Fingertips on the Future

Basic digital skills you can help your child master for success in school and in life.



Fingertips on the Future

Reading and writing skills have long formed the cornerstones of literacy, but today we might want to consider adding another block to that foundation: the ability to use technology.

Our children are growing up in an electrifying world of touch screens, video chatting, and electronic gadgets. Many of the ways they access and relate information are digital, and the trend will only grow. Kids as young as three play educational games online. Many grade-schoolers communicate via text message, and instead of traditional term papers, students are creating stunning visual presentations chock-full of vivid clip art, photos, and graphs.

Your 6-year-old may navigate your cell phone or the DVD player more fluently than you do, but you have the basis of certain other tech skills, gained through experience, which you can teach your child to build his digital literacy. The five in this story are essential and will be familiar to you if you use a computer regularly. Because of your child’s natural curiosity and the speed at which his brain absorbs information, they’re also easy to impart.

1. Smart Searching
Who won the World Series in 1975? How far is Earth from the Sun? What movies are playing at the local multiplex this weekend? We used to need a great variety of resources to find answers to our questions, but today the internet provides one-stop shopping for every type of information imaginable. However, sifting through it all, even when you know what you want to find, can be time-consuming and distracting. So, super search skills are needed.

To find general research information, typing the most relevant words into a search engine like Google is the best place to start. For example, if your child is looking for information about the solar system, she can begin by simply typing in “solar system.” Typing in a second word or phrase associated with the initial one and placing a hyphen between the two (solar system – planets) can help to narrow the search. For very specific information, try putting a phrase in quotations, such as “distance around the sun.” Familiarize your children with other search tools, too. Online phone directories, map databases, and dictionaries can turn up specific types of information more quickly and efficiently than a big search engine like Google.

2. Identifying Quality Web Sites
The internet puts a wealth of information at our fingertips, but sorting out the difference between opinion and fact and between what’s trustworthy and what’s not so trustworthy can be tricky—even for adults. A good place to start is looking at the last three letters of the site’s web address. “Com” stands for commercial—in other words, it’s a site that’s meant to make money. “Org” stands for organization. It’s designated for sites that are not-for-profit. “Edu” and “gov” are reserved for sites that are affiliated with educational and governmental institutions, respectively. Clicking on the “About Us” tab available in the menu of most websites will often provide information about the site’s publisher and mission. You can also find out who owns a particular site at WHOis.

Teach your kids to be wary of sites that request personal details (such as name, email address, or age) in return for access. Also teach them to avoid clicking on enticing banners and pop-ups. These are often advertisements and marketing campaigns, and clicking on them can download unwanted spyware or computer viruses that access your private information, which can set you up to receive spam.

3. Communicating Safely
Most of your child’s written communication with friends, teachers, and, one day, bosses, will be in the form of email, instant messages (IM), and text messages. Understanding the nuances and responsible use of electronic communication is one of the most important tech skills for kids to learn. One of the things that makes online communication tricky is that it’s devoid of voice intonation, social context, and body language, leaving room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding if messages aren’t clear. You can create an email account for your child to help him practice the art of communicating electronically. (For young kids, we suggest family-friendly email products, which allow you to oversee and monitor your child’s communication.)

It’s important to teach your kids that anything sent over the internet — even a personal email to a friend—may be forwarded, printed out, copied, or read by someone other than the intended receiver. Show your child how to use discretion when sharing private information, establishing connections with others online, forwarding messages, and opening emails and attachments from senders he doesn’t recognize. (These might contain damaging computer viruses.)

4. Spicing Up Schoolwork
A shoebox diorama may have been an impressive school project in our day, but many of today’s kids are putting together multimedia slideshows on the computer, even in elementary school. Using presentation software (such as PowerPoint), electronic illustrations, and digital photography is fun, creative, and educational—and can sometimes result in extra credit!

Use digital photos your child takes to illustrate school projects. Your child might add her own photo to the author page of a story she writes, or take “before” and “after” photos of a science experiment. Try helping your child think about ways to use the family video camera, an MP3 player, or a smartphone to create movies or recordings that add value to her school projects.

5. Understanding Invisible Costs
When we buy something online, we can’t see the dollars flowing out of our bank account the way we can see them leaving our wallets when making a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store. This makes it challenging for our kids to understand—and for us to teach them—how much online purchases actually cost.

Help your kids become aware that on top of the initial cost of a computer or cell phone, we have to pay to access the internet, make calls, or send text messages. If you feel comfortable, share the monthly internet and cell phone bill with older children. Explain your family calling plan and encourage kids to take advantage of discounted calling periods.

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