Ninety-five percent of teenagers are online, says the Pew Research Center—so it's no wonder that the digital world is dominated by selfies, emojis, and txt-speak. Nor is it shocking that electronics are at the top of teen wish lists this year. But should you be concerned with how connected they are with every new device you purchase?
"At Christmas time parents don’t want to think about the boundaries and the rules of a new device," Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a parenting expert and founder of AskDrG.com, said. "They just want their kids to have fun. But like any tool, it can cause problems." And problems such as slacking on homework, engaging in online bullying activities, or communicating with strangers are some of parents' greatest fears.
Josh Shipp, a teen-behavior expert and founder of JoshShipp.com, provides a simple solution to squashing a parent's anxiety. "The answer is for parents to embrace technology," he said. "Use the gift of technology as a teaching opportunity to mature and increase self-discipline." And teaching starts with learning which gadgets are best for your teen so they can become "positive change makers," as Gilboa puts it.
To help you decide which electronics are appropriate for your household, Consumer Reports used research from the the Consumer Electronics Association to let you know the top tech gifts teens are asking for this year.
5. MP3 Player
MP3 players may seem outdated in the age of the smart phone. But today, they're playing a new role in teen lives. Nearly four in five teens own an MP3 player, reports Pew, and it's a great tool to use for supplemental instruction. Your teen can easily review lesson plans if their textbook has an accompanying CD-ROM, or even learn a new language by listening to free language-learning podcasts.
As for music, though, a 2012 study in the Psychology of Music suggests that fast, loud background music can hinder, not help reading comprehension. And if teens are learning a second language (or doing any language-based work, really), then listening to music with lyrics actually pulls their brain in two different directions, according to researchers at Stanford University and University of Toronto. So make sure they keep the volume low, and choose a relaxing melody.
The Apple iPod Touch (16 GB) (4th gen) ($230, a CR Recommended model) has plenty of room for them to store their favorite studying music and instructional videos. It even lets your teen watch 8.5 hours of videos, or listen to more than 50 hours of educational podcasts on a single charge.
4. Tablet computer
Tablet computers are gaining popularity in the classroom. A Pew survey of Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) middle-school and high-school teachers found that two in five students and teachers use tablets in the classroom or to complete assignments.
Tablets are a great option for schoolwork, because they're portable and cheaper than a laptop or personal computer, and your teen can still wirelessly print out assignments from the device. Though a tablet may not be sufficient for heavy-duty schoolwork, it works when your teen needs to research a history report or review speech cards for debate class.
The second-generation Google Nexus 7 (Wi-Fi, 16GB), $230, has a super-long battery life, a highly-durable screen, and a multiuser profile setting, so your family can share the device without encroaching on one another's settings and files. At $230, it's a CR Best Buy.
Similarly light and powerful, top-performing tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (Wi-Fi, 16GB) ($230 and a CR Best Buy) and the Apple iPad Air (Wi-Fi, 16GB) ($500, a CR Recommended model) are being promoted heavily this season.
The easiest item to justify purchasing from a teenager's tech wish list is a new laptop. They are lighter than ever, more affordable, and great for completing assignments on the go. In fact, the same survey of AP and NWP teachers mentioned earlier found that more than half require their students to participate in interactive online learning activities, such a sharing their work online with classmates or participating in online group discussions.
Three out of four AP and NWP teachers even have students submit assignments online. So shop for a laptop with a fast processor, plenty of memory, and a long battery life. And if your teen is participating in online discussions, opt for a built-in webcam. With nearly 100 CR-rated models to choose from, there’s a great laptop out there for your teen.
One of our top-Rated and CR-recommended models is the 11-inch Acer Aspire S7-191-6447 Ultrabook. At $800, it's thin and light, with excellent portability. At $1,800, the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display ME664LL/A is pricey but also scored very well in our tests and is more portable than many other 15-inch laptops.
Experts' tips for responsible, tech-savvy families
- Let your teen write down their own expectations and regulations as part a contract that you both sign. By letting them write the contract they’ll be more empowered to make the right choices.
- Have your teen keep an up-to-date password list (digitally or on paper). Decide who your teen can contact online. Are they allowed to "friend" people they've never met?
- Set boundaries on what types of websites, games, videos and music they can access.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Give your teen the power to self-police their online activity, and let them know they shouldn’t be afraid to tell you if they find something strange online.
- Make a tech-free zone for everyone in your household. The dinner table or family movie night are good examples. (You’ll gain more respect if you follow the rules as well.)
2. Smart phone
If you have a teenager in your house, you know a smart phone is important for a parent's peace of mind—and teens will argue it's vital to their social success. Additionally, AP and NWP teachers are using smart phones as classroom tools; there are apps for pop quizzes, for example.
So it's best to invest in a phone that’s easy to use and has a long battery life, such as the Samsung Galaxy S 4 (16GB), $0 to $200 depending on your service plan. A CR recommended model, it's our highest-rated smart phone across all major carriers.
If you're shopping for your teen’s first smart phone, make sure you opt for text-message or e-mail data alerts so you’ll know when they’ve reached their monthly data limit. Why? Because if you don’t it could end up costing you a lot more on your monthly statement.
1. Video-game console
The Microsoft Xbox One and Sony Playstation 4 have arrived, so it's no surprise that video-game consoles topped the teen wish list. Some parents may shy away from purchasing a game console, for fear that their kids are being intellectually stunted every time they pick up a game controller. But that may not be the case.
For teens, games are often a social experience, as more than half play with friends in the room or over the Internet. In fact, teens who take the social experience a step further (such as commenting on discussion boards) are more engaged civically and politically.
And the majority aren't glued to violent games. Of the 97 percent of teens who play computer, console, portable, or Web games, puzzles and rhythm/exercise games topped the Pew Research Center's list of their most frequently played games. And finally, multiuser interfaces are great for learning cooperation, while self-entertainment games with multiple levels encourage independent thinking and let players learn from their mistakes.
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