Introducing Your Child to Computers and the Internet

Mother with child tying on keyboard
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There is no right or wrong time to introduce your child to the family computer. Much like deciding when to buy the first bike, or when your child can go out alone with friends, the choice will be based on your parenting style, your values and, most importantly, your child's readiness. Consider the following milestones as you help your children learn how to use the computer, how to communicate online, and how to remain safe.

Introduction to the Computer

Depending on your lifestyle, the basic introduction to the computer might be as early as a week or two old as you hold your infant and surf the web. In reality, though, most children won't even notice the machine until at least 6 months of age. After this point, they may start to notice colors, pictures, and sounds.

Between the ages of 1 and 2, your child will start to understand the basics of cause and effect, as well as the need to be gentle with the keyboard. There are games that require simply touching a key on the keyboard for something magical to happen. If your child is interested and you are ready to take the plunge, this is a good time to start to introduce the basics of the keyboard and the mouse. Don't expect too much, however. They will mainly be exploring at this point and will most likely not have the fine motor skills to control the mouse.

Using Software With an Adult

By the age of about 3 or 4, your child will start to be ready for real software with storylines and puzzles to solve. This is the time to help them learn to use the mouse and to begin to understand what the keyboard is for. They will be recognizing letters and numbers, and many of the software available will support that learning. The focus at this age will include learning colors, shapes, letters, and numbers. They'll practice simple grouping and sorting, and possibly recognizing patterns. It's also a good age for music and artistic software. Make sure to balance your collection between structured learning software where there is a right or wrong answer and open play software where they can create or explore freely.

This is also an important age to encourage healthy computing habits, such as using proper posture and taking regular breaks.

Using Software Independently

There are many software packages designed for young children that require no reading at all. Once your child understands how to use a mouse, they are old enough to use the computer on their own. Around the age of 4 or 5, they will still be using preschool software, but they may be able to use it independently. You can start to teach them how to turn the computer on and off and how to start their favorite pieces of software. Make sure they understand family rules about the computer, such as asking for permission and only using certain programs on their own.

Getting Online With an Adult

Most websites require at least some reading ability, so they aren't appropriate until your child is able to read simple sentences easily. This is typically in first grade. Although you may have gone online with your child in the past, this is a good time to start talking about the basics of Internet safety. Introduce your child to age-appropriate websites and spend time online with them. Enjoy this time, as this is just about the age when they start to seek more independence.

At any time now, your child may show some interest in keeping a journal or diary. If they are interested in keeping it on the computer, talk with them about the privacy of the document. Much like a paper diary, the value for the writer is often in knowing that no one will read it. It is up to you whether you would like to give your child a fully private space to express their thoughts on the computer, but it's wise to be clear about that in advance.

First Email Account and More Advanced Software

As your child gets older, his or her friends may start asking for an email address to communicate at home. Since email requires stronger reading abilities as well as the ability to write, they might start using an account in the second or third grade. They are not yet old enough, however, to read their email without some adult censoring and supervision. Spam is rampant and most of it is not appropriate for young eyes.

Set up an account for your child on your computer and share the address with grandparents and aunts and uncles. Use an email package that downloads your messages to your machine. This allows you to download the messages in advance and delete inappropriate content. You can set up the account to only download upon command.

Although they will not be reading their mail alone, this is also a good time to start discussing Spam and what to do if they receive a message that makes them uncomfortable.

This is a great time to make a departure from primarily educational software to family-friendly games. Simulation games range from learning to fly a plane to running your own zoo. These are a lot of fun for kids in this age group. There are also mystery games, word puzzles, drawing software, and more that are age-appropriate and a lot of fun. Take the time to learn the software with your child, as they may still struggle with some of the reading and navigation. As they feel more comfortable with a piece of software, give them more independence to play on their own. Don't forget to set some rules about how long and when they can use the computer.

Using Email, Going Online Independently

Over the next few years, start increasing the difficulty of the software available and pay close attention to which things keep your kids engaged. This allows you to seek out new programs that match their interests but may also give you some idea of other preferences in their life. Expect that there will be peer pressure to try out games that are more violent or suggestive than you prefer. Don’t be afraid to say no, but also take the time to see if there are more appropriate alternatives for your kids. For example, if your child is into baseball you may suggest a computer baseball game.

As your child approaches the teenage years, there are a lot of parenting decisions to be made. When are they old enough to go out with friends on their own? When can they date? These decisions are closely related to what should be appropriate for their computer usage at home.

When you allow your kids out on their own, you’re putting a certain amount of trust in them, as well as some faith in your skills as a parent. Allowing a child to use email or the web alone requires that same trust and faith. Only you know your child well enough to make the decision about allowing that level of independence, but this is a good time to start testing things out. It should be noted that the age of 13 is the cut-off for the Children’s Privacy Protection Act, suggesting that after that age, kids are getting old enough to understand what information they should, and should not share with others. This might help you make the decision for your own family

Regardless of when you decide it’s appropriate to let go of some of the control over what your kids see and do, it’s not a good idea to simply walk away. Let your kids know that you’ll be monitoring their activities to make sure that they are following the rules and behaving in a safe manner. Explain that they need to prove that they are able to take the responsibility seriously and that it will take some time. Spot checking email correspondence and the browser history can help you make sure they’re sticking to their guidelines.

Letting Go

At some point, you’re going to have to let go of your kids and hope that you’ve taught them well. After all, they won’t live at home forever. As your child progresses through their teenage years, it’s a good time to start to give them more privacy and trust. Continue to keep an eye on their habits, taking note if they seem to be spending too much time online, or neglecting their friends.