Avoiding tech-gift pitfalls

One of the biggest sources of holiday stress, at least for me, is gift giving — especially when it comes to kids. As parents, we want to make our children happy, but we don’t want to spend a million dollars doing it. 

Many of us are also wary of overindulging our budding consumers. Shouldn’t our kids experience a healthy dose of disappointment to build character? And, hey, speaking of overindulging them, is this the year we ask the grandparents to cut back a little? 

Complicating matters is the issue of technology. If you’re considering a high-tech gift for your kids (or for the kids of a friend or relative), you have a lot to think about: Not only do you have to make a good match in terms of your budget and the child’s age, interests and abilities, but you also have to consider the family’s values. 

Gaming systems, tablet computers, smartphones and other devices can make all sorts of changes to a family’s culture. 

There’s a lot more to love about technology than there is to fear. 

You’re not only giving the gift of entertainment, you’re also giving access to the sprawling online world — not to mention a big, fat time-sucker.

You’re also giving a potential money-sucker. Devices and games often come with future expenses such as batteries, accessories or more games. And when kids are online, money can find many ways to flit off into cyberspace.

If you’re giving tech this year, check out the reviews for the product you’re considering on Common Sense Media. This huge, unbiased, free online database contains reviews of apps and games (as well as movies, books, TV shows, websites, music and other media). 

I really like its realistic focus: They know kids watch a lot of screens, and they’re not schoolmarms about it. They want you to make the smartest decisions you can, given that reality. Another good online resource is the Children’s Technology Review. 

After you give a tech gift, consider your job as gift-giver only halfway finished. Take this opportunity to educate your child about financial responsibility. Here are a few smart-money tips for tech gifting:

It’s real money: Although you’ll safeguard your child’s device so she can’t click and spend without your permission, it’s still smart to talk about online spending. Even experienced consumers find it all too easy to spend carelessly online. You can download music, rent a movie and buy a pair of shoes all with a simple keystroke: Click, and the money’s gone. Teach them to weigh their decisions as carefully as they would if they were spending cash.

Beware of zombie brains: Do the same with in-app purchases. It’s not always clear to kids that those extra zombie brains (for instance) cost real money. Educate kids not to click anything that says “buy,” “purchase” or “rent” without your permission, or you just might get a bill for $90 worth of zombie brains you didn’t order.

Avoid prepay pitfalls: Another potential problem is preloaded money in the iTunes store, Google Marketplace or elsewhere. This is real money, too, and their spending decisions should be made accordingly. When the prepaid money runs out, make sure any overage isn’t going onto your credit card.

Manage data usage: If the gift is a smartphone, be sure kids understand limits on minutes and data usage. Teach them to limit data usage to times when they’re on wi-fi as opposed to a data network (though most carriers will alert you if you’re close to going over your limit). One of my sons streamed John Green videos through most of a three-hour car ride, but thankfully I got a text from the provider when we neared our limit. 

Prevent fraud: If kids will be going online, teach them about the risks of fraud and child identity theft. While the concept of damaged credit may be oblique to a kid, everyone who goes online needs to know not to share passwords with anyone besides a parent (no, not even a BFF). Kids should change their passwords often, and they should never give out personal information online — not even their name — to anyone asking for it without an adult to help them make sure it’s safe.

Even if your child accidentally orders 10 American Girl dolls, there’s a lot more to love about technology than there is to fear. Our kids will almost certainly need to be deft with tech when they hit the job market down the road, so building these smart skills now is wise, despite the risks.