Good News, Dad News: Tech Training Wheels

Joel Oliphint
Joel Oliphint

Last Christmas, my wife and I refurbished two iPhones to give to our kids, ages 8 and 10. The phones can't make calls or send text messages, but they can do pretty much everything else, and who actually uses phones for talking anyway?

Apple recently created a Family Sharing plan that allows kids younger than 13 to have their own Apple ID, which parents can then manage by setting restrictions in the App Store, prohibiting songs and movies with explicit material, and so on. It's a way for kids (and parents) to dip their toes into the murky waters of personal electronic devices.

In reality, though, the kids have been swiping on screens for years, snatching our phones or the iPad to play games such as “Stick Hero,” “Pig Shot,” “Run Roo Run,” “Goat Simulator” and the like. Kids today are often raised with (and by) tablets, and it's a constant battle to figure out how much screen time is too much. So while the phones are new(ish), they're familiar, too.

We also wiped an old laptop and turned it into the kids' computer, complete with their own logins and passwords (created by me). The computer stays in a common area in the living room, so any use is supervised to some extent. So far, they use it mostly for school assignments and for playing Roblox, a massively popular gaming platform that seems to have usurped Minecraft as the pixelated thing of choice among 8- to 12-year-olds.

Roblox also makes me nervous. Players can chat with each other during games, which seems like a great way to let trolls manipulate and harass children, so we made the rule that our kids can only chat with friends they know in real life. Anyone else who tries to contact them must be ignored without a response.

But that plan is hardly foolproof, and Roblox is just the first of many social platforms in our future. At some point, they'll want social media accounts, and they're already asking for email addresses and the ability to text their friends. They like to scroll through my Instagram feed, double-tapping with delight and checking to see how many likes my posts received. (Alas, by their metrics, I consistently underperform in this area.)

As a journalist, I'm often privy to the trollish side of the online world. One glance at comments on YouTube is proof the internet can be a scary, cold-hearted place. While I want my kids to be comfortable with tech, I also don't want to throw them into the deep end of the pool without a life raft. Type the wrong word or phrase into Google, and an entire netherworld of nastiness is at the fingertips of a kid who just recently hit the double digits. That aspect of the internet, and my kids' potential exposure to it, terrifies me.

Anxieties and paranoia aside, though, the refurbished computer and phones have been fun. One of the kids loves to write stories in Google Docs and then send them to me so I can edit and leave comments. They also play against us and both of their grandmas in a word game that allows for messaging with your opponent, which has become an easy way to keep in touch with family members. My wife and I often receive emojis or updates about someone who fell in gym class or questions about how long they have to practice piano. The best, though, is when they send a message just to say, “I love you!”

Joel Oliphint is associate editor ofColumbus Alive. His son recently crushed his high score in Crossy Road.