Choosing the best tech gifts for kids

Experts in tech and education share their tips on how to pick the best gifts.

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This holiday season, there are more considerations when finding the right tech gifts for kids. Some of this tech carries more benefits than just being a shiny new toy. Unlike previous years, it has become a vital connection to the outside world — learning in the stay-in-at-home classroom and staying connected with extended family.

“Because of the pandemic, we’ve had so many opportunities to see what kids do online,” says Elizabeth Milovidov, an attorney and eSafety expert on digital parenting. Just because we’re feeling more comfortable with using tech in our homes, that doesn’t mean the decision to buy a new device shouldn’t still pass through a few quality safety checks.

To help parents feel more empowered this holiday season, we asked Milovidov and other leading experts in family safety, education and digital parenting for their tips on how to find the best tech gifts for kids. Here’s what they said.

Your starting point: a checklist for each tech gift

The first step is to establish the parameters for what makes the gift a good one, beginning with these questions:

  • Is it age-appropriate for your child?

  • Run the device past other parents. What was their experience?

  • Does it have a rating on Common Sense Media? The research-based group reviews tech and entertainment for parents and educators.

  • Test yourself: If it’s a connected device, can you easily understand the parental control and security options?

You might also want to start with the basics and consider whether or not the product has the necessary tools to do schoolwork, says Stephen Balkam, CEO and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute: “Is there a need for a new laptop, or a tablet, or some other kind of device they’ll need to talk with their teacher or collaborate with other students in class?”

AR/VR-compatible tablets

The use of augmented, virtual and mixed reality in classrooms is on the rise, and that trend is here to stay, says Jaime Donally, an expert on the subject.

“It’s not a fidget spinner,” she says. “It’s not going away.”

When you start shopping for tablets, look for one with access to front- and rear-facing cameras, Donally says—essential for accessing augmented reality apps. This feature has become more standard in the past few years, but double-check to be sure the tablet can switch between the different cameras—otherwise, it limits activity and interactions.

She also recommends that the tablet have access to an AR app — the most advanced augmented reality for mobile devices is Apple’s ARKit or Google’s ARCore technology, Donally says.

What you should know: While kids might be asking for the latest, most expensive tablets and laptops, there are more affordable options with the features above. Verizon’s Smart Family app recently added tablets to the list of devices that parents can control, making it easier to manage content, screen time and communication with tools for content filtering, monitoring web and app activity, and pausing the internet.

Smart watches

If a kid is too young for a phone or tablet, Balkam says, the GizmoWatch is a good first tech step.

“If the immediate issue is ‘I need my child to reach me in an emergency,’ or ‘Where is my kid?’, you can look it up straight away and get a sense of security,” he says. “It has a step counter and a few games, and that’s just enough to have the cool factor. You don’t have to worry about them getting access to the web.”

The Gizmo does have a few additional tools—alarms, to-do lists and a weather app—that can help kids stay on top of their day, says Neil Mitchell, a media consultant focused on online safety and technology. You can set daily chores and reminders, such as “brush teeth for two minutes” or “read 15 minutes before bed,” as well as physical activity and step-count goals.

What you should know: You’ll add the device and phone line to your monthly plan, and you can add up to 10 contacts that your child can call or text from the watch.

Gaming consoles

Milovidov says that during the time at home with her son, “I’ve been watching how he’s gaming.” Many parenting concerns about gaming have been tempered in recent months as new studies show that gaming nurtures an interest in STEM careers, provides more kids with a way to socialize and helps ease pandemic-related anxieties.

After watching her son engage in games, she’s convinced her rising 10-year-old is ready for a Nintendo Switch: “I can see now, with more age and more time, it’s going to be fun, because I’ll be able to play too.”

What you should know: A good way to see whether your child is mature enough for the responsibility of a new game or a new gaming console is if they can put away tech easily when asked.

Smart speakers

With supervision, smart speakers make a great family gift. Parents love setting timers for start and stop times on these devices, Balkam says. And it’s tech that doesn’t rely on a child’s eyes to interact with.

What you should know: Review and understand what types of words will “wake up” the device, such as “Hey, Google” or “Alexa.” If possible, look for one that lets you change the wake word or phrase to something trickier, such as “Hey, Rumpelstiltskin,” so it’s clear to you and your child when the device is being activated.

The gift of your attention—and good digital parenting

“Kids are getting starved of their parents’ attention because we’re looking down at our devices so much,” Balkam says. The holidays can be a great time to put the tech aside and review your digital habits as a family.

Lead the way by practicing good digital habits yourself. And when you’re looking at your phone while the child is in the room, verbalize what you’re doing, Balkam says: “I’m checking the recipe for dinner,” or “I’m looking up how to get to your ballet class.” Let them know how you’re using the device.

Good digital parenting also means understanding parental controls and using them to give kids an age-appropriate amount of freedom. Brush up on online safety tools. And talk with your kids about what rules might be suitable for the family.

“It’s so important that we talk about how we use our technology,” Milovidov says, “so it’s not using us.”

Need help getting the conversation started? Download these tools to prompt your family discussions about using tech at home.

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