys or be active, and it especially hasn’t hampered her creativity or want for learning. Given the choice to play outside or play with the iPod, she will pick going outside 99 times out of 100. Electronic devices are a part of our modern lives, and our view is that the earlier we can teach our children how to moderate the electronic distractions then the less likely it will be that they become completely absorbed by it.

My wife and I had several reasons had several reasons for buying our preschooler an iPod, the big ones being that:

  1. We needed to deal with the frustration that was the VTech cartridge game system her grandparents had given her.
  2. We wanted something that we could easily set limits on.

And wow, does she ever have limits. There’s only a small number of apps, no internet, no store, no anything where she can interact with random people we don’t know. I set all the passwords for her accounts, none of which she knows. Most importantly, use of the iPod counts as part of her allotted screen time for the day. It only goes in the car for long trips, and because it lacks cellular data she can’t access all the streaming videos that apps like PBS or Sprout put in alongside the games that are loaded on the device.

It’s a teaching tool, too. She is learning, at an early age, what is appropriate use of electronic communication. She is able to send out emails (and we have restricted her to send them to people in her approved contact list), and every email she receives also quietly gets forwarded to me. She is not allowed to take it into her room so we can always keep an eye on her when she uses it, and never would we allow her to have access to it after bedtime, which is setting the ground rules for when she has her own cell phone (Which she will someday… We have no land line and there will come a day when it will be too much of a bother for us to loan her our phones, or she will be out and we will want to contact her.).

Furthermore, our daughter has her own calendar that is shared with both my wife and I, and we put her schedule on it and share ours with her as well so that once she is reading with more proficiency she can follow all our schedules. Already she has gotten into messaging with her grandparents and my wife and I, and while it’s rather sweet when she sends us photos it’s encouraging to see her want to be able to read our responses, to see that words can be a form of direct communication as well as just a means to tell a story. And can I brag about how she knows the rules of chess and can play it on her iPod.

It’s also teaching us, as parents, how to set all the locks and find the back doors into places we don’t want her to go before she really learns how to read and sneaks her way onto Facebook or something like that. I, too, find myself tinkering with her iPod after she is in bed, simply to try and work around the parental restrictions and stay one step ahead of her. I may hand it over to one of her older cousins someday to see if they can find anything I’ve missed.

Someday we will upgrade her to a better iPod, or an iPad, or maybe even an iPhone. Someday our son will have his own device (or, quite likely, will be handed our daughter’s current device as she gets an upgrade). When that day comes, their new devices will have all the same restrictions and parental password locks and everything else. As they grow older we can give her access to the store, to social networking, to the world at large, all filtered through our own digital nets. It’s all easily transferable, and they won’t be free of all of those restrictions until each reaches the ripe age of 18. Only then will we allow them unfettered access to the whole, wide world, and we can only hope that, like every other life skill we teach them, the lessons hold. May my children never make asses of themselves on the internet.

Just as a side note, Apple only allows people to set up an account and make use of their online stores provided that you are over the age of 13. Obviously my children are not, and there are two work-arounds. The first is to falsify your child’s birthdate and sign them up anyway, something that I was not willing to do as this gives them access to purchasing things from Apple online. The other option is sort of a backdoor way, but one that is accepted by Apple as legitimate. Under your own account in iTunes you can start an allowance for your child in iTunes and set up an account for them through that process (just remember to cancel the allowance after the process of setting up the child account or Apple will be charging you monthly for it). When they are old enough, we can sign them in to the iTunes store and complete the registration, and until then they can make use of iCloud’s syncing and calendars and whatnot without ever being asked what year they were born. I found this site helpful for that process. Just keep in mind that your child will need an email account first to use this method and you’re on your own for finding an email provider that allows young children to be signed up. I, on the other hand, can dole out addresses to my kids at will.

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