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How to Protect Kid's Holiday Tech Gifts in 2018 (and Fun Screen-Free Ideas!)

It's holiday season, and you're facing mind-boggling decisions about gifts for your kids. They're dreaming of fancy tech gadgets; you're uneasy about unforeseen consequences.

Bewildered by the internet-connected gifts kids yearn for?

We're going to help you through this! Read on to find:

  1. Guidelines for giving safe tech gifts - all summed up in a free checklist you can take shopping
  2. Parental control info so you can set up and safeguard tech gifts before you give them
  3. Ideas for some fun top-rated screen-free gifts for kids!

Commit to choosing no-regret gifts

So many toys and gifts for kids today have major sizzle and wow factors coming from internet-connected technology. The most popular connected tech gifts are smartphones, tablets, video games, gaming systems, and the latest to hit the mainstream: virtual reality. There are also many toys now that connect to the internet or are controlled by a smartphone app.

All that connection comes along with possible encounters with bad content or people with dangerous intentions. No amount of excitement on Christmas morning can make up for a child’s trauma or diversion into damaging behavior later.

You don't have to be caught off guard, realizing only later the problems that slipped in with that brightly wrapped present.

Keep this guide close by while holiday shopping

Guidelines for giving safe tech gifts

  1. Get crystal-clear on possible risks before buying the gift.
  2. Be honest - is this gift right for your child’s age and stage?
  3. Be prepared with parental controls before you buy.
  4. The secret to success: Plan out the rules and consequences.
  5. Set up first, wrap later!
  6. Happy kids? This is the moment to get buy-in on the rules!
  7. Show up as the mentor your kids need - with tech and with life.

And don’t forget another important rule: enjoy a peaceful holiday knowing you are a great parent!

Read on to learn more about these guidelines - and don't forget to download the list at the end of this post!

Get crystal-clear on possible risks before buying the gift.

So your kids are wishing for a shiny new device?

Remember -  tablets, phones, and laptops are not toys, they are powerful communication devices that link your child to the world. Gaming systems can connect kids with people they don’t know. And VR (virtual reality) is a whole new level of digital immersion!

Other new toys don’t connect to the internet themselves, but require a smartphone app to operate them.

For example, Bluebee Pals plush toys connect to smartphone apps so they can read stories, teach, and sing to young kids.  For grade schoolers, the littleBits Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit lets kids learn coding, customize missions, invent new Droids and give them personality - all through a smartphone app.

Since the toys require a smartphone app to play, that means either:

  • You must always be involved and in charge of playtime,
  • You need to hand over your smartphone so the kids can play, or
  • Your child needs their own smartphone.

You may not want them to have access to a smartphone in order to have fun. And if they need your phone, do you really want your child begging to use your phone to play all the time?

While these toys can be very engaging, they are probably best for kids who you have already determined are ready for a smartphone.

8 Questions for clarity on tech issues

Consider these as you balance the fun you hope for your child with the potential downside.

  1. Does it connect to the internet?
  2. Does it allow my kids to interact with other people online?
  3. Can it play or link to violent or sexualized content?
  4. How will this gift impact my child’s overall screen time?
  5. What parental controls are available? How good are they?
  6. What will it cost me in time needed to set up controls, teach my kids to use it safely and monitor it regularly?
  7. Does my child understand what pornography is and what to do if they see it?
  8. Is my child likely to follow the rules and let me know if they run into bad content or have contact with sketchy people?

These questions are included in the free gift guide below!


Be honest - is this gift right for your child’s age and stage?

Some gifts that would be great for a prepared 14-year-old are not such a good idea for an impulsive 8-year-old.

Many parents wonder when a child is ready for a smartphone. We wrote When Should Kids Have Cell Phones? Savvy Parents Reveal Best Strategies to help with this big decision. We love the idea of a graduated plan that gives kids increased responsibility over time. Check out our Purposeful 4-Level Plan, age-appropriate advice from PC Magazine on The Best Phones for Kids, and this 4-phase process from Better Screen Time.

For more help, get our free guide: Is My Child Ready for a Smartphone?

In some cases, you could consider giving the gift of access instead of actually owning the tech. KJ Dell’Antonia, a parenting blogger for the New York Times, suggests a family iPad. And many families have parent-controlled family phones that kids can check out with permission.

