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An iPod touch for kids and parents: one dad's guide

I've been separated for about two years now; as any part-time custodial parent will tell you, it can be tricky to communicate with the kids when you're not around as much. This past Christmas I decided to get an iPod touch for each of my kids. At the time, they were living about 30 minutes away from me, and for whatever reason we didn't always have nightly phone calls to stay connected.

"If only there was some easier way to stay in contact," I thought, "then they won't have to miss me as bad." Well, the experiment has been a success. In the process it yielded a few interesting tips for divorced parents, and also anyone considering an iPod touch for a kid under 11 (as both of mine are).

I do recommend that parents think hard about getting their kids iOS devices before making the leap. Most kids I have met under 10 are not responsible enough to "own" an iPod touch without a lot of supervision.

User Accounts

In order to keep iMessages from losing its mind, and to get the next generation started on the path to full digital humanhood, I set up individual iCloud accounts using a Gmail address. The main thing to remember here: Go into Google's settings and lock everything down first. Google+ sharing is turned to full discovery mode by default, and I'm not keen on people adding my daughter to their circles! You may optionally want to go back in and change their Apple IDs to something other than soandso@gmail.com, but I didn't.

For some reason I don't recall seeing the option to get a free @me account when setting up their iPods, as this how-to for the iPad indicates. As a result, I have no idea if my kids have iCloud email accounts, no do we know what the addresses are. Further, this has set us on a path of using more Google services since (as far as I knew) we needed that Gmail account to set up the iPod touch to begin with. There's really not an intuitive way to fix this, so my kids will probably never use an @me account, nor use iCloud for calendars.

If I had it to do over again I would much prefer they simply use @me addresses, but when I set these up (late November 2011), I could not see an option that allowed this.

Access Controls

Of course, after locking down the Google account I went into the iPods and locked down the in-app purchases and 17+ apps. Something that's a real bummer is the inability to have granular control here. The best example is the YouTube app, which disappears when apps are set to one age threshold. My 10-year old daughter hates this, and so do I.

I would much prefer the age gate be set IN the YouTube app, but the way Apple does it, the app just disappears entirely unless you remove the restrictions. There's actually a lot of useful stuff on YouTube that I wouldn't mind my kids seeing -- if only Apple would let me enable it without making those decisions for me. Same with Netflix, which will also disappear around the 13+ age gate.

The good news is that 90% of the time the iOS parental controls work great.

FaceTime, Skype, IM+

Oh you didn't think you'd just need an iCloud account did you? As I said earlier, for whatever reason I can't just set up "an Apple ID," as I had to have an existing email account. Well, that email account will get some extra use as FaceTime and iMessages will fail you. A lot.

FaceTime still can't work on cellular networks and WiFi is required. Guess what? I'm not always in a place with WiFi, but my magical iPhone can use products from competitors (Microsoft and Google, in fact) to place a video call. So I set up my kids with Skype accounts for those times when I'm not sitting at home waiting for their calls.

Also, their mom is an Android user, so the Google accounts plus IM+ from Shape Services come in handy when they are with me and want to message her.

Get a good case and insist it stay on

The iPod touch is really cool to look at, but a shattered screen is not. My daughter got a cheap "fashion" case from someone and then dropped her touch on a hard floor. Since there's no AppleCare+ for the touch, that cost me an extra $99 to repair.

We started with some clear cases from Griffin, but ultimately I found the FlexGrip Action (also from Griffin) provides a good grip, adequate protection and a wrist strap. A good case is worth the cost, no matter what.

Capacity

The biggest mistake I made was buying the 8 GB iPod touch. I have no idea who uses an 8 GB iPod touch. Someone with no desire to download apps, that's for sure. Now my kids get to juggle software updates (because you have to have a lot of empty space to "Update All" or do a system update), pictures or video and apps. Memory management in the age of the cloud -- I find it quite hilarious.

To mitigate the issues I subscribe to music streaming services, but still it's a chore. The good thing is my kids are smart and have learned that deleting an app means you can download it again later. They "test" a lot of apps that way. I'm surprised how unsentimental they are about it, but that's how it goes in a deleting-isn't-permanent ecosystem.

My advice? Buy more capacity then you want to. The 8 GB iPod touch is just far too constrained to be used by anyone who visits the App Store each month.

Gifting Apps

Boy I wish Apple would make gifting somewhat easier on the recipient's end. It took a few times to explain to my kids (who are not big email users, hello 21st century generation) that they have to go into email, look for the iTunes email, scroll to the very bottom of the email, click the Redeem button, which will then launch the App Store, then allow them to download the app. Not the definition of ease-of-use, but not a tragedy either.

Wouldn't it be better if you got a system message that said "So-and-so has sent you a gift app! Would you like to download it now?" Apple could do this easily. Instead, if you buy something yourself and download it on your Mac and you have iCloud enabled and WiFi downloading enabled it'll just start downloading on your iOS device. I can see why this would be problematic with a gift app (Grandma sends kid a huge app that jams up their device -- another issue which Apple should fix is that "jamming" that happens when memory is low, but that's another article).

Just know that if you "gift" apps you'll have to train the kids on how to redeem the things. It is not intuitive, at least not for those who don't automatically read email every day.

Backing up data

Since I set up Gmail I started recommending to my kids that they email themselves pictures before deleting them if they want to save them. Because after a month of Photo Stream, they begged me to turn it off. Not even my kids like how Photo Stream works!

But iCloud backup is great. When I took my daughter's touch in to fix the screen, of course they just swapped it out with a new one. Within minutes all of her data, apps and customization were back on the device thanks to the iCloud backup. If you use iCloud for nothing else, use it for this.

The experiment continues...

After the initial excitement wore off, I found my kids using the iPods in different ways. My daughter loves music, so she listens to her Rdio account all the time. My son isn't much into just listening to music, so he and I share a Spotify account. Instead, he likes stuff like Frames or Eden, where he can actually create things.

My daughter likes to snap pics of the cats and her friends and add flair to the pics. My son tends to try and FaceTime me every night, whereas my daughter is often busy reading herself to sleep (she doesn't use iBooks, however) or writing little stories using Pages.

I recommend the iPod touch as a great communicator for separated, divorced or non-custodial parents. If both sides can agree to the rules, regular communications are good for kids, and the iPod touch makes it easier than ever before to see and hear your kids on a regular basis. Plus, with a little parenting, the touch can open a world of creation and discovery that is beneficial to children. I can't wait until they get their own iPads someday!

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