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Smart Rules of Thumb for Children's App Use

Just when you thought children had enough media and technology in their lives, the market for mobile applications (or "apps," as they have come to be known) has exploded. Since opening in July 2008, Apple's iTunes App Store has already had more than 4 billion downloads of the 350,000 apps it offers, according to Juniper Research. That stat is quickly rising and doesn't even include apps for other kinds of smartphones like Blackberry and Android.

How do we navigate this new technology for our kids? The following guidelines can help.

The Right Age for Beginning App Use
The American Academy of Pediatrics has not yet released age guidelines on children's cell phone, smartphone, and app use. "There really is no 'right' age to allow our kids to dip a toe into the digital pond," the AAP has said. But the AAP recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time (such as quality TV and videos) a day for older children and no screen time for children under the age of 2. Parents may want to apply these screen-time limits to kids' mobile device use, too.

You can find a few apps on the market with a recommended age as young as 6 months, such as MiniPiano (a simple 14-note keyboard app). There are thousands of apps that start at the age 2 or 3 range. The recommended age range for a particular app comes from the developer, but you are the best judge of whether apps are appropriate for your child.

Like it or not, app use is becoming a common practice among kids. A 2009 study by Greystripe advertising network found that 59 percent of mothers with iPhones let their kids use their phones, and 41 percent download games specifically for their kids.

There's even a new kid-friendly case for the iPhone called a Woogie – essentially a stuffed animal with a pocket and speakers to safely cradle the pricy smartphone.

App Health and Safety Considerations
Online predators and cyberbullies may lurk in the app community just as they do in online chat rooms and social networks. While most apps don't involve contact with other people, teach your child never to give out his name or contact information online or when using an app that involves a community of other players or users. Help him set up security blocks on his Facebook page, and tell him to let you know if he is being bothered or cyberbullied by anyone.

Help safeguard your child by going over a parent-child online and app use agreement. Decide on a time limit, like one hour a day of non-homework-related screen time for your child, and keep tabs on the types of apps your child is downloading and using. Parental-control apps range in price from free to $20 and up, and they allow you to block the purchase of adult content apps and set Internet time limits for your child. Many parental control apps still have glitches and loopholes, but they can help establish some limits.

Consider these health aspects related to app use:

  • Eye health – Eye health experts have found that hours of screen time can cause temporary eyestrain and fatigue. The American Optometric recommends the 20-20-20 rule: at least every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break from your screen, and look at something 20 feet away.
  • Ear health – A recent hearing study found that one in five teens has hearing loss, mostly likely due to listening to loud music through headphones. Keep this stat in mind when your child uses apps with loud music and sound effects.
  • Sleep – Another recent study found that kids who use their cell phones in their bedroom at night often lose hours of sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to distraction in school and depression.
  • Radiation – Because cell phones – and smartphones in particular – have not been around for long, more research is needed to determine if there is a link between cell phone radiation and brain tumors. In the meantime, pediatricians have noted that children's softer skulls are more susceptible to exposure.

If you're concerned about cell phone or smartphone radiation, a nonprofit called Environmental Working Group releases rankings of cell phones by radiation level. Because Wi-Fi, wireless Internet networks, emit much lower levels of radiation than mobile phone networks, using apps and the Internet on a computer, iPad, iPod Touch, or other Wi-Fi device may be a safer alternative.

More on: Internet Safety


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