“Technology is an important tool for learning, but at any age, there should be significant supervision over what a child accesses,” said Margaret Morton, executive director of Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement. “You wouldn’t leave a 2-year-old in front of the TV to learn from whatever comes on, and it’s the same with an iPad. They can learn a lot, but you have to be careful. It should be a supervised educational process.”
When treated as a learning tool, technology can be a parent’s ally, offering interactive learning experiences in an age-appropriate fashion, Morton said. But the parent needs to call the shots and set the limits.
“The importance of parents having information is to make informed decisions,” Morton said.
Whether it’s when a child is responsible enough to have a pet or carry a cell phone or deciding when to allow makeup or dating, “we all have to educate ourselves.”
Morton said her agency works to educate parents about what is appropriate.
“From the earliest ages, the best things for a child are reading and singing and playing and talking. You don’t need a device to do that – to lay that groundwork in nurturing.”
But not all parents are trying to shield their young from influences once considered to be for adults only.
Kids with phones
“We have people who come in and get cell phones for kids who are 4 or 5,” said Sabrina Gray of Cellular Sales in Talladega. “They can use them. We have display phones, and sometimes when children come in here with their parents, they can turn them on and download a game and be playing it before I can pick one up. They know how to answer them and use them.”
Gray said she got her first cell phone when she was 16, and she thinks that’s an appropriate age for most young people to get a phone. “But when they are children of divorce, that complicates things. Younger kids might need a phone to keep up with who’s picking them up or whatever. And there are kids who are 13 or 14 who start doing sports that require practice after school and getting picked up, so it’s different with every situation.”
At Sylacauga’s Nichols Lawson Middle School, Counselor Wendy Arnold said her own children didn’t get cell phones until they were in seventh grade, and she thinks that’s an appropriate age as long as both the children and the parents show some responsibility.
“I’ve seen kids as young as third grade with cell phones, and when parents buy them for them at that young age, they’re buying them for entertainment. They’re not monitoring them,” Arnold said.
“That’s a weapon they put in those kids’ hands. We talk constantly about the dangers of cell phone use.”
She cited sexting and oversharing in videos as dangers young people can get involved in without realizing the consequences.
“Kids end up in trouble because sometimes those pictures are used as evidence.”
If a student posted video of a fight in a school bathroom, for instance, that could prove that the poster witnessed the fight without reporting it, used their cell phone during school when it was supposed to be turned off and left in a locker, and possibly that he or she was not where they were supposed to be at a certain time, Arnold said. That could lead to trouble not only for students involved in such a fight, but also for the one who shot and posted the video.
Child’s first pet
Having a first pet is an important milestone for many children, and careful consideration should be given when determining if a child is responsible enough to take care of a pet.
“Usually around the 6- or 7-year-old range is what I would suggest,” said veterinarian Dr. Larry Chasteen of Pell City. “It’s according to the maturity of the child.” He said children as young as 4 can be taught to go through the motions of caring for a dog or cat, but the initiative to remember to do the daily chores wouldn’t be there.
Chasteen believes pets helps children develop socially, and he recommends smaller-breed puppies as children’s pets. “You would want a dog that doesn’t grow too big too fast. A lab is such a good-natured dog, but they’ll get so big they can bowl a child over and hurt them without meaning to.”
Dachshunds, terriers and beagles are great first pets because of their good nature and size. Adopting an adult dog for a child’s pet could be risky because an older dog may feel threatened by a child’s quick, jerky moves, which could lead to scratching or biting.
Kittens can also be good children’s pets, though there’s a tendency to scratch. “Either it works or it doesn’t,” he said.
Chasteen recommends steering clear of exotic or pocket pets for young children.
More options today
In Talladega, R.L. Young Elementary School teacher Kelly Davidson recognizes a difference between her busy childhood and that of her three children.
“I was pretty much involved in a lot of activities, but I think the difference now is there are so many other things offered that our children have an opportunity to participate in. Some of it is positive, and some can be somewhat negative. It’s up to the parents to figure out what’s most important and try to keep their children involved.”
Davidson said she and her husband, Hal, keep the computers and television in their house password-protected, to limit both the content that her children see and also their screen time.
“That may sound a little strict, but it encourages my children to do more things outdoors,” such as playing soccer and helping care for the family’s German shepherds.
Davidson said her college-age daughter and 13-year-old son have cell phones; her 11-year-old son does not. Each of her children bought their own laptop computers, and they have e-readers to help with school work.
Her daughter adopted a cat, and is responsible for its food, care and veterinary bills.
She said her kids don’t necessarily like all the regulations, but they always express their appreciation when they recognize that they have made an achievement they might not have made if they spent unlimited time online or watching TV.
“Among all the juggling of sports and school and everything, we are very involved in our church and youth program. I feel that is the foundation of a successful family,” Davidson said.
Peer pressure and the awkwardness of growing up haven’t changed through the generations, but technology is providing better tools for bullying, Sylacauga’s Arnold said.
“These kids are faced with so much more than we were. Social media is really tough. Facebook is one of my biggest issues at school. Even though it doesn’t involve school, they bring it to school. They come in my office saying, ‘So and so said this about me on her Facebook page.’ Then the parents get involved and instead of monitoring them, they’re posting stuff and sometimes causing bigger drama. They’re growing up in a troubling time.”
Facebook, the largest social media platform, has an age limit of 13, but published reports have said as many as 7.5 million users are below the age limit, frequently with a nod from the parents.
“With our generation, our parents stayed on top of every move we made,” Arnold continued. “We just don’t see that anymore. That’s frightening to me, not only as a parent but as an educator. You just don’t have the guidance from parents. The expectations just aren’t there. It’s scary and it’s sad. We have great kids, they just need a push. At my house growing up, bad grades just didn’t happen. Now parents accept it and say their kids are finding themselves.”
She continued, “So many of our kids are growing up in single-parent families, and the kids are taking on more responsibility. Your heart breaks when you listen to what they have to deal with. They want their lives to be simpler.”