My friend Patti Connolly is an educational development specialist who has consulted and worked with schools for nearly thirty years. Today when she visits schools she’s often asked how to introduce technology to young children. “Just as you would never hand over a kitchen knife to a two-year-old, you shouldn’t just hand them a digital device either,” says Connolly. She suggests “satisfying a young child’s natural curiosity by showing them what these screens are all about and then how to use them in intentional ways.

That word “intentional” came up a lot while I was interviewing experts for my book. Dr. Chip Donohue is the director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at the Erikson Institute and an author of a position statement for early childhood educators. The paper is meant to serve as a guide for teachers who use technology with young children. According to Donohue, “We’re seeing great promise when technology is used intentionally and appropriately and in the context of relationships… We’ve gone from worrying about technology to having deeper conversations about its appropriate and intentional use and more.”

What Is the Appropriate and Intentional Use of Technology?

Every parent hopes their children will use technology appropriately. Achieving this objective requires that parents show (and model) how to be respectful, kind, and smart online. It also takes time. A young child simply isn’t ready to deal with the inevitable mean comment, unkind text, a post that doesn’t get many “likes,” an unsolicited advance from a stranger, a request for a sexy image, a humiliating photo shared online, or the barrage of f-bombs (which my students tell me is the normalized language of multiplayer games). Teaching, modeling, and waiting are the three steps it takes to get kids to use technology as “appropriately” as a parent would like.

But it’s the word “intentional” that’s really important. Because here’s the thing about technology, while there are a myriad of ways to use it well, there are just as many ways to use it poorly. Without the right guidance, kids sometimes take the wrong road or waste the precious hours of their childhood. That’s why it’s so important to help children be “intentional” about how they spend their time online. “Digital on-ramps” can help.

Using “Digital On-Ramps”

Just as a freeway on-ramp provides a safe way for a vehicle to accelerate to the speed of fast-moving traffic, a digital on-ramp offers the same approach to the information superhighway. When I’ve visited schools to test this approach, parents say that they like concrete guidelines on what, when, and how to introduce their kids to technology. That’s what “digital on-ramps” offer.

Instead of shutting down a child’s natural curiosity, parents can on-ramp them at appropriate ages and stages. This approach also gives parents a chance to focus on the positive uses of tech—to connect with faraway others, learn new things, be creative—and it can also breed good online habits that will, hopefully, last a lifetime.

Here are some “digital on-ramps” that might work for your family:

ages 0–2
  • Videoconference with loved ones, with the child on lap and parent providing an explanation.
ages 3–6
  • Co-view educational content, with parent explaining.
  • Write emails together to friends and family.
  • Send texts and photos together to relatives and friends.
ages 7–9
  • Play child-friendly video games together.
  • Find and use creative apps together, like a drawing app.
  • Keep online notes, recipes, homework reminders, and more.
  • If you go on a family trip, keep a digital journal, and post the photos/videos you take.
ages 10–12
  • Do school research together.
  • Help your children pursue their out-of-school interests online.
  • Find homework help or tutorial videos online to assist with schoolwork.
  • Show them (or ask them to show you!) how to down-load and read ebooks and music.

These “on-ramps” may be way too fast or too slow for your family, so adjust the speed to fit your values and objectives. Remember, while every family is different, kids all start out small and grow up slowly. They all need time and practice to learn how to use technology both appropriately and intentionally.

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Diana Graber contributor