That way, kids don’t create their own individual online world prematurely, before they’re ready to deal with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and texting, as well as the issues of Internet safety from predators. A family device leaves parents with the right to set up passwords, parental controls and time limits. From: Internet Safety: Three Tips for Parents Before Giving Kids an iPad, Tablet or Smartphone.

Be prepared with parental controls before you buy

Some devices and toys have built-in parental controls, and others have nothing. Do your detective work - when you know how easy (or confusing) controls will be to set up and manage, you’re ready to shop with confidence!

The two most important things about parental controls:

  1. Parental controls are an absolutely essential piece of protecting your children. They reduce the amount of risky content and contact kids will be exposed to, and often help you see what is going on.
  2. Parental controls are never foolproof, so the real power is in doubling up! Use parental controls and equip your kids with their own internet defense skills to prepare them to make smart decisions.

There are thousands of internet-connected devices, so to learn about the latest updates, just search for “[name of the device] parental controls”.

Also search for “[name of the device] reviews” to get the scoop on what trusted sources and other parents think about the product.

A quick and easy list for some popular parental control info:

Parental control tutorials for gaming systems, phones, laptops and more

Independent reviews on parental control software (filtering and monitoring)

Video game reviews

Virtual reality - a quick parent update on the latest gaming trend

We’ve written about VR before, and it’s becoming more mainstream. So if your kids are “hinting” that they would love VR, it’s time to do a little investigating.

Start with Common Sense Media’s What Parents Need to Know About Virtual Reality

VR has amazing potential, but our own recommendation is to steer clear of bringing VR into your home as a regular activity for kids. There’s no definitive evidence yet that VR does OR doesn’t harm children’s development. Researchers say there’s a lot they don't know yet.

Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab says there may be serious implications for how VR impacts children’s memory and their perception of real life, but more research is needed before any conclusions are drawn.

The VR companies themselves say their systems should not be used by kids under 12 or 13 years old.

For example, VR headsets from Oculus allow kids to interact with anyone they add as friends. It has no real parental controls other than ratings on their games, which are all rated for age 13+.

Additionally, the user is viewing something that no one else can see - it is impossible to watch what kids are doing even in the same room. The porn industry is definitely keeping up with the VR world, so be cautious.

Related: Filtering 101: Protect Kids From Porn on New Devices

The secret to success: Plan out the rules and consequences

The best time to think through the rules is before kids have unwrapped the ribbons, shouted for joy and headed off to their bedroom to play!

A few good rules to consider:

  • Devices are not allowed to go to bed with kids at night - they get re-charged at the parents’ bedside.
  • Establish how much time each day can they use the device.
  • Kids should put down the device the first time parents ask for attention.
  • Be clear about no-device zones and times such as during dinner, homework, when talking with people in person, and no screens in bedrooms.
  • Parents have access to passwords and regular checkups on the device.
  • Consequences of breaking the rules: 24 hours of losing access to tech followed by earning more time through good behavior; make restitution through extra chores or service.

The best way to keep these rules alive is to praise kids when they follow them! Water what you want to grow - which is responsible and safe use of technology.

To be really clear on kids’ responsibilities, you could download these cool safety gift cards from Family Online Safety Institute and wrap them up with the gift!

Set up first, wrap later

Here’s where the big impact is:

Open the gift, get familiar with how it works, and set up parental controls before you wrap it up.

One hour spent now means your kids can enjoy their gift right away on Christmas.

It means you can relax on the holiday knowing you are doing your best to protect your kids.

Even better, it can save you hours (maybe even years) of anguish if your kids have harmful experiences with the new technology.

Because it will be much easier to do now than later. So just sit down with those directions, charge it up and get it going. You might even have fun trying it out yourself!

This is the moment to get buy-in

The long wait is over and your child is over the moon with their new surprise!

Guess what - you have their attention! They will do anything to be free to use their new gift, so now is the time to introduce the responsibilities that come with such a grown-up device.

Let them know you trust them - that’s why you decided to give them this gift. However, you just don’t trust some people online, and you want them to be safe.

Show up as the mentor your kids need - with tech and life

Ok, honestly that first talk about the rules happened when everyone was feeling a little tired, over-excited, and queasy from holiday treats.

Now you show your kids that you really do care and really are going to follow up on the rules and consequences.

Be interested in hearing how they are using their gift, what they enjoy and what is giving them trouble. Sit down and have them share it with you. Look for teaching opportunities about making good choices online.

