Ages & Stages: 11-18: Should Kids Shop Online?

As families hurtle toward the holidays, many busy parents will shop online. But what about kids? Should they be using the Internet to buy gifts for family members or even things they want for themselves?

One report from Jupiter Media found kids are more likely to browse than buy online. This can actually be a huge help to parents. A child who, for example, wants to spend holiday money on a set of Legos can window shop endlessly at legos.com rather than experiencing the agony of indecision in a toy store. Older children who have their eye on big ticket items like game systems and cell phones can also be encouraged to use the Internet to research features as well as prices. Comparison shopping is a snap at sites like nextag.com, pricegrabber.com or even the product search function on Google.

For kids under 16, most actual shopping should occur in old-fashioned stores. For one thing, shopping in the real world is social so kids get feedback from parents and/or friends. Also, the sense of value that underlies good financial habits comes from lots of real world experience with hold-in-your-hand money. From an early age, kids should have a chance to earn, count, spend, run out of and even lose cash.

That said, children, and especially teens, might be drawn to virtual shopping for the same reason it appeals to adults. Shopping online doesn’t require a trip to the mall — a real plus for kids who can’t drive. And it often gives kids easy access to things that aren’t readily found in local stores. If a child, for example, wants to surprise a sibling with a poster of a favorite musical group, visiting allposters.com will almost certainly be less frustrating than schlepping from store to store.

Of course, buying online requires credit. For children under 16, parents should be the ones who enter credit card information. (Some families designate a specific card just for online purchases.) If nothing else, this gives parents a good opportunity to help kids distinguish between needs and wants. Many parents pay for essentials — a pair of basketball shoes — and insist that kids earn money for extras — the additional cost because the shoes have been endorsed by a superstar.

Knowing kids will eventually need to use plastic, some parents try training-wheel credit by giving kids pre-paid cards or even debit cards. Prepaid cards like the MIO card from MasterCard are essentially gift cards that can be used in most stores and Web sites. The disadvantage to these cards is cost. In addition to the purchase price, companies may charge a monthly fee as well as a service fee each time money is loaded on the card.

The advantage is that the cards are good for a specific amount of cash and will be denied when the money is gone. That’s not the case for debit cards, which often allow kids to go into debt and then sock them with hefty penalty fees.

Regardless of whether such cards are a good idea in the real world, they aren’t a great option for shopping online. Only credit cards offer the protections of the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, which includes guaranteed refunds if merchandise is misrepresented or never arrives. Of course, credit for teens is tricky. Unless teens have had a lot of real world experience managing money, credit may seem like an almost magical way to get things they’ve always wanted.

If you do decide your child is mature enough to manage credit, don’t accept the first offer that shows up in the mail. Help your child look for a card with a low interest rate, no annual fee and minimal fees for late payments or going over limit. Parents who co-sign for a card should also reserve the right to review statements. If your child can’t pay off the balance, confiscate the card until he or she can pay what’s owed. Knowing that you routinely look at statements also makes it less likely that your child will try using the card for illicit online activities such as gambling, purchasing pornography and buying liquor or prescription drugs.

Regardless of whether you let your child use a credit card, be sure that everyone in the family knows the rules for online shopping:
• Do business with a reliable company. Look for a mailing address as well as a customer service phone number. If you don’t know the company, check its reputation with the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org).
• Look for the lock. When you go to the checkout page, be sure there is a tiny padlock in the lower right hand corner. It shows that the information you provide is encrypted and secure.
• Find out about shipping charges. The price on the Web site may look great — until you add in shipping and handling. Also, plan ahead so you won’t have to pay big fees for expedited shipping.
• Check the Web site’s policy on returns. Reputable online merchants will allow you to return merchandise that is unsatisfactory.
• Print out a copy of every order. Be sure it has a confirmation number. Many companies now allow you to track your order through their shipping system, a feature that can be very helpful during the hectic holidays.

Carolyn Jabs is a former contributing editor for Family PC and mother to three computer-savvy kids.