These days, there’s no right or wrong age to get your kid their own computer. Everyone’s on a computer already — it’s, literally, what TV used to be for the MTV generation.
What you might want to do, though, is to lay down a foundation that will encourage to use it responsibly. And to install safeguards that steer them towards that direction, just in case they forget (as younger kids will often do) things you’ve previously agreed upon.
Experts recommend no more than 3 hours of “screen time” for younger children. Much more that and they can end up depending on computers a little too much for their entertainment, foregoing going out to play with other kids and learning other skills with physical educational toys.
There are many software out there which will set daily time limits on the use of a computer, automatically shutting it down once the limit is reached. Make sure they have an easily visible display that keeps your child aware of how much time they have left at any given time. Some of them can even be controlled remotely, either from your own computer or from a smartphone. Either way, this should be easy enough to do.
Parental Control Software
Most modern parental control software (especially commercial ones) can already do the above task, along with a host of other features that let you keep a firm grasp on your children’s computer usage. At the least, you’ll want to find a program that will block inappropriate websites, set schedules of use and has a proven track record against hacking (yes, your children will try to hack it).
More advanced control and monitoring software can also limit access to games (based on ESRB ratings), keep track of chats and IMs, and monitor social networks. For the most part, you won’t need a lot of these advanced features for younger children, but they’re nice to have as future-ready capabilities.
Mac or PC
Personally, I think it’s smarter to give your kids a Mac (if you can afford it, that is). They have a ton of fun software bundled that children can easily get into, whether they want to make their own music, record their own videos or just plain explore what’s available. Stuff like GarageBand offer a more creative outlet compared to the Flash games websites that children will often default to without other cool software to play with.
If you want to use a PC, try to load it with useful educational and creative software that your children can play around with, such as music making software (there are free simple ones available) or greeting card makers. Believe me — you’d rather have your kid making their own stupid webcam movies and editing them than having them spend hour after hour playing mindless arcade and casual games.
Aside from parental monitoring programs, the following security software should be installed into new children’s computers:
• For Windows, make sure to install the Microsoft Security Essentials, a free download that’s often good enough to protect from viruses, spyware and similar security threats. Just make sure to set system restore at least once (after you’ve installed all software), so you can go back to a fresh system, in case any virus or spyware attack manages to get in.
• For Macs, there are plenty of free antivirus and anti-malware programs available, including Sopho, Comodo and iAntivirus. More robust programs, like Kaspersky’s full version, also aren’t as expensive as their Windows counterparts.
Pre-Install All The Necessary Software
If you want to be able to manage your children’s computer use, then you need to take the helm in setting up the kinds of software they use. At the very least, they’ll need:
1. Web browser. Forget IE, just start your children on the right track and download Chrome. It’s faster, leaner and more secure. We also suggest installing the Adblock extension while you’re at it to minimize all the distracting ads that clueless kids will just click on without discrimination.
2. Office software. Granted, your kid won’t exactly need a word processor or a spreadsheet, but office programs are a staple in most every computer. It won’t hurt to let children play around with them, especially since they’ll be using them later in life anyway.
3. Book reader. Install a book reader in there, along with a few books that are appropriate for your child’s age. Just try to disable the in-software purchase options. You don’t want to give your child free rein in shopping for books — your bill can literally end up getting out of control.
4. Comic book reader. If you want to minimize the time your kids play games on a computer, then you need to give them more entertainment options. Installing a comic book reader should allow them to get access a few free downloadable comic books. You can also buy them issues of any titles they like occasionally.
5. Offline games. Try to install as many offline games as you can. Doing so gives you more control of what games your children play with on a computer, allowing you to steer them towards more educational and less-violent titles. Otherwise, you’ll just find them trawling through websites for flash games and the like, where the computer can be exposed to viruses and malware of all sorts.
6. Drawing program. A free drawing program (like Tux Paint or Xara), paired with an optional cheap tablet (like the $99 Bamboo Pen & Touch), can make for hours and hours of engaging creative time. Children love to draw and these tools will allow them plenty of room to do it. Just make sure to walk them through the drawing program so they don’t get frustrated and switch to browsing on SpongeBob Squarepant’s website instead.
Show Them The Basics, But Give Them Room To Explore
When you first give them the computer, show them the basics (if they don’t already know) and lay down the rules. That way, they’ll have a better idea of how to use their new computer, rather than always coming to you or, worse, doing crazy things on their own.
However, part of the wonder of computers is just how much you can explore and discover with them. Let your kids enjoy that part by giving them some room to experiment and figure things out for themselves.