And definitely keep talking to them about pornography and what to do if they see it!

Hold kids accountable for the rules and follow through with consequences when needed. It’s good for them, really.

Unplugged Christmas gifts

So now for the fun part! Here are some top-rated ideas for screen-free gifts! Building motor skills, expressing creativity and developing relationships are just side effects of the fun.

(Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning that at no extra cost to you, Protect Young Minds will earn a small referral fee if you click through and make a purchase. We appreciate your support of our cause!)

STEM toys that don’t need an internet-connected device

The Learning Journey Code and Learn! Space Ship or Ladybug - Age 5+
Introduces basic programming – children use the coding card deck and the colored grid to program the fun remote-control spaceship or ladybug to reach the correct destination.

Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set - age 4+
Build your maze, then use the coding cards to create a step-by-step path for the programmable robot mouse.

K'NEX Mighty Makers Up, Up & Away Building Set - age 7+
Build 3 different aviation models - includes Ava figure and her bird, Jay. This is just one of several cool models in the Mighty Makers series.

ThinkFun Circuit Maze Electric Current Logic Game - Age 8+
Logical reasoning and planning skills in a fun gameplay. Learn how circuits and electrical currents work! Multi-level challenges.


Ok, we're biased on this one - we think every child deserves to learn from their parents how to be safe online! Our read-together books are an easy, comfortable way to help kids be ready to reject pornography. They make great gifts for parents and professionals who work with kids.

Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today's Young Kids 2nd Edition Age 6-11
Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds - Age 3-7

Active toys

Kidoozie Foam Pogo Jumper - Age 3+ up to 250 lbs
Hopping fun indoors or out, strengthens coordination and core muscles.

Yoga Pretzels Cards - Age 4+
Easy-to-follow cards get kids moving, and are something kids can do together.

Folding Gymnastics Gym Tumbling Exercise Martial Arts Mat Pad - all ages
Give kids an official place to tumble and play!

ALEX Active Monkey Balance Board - Age 3+
Hours of fun and large motor skill development.

Scooter Board with Safety Handles - up to 175 lbs
If you have a hard indoor surface, this will keep kids scooting, gliding and rolling around! Builds core strength and coordination.

Fat Brain Toys Teeter Popper - Age 3+
Rock, roll, sit or stand - great active fun!

Matty's Toy Stop Wooden Snow Shovels - Age 3+
Get kids outside enjoying the snow!

Creative gifts

Crayola Color Wonder Scented Stampers - Age 3+
The no-mess markers and inkpad smell like desserts, making coloring and designing a sensory experience!

Cardboard Tool Kit - Age 6+ (4+ with adult supervision)
Turn leftover cardboard into a creative adventure with this construction kit from Uncommon Goods.

Yarn Unicorn Craft Kit - Age 8+
Wrap your way to two adorable unicorns with this magical crafting kit from Uncommon Goods.

Design Your Own Slime Kit - Age 8+
Tactile and colorful, this kit lets you add glow, sparkle, and metallizer special effects to give your custom putties even more pizzazz. From Uncommon Goods.

Kid’s board games for fun and skill-building

First Orchard Game from HABA - Age 2-5
Working as a team, the children try to pick the fruits from the trees before the raven reaches the end of the path. Suitable for 1-4 players ages 2+

Race to the Treasure from Peaceable Kingdom - Age 5+
Build a path with your team and collect 3 keys on a race to beat ogre to the treasure! It's a game where everyone plays together, no one is left out, and everybody has fun! 2-4 players

IceCool from Brain Games - Age 6+
Penguins are running through the school in the first flicking game ever to have pieces which curve and jump! 2-4 players.

Sushi Go Card Game from Gamewright - Age 8+
Pass the sushi! In this fast-playing card game, the goal is to grab the best combination of sushi dishes as they whiz by. 2-5 players.

Games the whole family will enjoy together

Dixit by Asmodee - Age 8+
A lighthearted game of storytelling and guesswork where your imagination unlocks the tale.
3 - 6 players

Karuba from HABA - Age 8+
Lay your tiles on a grid to form paths in a fast-paced strategy game, racing against other players to snag the loot first. Every game plays differently! 2-4 players

So that's it! We wish you the merriest of holidays and a safe and happy year ahead!

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Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.

A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds

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