Every back-to-school season, kids just seem to know what's "in" and what's definitely "out." They pick it up from marketing, of course (which seems more aggressive every year). But they also get it from friends, whose opinions carry more weight than parents' -- especially when it comes to what's cool.
This year, in an attempt to stay just a baby step ahead of our kids, we did some snooping. What we discovered is that more and more, kids are sharing and comparing notes of a digital nature: the must-have tech, the must-see viral videos, and the must-join websites.
Dora the Explorer, Ben 10, Barbie, and Angry Birds. It's not a new phenomenon that kindergarten cubbies fill up fast with backpacks and lunchboxes promoting kids' favorite characters. But while the characters may not be new (well, except for the Angry Birds, who suddenly seem to be everywhere), the inventive places they're appearing -- from school supplies to snacks -- are more numerous than ever.
How to deal: Avoid turning your kid into a walking advertisement -- which is what these products really are. Try shopping online (without your kids), where it's easier to find a wider range of non-branded merchandise. And, remember, kids tend to outgrow their obsessions faster than you can say Thomas the Tank Engine. [[Read In Search of a Backpack, Minus the Brand for more tips on avoiding back-to-school consumerism.]]
Hulu, Xfinity, Netflix, and other streaming video sites. TV is out. Watching TV online is in. But streaming video sites offer a lot of age-inappropriate content and minimal parental controls. If your kids come home from school talking about True Blood, it's a good bet they heard about it from a friend at school whose parents aren't yet hip to the latest trend in entertainment.
How to deal: If you can, put the computer in a central household location so you know whether your kid is doing homework or sneaking in a show. So your kids won't feel totally cut off, use a digital video recorder to record their favorite programs on TV. Finally, offer alternatives created especially for kids, like ZuiTube, PBS Kids Video, and KidVideos that broadcast lots of kid faves -- without the age-inappropriate stuff.
YouTube Poop. Your kid may love watching Caillou, Dora, and Arthur on YouTube, but not all videos starring these innocent characters are what they appear to be. YouTube Poop videos are mash-ups of cartoons and games spliced with disturbing dialogue. (For example, the word "blood!" is screamed when Caillou pours pizza sauce. And the language is often even stronger.) Kids love these videos, and their popularity can spread through fifth grade like wildfire.
How to deal: Turn on YouTube's Safety mode (found at the bottom of each page), which helps make YouTube a little more kid friendly. Browse YouTube's Learning and Education and Nature sections for more age-appropriate, curated content. And watch with your kids.
E-readers, iPhones, MP3 players, and other mobile tech. Marketed as must-have back-to-school gear, fancy mobile gadgets are showing up on playgrounds -- and turning kids who don't have them green with envy. Often times, digital devices are status symbols for kids -- as your daughter's best friend's pink rhinestone-encrusted cell phone clearly shows.
How to deal: Resist. Unless your kid needs one of these gadgets for learning or safety, there's no reason to send him to school with tricked-out electronics. Explain that your family makes purchasing decision based on your needs -- not to keep up with the Joneses. They may say they're deprived -- but they'll live.
Google Buzz and Google+. If you haven't heard of Google's efforts to take social networking away from Facebook, you'll get an earful once your kids head back to school. Kids as young as 9 have no problem figuring out how to use the chat program GoogleBuzz -- and it's surprisingly popular with the elementary-school crowd. Google+ is a new Facebook alternative with an age minimum of 18.
How to deal: Google and Facebook get all the attention, but there are lots of social networking sites designed just for kids. The important thing, of course, is that your kids' friends join the same site (birds of a feather!), so you may need to talk to their parents about it. (They may have no idea that their kids are even using age-inappropriate sites.)