Top Tips: Are you buying a tablet for your child?

You’d be forgiven for thinking unknown forces are at work when you see the attraction of jam-ridden fingers towards shiny touchscreen devices. Tablets have evolved from the bulky early iPad to a market now filled with high-definition displays, and have now overtaken laptops in popularity.

Top Tips: Are you buying a tablet for your child?

It’s not really surprising that children enjoy using these devices – they’re designed to be lightweight and intuitive to use, after all. And, while interaction with technology shouldn’t be discouraged, there are several things to keep in mind before you hand over a tablet to a child. Here are a few.

Growth of tablets for children

Peter Jenkinson: The number of kid-focused tablets that have appeared is both impressive and slightly annoying. It’s impressive that so many devices appeared almost overnight from previously unknown brands, all trying to encourage parents to buy. What’s annoying is the “stick a kid’s character on it and they will come” approach, which has brought a number of below-average devices to the aisles.

The poor processing speeds and questionable content on these devices often leads to children demanding to play with their parents’ devices.

Alphr says: The growth of tablets isn’t something you can just run and hide from. Your child will be interacting with mobile devices at school, in museums and elsewhere, and will understandably want to have the same experiences at home. This doesn’t mean running out to buy whatever kid-branded device you can find. If you have a spare tablet in the house already, or don’t use your own device very often, buying a new, kid-friendly tablet isn’t essential.

With a little common sense, you can easily find child-friendly apps via the Family section on the Google Play store. Most apps don’t require an overly powerful device to run, and thanks to Google’s screening process and user reviews, it’s easy to find great apps and games for your child to enjoy.

Which brands should parents trust?

Peter Jenkinson: Kid-tech specialist VTech recently announced its takeover of LeapFrog, but it also admitted to having its entire database hacked. Its Learning Lodge was compromised, and little has been done since to restore any confidence.

In fact, the last word was of a change in its terms and conditions, taking a zero-accountability approach. Many parents had come to trust both brand names with the “edutainment” of their kids, but these latest revelations mean we should approach each with caution for now.

But don’t worry: not only have other manufacturers come up with child-specific tablet offerings, but the prices of more grown-up tablets have declined too, making it worth considering these for children.

Alphr says: If you look beyond the kid-friendly logo, there are a number of mainstream tablets you could consider for your children.

The best of these is Amazon’s Fire tablet range. The company’s Fire OS software has extensive integrated parental controls, allowing you to restrict the amount of time spent using the tablet and the sort of content consumed.

Plus, with prices reaching as low as £50 for the Amazon Fire tablet, you don’t need to take out a mortgage to supply the whole family.

It’s also possible for children to use a “grown-up” tablet safely by installing a parental-control app such as Qustodio. This allows you to apply content and app restrictions, and even have reports delivered to you over email informing you what your children have been up to.

Either way, there’s no need to buy a “kid-friendly” device to keep your children safe.

What about the screen-time issue?

Peter Jenkinson: Before taking a look at the best tablets on offer for children, there are some who believe that children should have little or no screen time. To say that technology is a growing part of our society and that children should be digitally savvy simply isn’t enough.

Having controlled-screen access – controlling both the time allowed, and the content accessed – is simply being responsible. Tablets aren’t digital babysitters, but they can be a godsend when used appropriately, especially for long journeys.

Alphr says: There are two issues here that need attention – the quantity of time, and the content consumed during that window. Dealing with the second is relatively easy: Google has given easy-to-follow instructions on how to enable parental controls in the Google Play store, and Apple has similar safeguards in place for iPads. Both of these lock down inappropriate content, making it accessible only with a password or passcode that you choose. Some tablets also have kid-safe sandboxes that allow only apps of your choice, which is a good bet for children too young to try to escape it.

If you’re worried that the tablet will take over your child’s life, Screen Time is a great answer for iOS and Android tablets. Rather than simply switching the tablet off after a certain time, the app allows you to remotely put restrictions on some apps (say, two hours of Minecraft per day) while leaving others unfiltered (no limits on a revision guide, for example). You can disable everything after bedtime, and put separate limits on school nights and holidays – you can even offer more time on their favourite apps as an incentive for other goals.

As Peter explains above, none of this is a substitute for parental supervision, but it’s a little extra peace of mind for when you can’t be there.

How should we view a child’s use of tech?

Peter Jenkinson: Look at tablets as an “edutainment” device: load them with a balanced menu of content, from pure fun and films to undercover learning apps, of which there are many.

Restrict content access from the get-go, and make sure you’re always the one in charge of the device. You don’t want to realise this too late, after you’ve had that head-in-hands bill from unfortunate in-app purchases that your child has made.

Alphr says: Your children will grow up in a very different world to the one you grew up in. Digital technology is ever-present, as is access to a seemingly unlimited reservoir of information. Controlling access to tablets is therefore a very complex issue, and one that requires a balanced understanding of the fact your child’s digital literacy will likely surpass your own.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be in control. You definitely should. While your child will become adept at using touchscreens and navigating the internet, you’ll need to make sure there are limits to what they can access, and that any payments go through you. As with the real world, you want to demark a safe area for play and learning.

While digital literacy is important, traditional literacy is even more essential. Tablets can be a great tool for fun and education, but encouraging your child to take the time to stick with one story is crucial. Trust your instincts, and don’t throw away your books.   

Find out more about children’s online safety issues at Internet Matters.

This article is brought to you by TalkTalk

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