Every year there are a handful of gifts that everyone goes ga-ga over, and lately it seems that every year these gifts become more and more “techy”. Kids used to want bikes, RC cars, dolls, and Lego sets; now it’s iPods, cell phones, and laptops. Not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing—times are changing and our children are right there trying their best to keep up—but the caveats that came with purchasing a doll or Lego set extended as far as a “this toy is a choking hazard” warning label. These days, more specifically this holiday season, if parents decide to buy their child a popular tech gadget, then they have a bit more work to do to ensure their child’s safety, both online and in the real world.
Listed below are 5 popular gift items for kids this holiday season, as well as some advice on what to consider before you decide to cough up the dough:
This peripheral hardware device probably has the highest demand of all the gifts listed here. As an extension of Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the Kinect allows users to play certain games by using their body as the controller. In order to use the Kinect, you have to own a 360 as well as Kinect-compatible games.
I have to admit, the technology is fascinating. In fact, I got a chance to watch my daughter play Dance Central on it and seeing the instant-replay montage of her dancing had us both laughing till it hurt. That said, however, the Kinect is essentially a giant webcam for the Xbox—meaning, if your child has an Xbox Live account, they can easily set up a video chat with another Kinect user, friend or not.
Another thing to keep in mind: The Kinect sensor can take photos and videos of your child when they’re playing certain Kinect games. According to Microsoft, in some cases, these videos and photos can be made available for download at Kinectshare.com. The good thing is, this uploaded content is only visible under your Kinect account, unless you/your child decides otherwise via the Kinect Share website.
Good news is, Microsoft makes it fairly simple to turn the video chat capability and Kinect Share feature off via the Family Settings. Here’s a list of FAQs that I found to be really useful, as well as an Xbox safety guide that I put together a while back before the Kinect came out.
***My advice: If you’re planning on purchasing the Kinect as a gift for your child this holiday season, set it up for them ahead of time—from what I hear the process is fairly long. Plus, this will give you some time to make sure all the proper safety measures have been taken.
Though this device came out a couple of years ago, it’s still hugely popular among kids and teens. Not only is it the most versatile iPod on the market, but it’s a fully-fledged pocket PC, and that means parents will need to take a few precautionary steps before wrapping this up and placing it under the tree.
Some words of advice from a mom (me) who just bought one of these for her son’s birthday: My son loves YouTube, in fact, if he could be on it all day, he probably would. So it’s no surprise that one of the main reasons he wanted an iPod Touch was so he could watch YouTube in the palm of his hand—plus, he’s messed with my iPhone enough to know what it’s capable of.
Like the advice I’m giving you here, I wanted to set it all up prior to giving to him for b-day. So I started adding apps that I thought he’d like, I set the content restrictions so he couldn’t listen to explicit music or watch explicit videos, etc. But when I got to the YouTube app, I found that there wasn’t an option to enable YouTube’s Safety Mode, there was only the option to disable (remove) the app from the device completely, or leave it as-is. So I figured that I would remove the YouTube app, and then set up Safety Mode via the Safari app, and my son would just have to watch YouTube videos through that. But it didn’t cross my mind that YouTube was flash based, and Apple, as most of you know, doesn’t support flash. So there you go…if you decide to buy an iPod Touch this year, just remember, there are some really great parental controls that come with it, but it’s also missing some important ones that will leave parents (like me) shaking their head in disbelief.
***My advice: Set it up before you hand it over. Follow this guide to get the best of the safety features. And if YouTube has you worried even in the least bit, consider getting an mp3 player that only plays mp3s (there are plenty out there).
Video Games –
OK, this is a huge category obliviously, but what I’m referring to are video games that encourage online play. What do I mean by “encouraging online play”? Well, for the most part, there are three types of video games: games that have no online play functionality at all, games that sell purely because of the online multiplayer value that it has, and games that sort of fall in between.
For example, most of (if not all) of the Kinect games are meant to be played by yourself or with another physical person—in other words, there is no multiplayer feature for these games. There are also games like the Lego Batmans and the Lego Harry Potters that don’t harp on online multiplayer. But then there are games like Madden and Call of Duty, which are amazing pieces of software on their own, but they encourage players to hop online to play with others. And these games have been hugely successful due to the millions of people who do just that. However, online gaming is a huge avenue for bullying and harassment. Anyone who engages in online multiplayer knows that this is an issue which has plagued online gaming services like Xbox Live for a while now.
On the other hand, there are other online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and RuneScape, both of which attract millions of subscribers. Needless to say, these services also present a huge opportunity for sex predators, bullies, stalkers, identity thieves, hackers, etc.
Yoursphere doesn’t have any online subscriptions other than to Yoursphere.com, because, as you know, Yoursphere verifies identities so no one is anonymous, and we use this as a way to limit the community to just kids and teens. Again, just a few things to keep in mind when holiday shopping for video games.
***My advice: Just like everything else in the world of technology, video games are taking a more social approach to things—it just might not be for your child. But that’s OK, because there are plenty of games out there that don’t encourage online multiplayer. Be sure to check out the game description and ESRB rating before you buy it. On the other hand, if you have young children in the house, you may want to reconsider even having an Xbox Live subscription.
No surprise here. The iPhone has single-handedly revolutionized the way we use cell phones as a society. If your child wants an iPhone this holiday season, chances are they’re referring to this version. That said, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
For the most part I’ve covered the ins and outs of the iPhone’s safety features with this guide here, so I won’t get into that any further. But what I do want to address is FaceTime, which is the iPhone 4’s video call/chat feature, and the main difference between the older models and the 4. This feature may be of some concern to parents for obvious reasons. Sexting is already bad as it is; FaceTime only has the potential to exacerbate this. Here’s how to disable it:
1. Go to Settings > General > Restrictions in your device.
2. Just Tap to enable restrictions and you will be prompted to enter your passcode.
3. On the Restrictions screen, just turn off FaceTime to disable it.
***My advice: If you decide to go with the iPhone 4 as your holiday cell phone purchase, be sure to set it all up ahead of time. This can save you the hassle of taking it back from your child after they’ve already held it in their hand and discovered that they can make video calls to their friends.
Again, another broad category of potential holiday gifts. But as the computer becomes one of the main mediums of communication for most young people (social networks, IM, email, etc), they’re starting to want their own portable versions that they can bring with them to school or set up in their room—just like a smart phone, only more powerful.
The safety precautions that you follow when setting up any computer in your home should be the same for a laptop if/when you decide to let your child have their own. This means installing the proper anti-virus software, configuring the content advisor on their browser, setting up YouTube Safety Mode and Google Safesearch, and having a nice long talk with them about Internet safety. Additionally, there’s one other thing that parents need to be wary of, and that’s the webcam that comes installed on almost every single laptop on the market today.
Webcams are the visual portal that sex predators use to solicit children. A perfect example is Chatroulette. If it wasn’t for webcams, this site wouldn’t even exist. Webcams can also be misused with chat applications like Skype, where millions of strangers can easily request a video chat with your child. Again, just a few more things to consider when shopping for laptops.
***My advice: Though your child may really want their own laptop, this might be a better gift for older kids. Granted, there are a few netbooks and Dell laptops out there that omit the webcam, but owning a device like this still requires a lengthy setup process if parents want to make sure their kids are safe online.