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Preteens and Electronic Gadgets

How To Decide Between Needs and Wants With Electronic Gadgets

Dawn McBain's daughter wants a cell phone. Her best friend got one with a built-in digital camera for Christmas. "While she wanted a cell phone before the holidays, this reinforced her desire for one and confirmed her belief that her request is quite reasonable," says McBain of Clifton Park, N.Y. "Fortunately, she is smart enough to know that she doesn't need a cell phone, though she is racking her brain searching for a need that would qualify."

Marilyn Hilton of San Jose, Calif., has a slightly different story. "My husband and I both work in the high-tech industry, and we have seven computers in the house between us," she says. "The kids have ample accessibility to these computers, but my daughter still wants her own. It's interesting how they ask, not can I have it, but when can I have it?"

Why do kids insist they need all this stuff? Why do they need iPods when they have CD players or the latest video game system when they already own more game systems than televisions? Of course marketing plays a role. Chris McGhee, academic director of the Visual Art Institute of Phoenix, says marketing simply points out what our kids need in order to make life easier. And while most of the stuff won't literally make life easier, it does become very attractive. "Well, an iPod won't really make life easier, but it will put me more in tune with modern culture," says McGhee. "I'd like an iPod, too, but I haven't figured out how to convince my wife it's a better way to store and transfer images than the methods I've been using, which work just fine."

The Driving Force

If adults have trouble navigating the ever growing maze of gadgets, then how can we expect our children? "How many of our children can tell the difference between a fad and a staple, whether they 'need' or 'want' that iPod or X-Box?" says Jenifer Lippincott, co-author of 7 Things Your Teens Won't Tell You (And How to Talk About Them Anyway) (Random House/Ballantine, March 2005). "They learn from us, of course. Our purchasing power becomes theirs."

In other words, parents get to decide the difference between needs and wants. However, in wanting to fulfill their child's wishes, many parents find themselves justifying the need over the want. A cell phone for an adolescent who needs to coordinate rides home from school may be a justifiable expense, but should parents give in to the camera phone because of the cool factor?

"Absolutely not," says Caroline Honn of Plano, Texas. "If you wait five more minutes, there will be something else to have momentary 'cool' status, and once you get on the merry-go-round, you realize it doesn't ever stop."

The "cool status" is usually the driving force for the adolescent who claims to need all the latest (and high-priced) gadgets. By being the first kid in class to own the newest and most-hyped video game, the self-esteem of even the most popular adolescent rises. For an adolescent who feels unpopular, the coolness factor of wearing iPod earbuds is almost necessary.

"Teased into believing that perfection is only skin deep, teens lack the cognitive, emotional and social ability to find a comfortable, let alone perfect, self-image," says Lippincott. Owning these high-tech toys is not only a way for kids to fit in with their peers, as many adolescents also find a sense of security and adventure in using them. "These gadgets are constant and nonjudgmental companions," says Lipponcott. However, "this electronic accompaniment has become so ingrained in our lives that we may have underestimated the trade-offs between company and actual human interaction." McGhee agrees. "The gadgets isolate kids from each other. Many do not encourage personal interaction."

The Parental Response

Parents must make a difficult call: Do you say yes to something that will help your adolescent feel more comfortable with their peers but could end up isolating your adolescent from real interaction? McGhee advises looking for different avenues when presented with a request to purchase the latest expensive fad. Adolescents don't always know the difference between pure desire and actual need, and parents don't always need to give "yes" or "no" as a definitive answer. However, parents should be willing to explain their reasons for their answer, plus be willing to compromise. This goes both ways. A cell phone may be a need for your adolescent, but don't be afraid to make her explain why she needs a camera phone or an expensive calling plan.

Parents also should remember that, in their adolescent's world, owning these electronics is important and very much a need. Society has changed. Today's kids interact with each other differently than they did 20 years ago. Girls communicate through text and instant messaging. Boys bond over video game competitions. "To some extent, it's important for them to fit in with their peers, but we also want our kids to be able to discern what is important in life, and just because someone else has one doesn't make having it essential – and doesn't add value to character," says Marilyn Hilton of San Jose, Calif.

"Discuss the reasons behind TV commercials," says Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book: 4,278 Tips for Moms (Free Press, 2002) and founder of MomCentral.com. "Teach your child to be both critical and skeptical."

Electronic gadgets and technology are going to be an inevitable part of any adolescent's life, but as much as the kids want to fit in with their friends, it remains up to the parents to decide whether a new cell phone or video game or computer is in the best interest for their child.

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