Summer is here, and your kids are thrilled that they won’t be restricted by classroom walls for the next few months. Whether your children’s plans include camp, vacation, sports, sleepovers, playdates, a job, or just roaming the neighborhood, one thing’s for sure: Cell phones can be a lifesaver. As any parent of an active child or teen knows, nothing can compare to the peace of mind you feel when your daughter texts to say she’s arrived at her friend’s house in one piece…or the convenience of being able to call your son to let him know you’ll be at the soccer field to pick him up in ten minutes.
Still, you may be wondering: When’s the best time for your children to join the cell-phone-toting crowd? Which model is best? And how will you keep your kids safe throughout the summer…and beyond? Not to worry: The popular For Dummies® series is here to help you think through all of these questions and many more.
“Kids as young as elementary school age carry mobile phones and use technology ranging from texting to online chats,” points out Amy Lupold Bair, author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies® (Wiley, April 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1184-8508-8, $21.99). “And it’s true that providing your child with a mobile phone is a great way for your kids to stay connected with you when they’re out with friends, at work, or attending extracurricular activities. Just be sure that you’re taking precautions to ensure that your kids are using mobile phones responsibly and safely.”
The key to making mobile phones work for your family during any season is to set clear guidelines by age group and location, focusing on each of the phone’s capabilities. Lupold Bair recommends writing these guidelines down in your Digital Family Policy, which is a comprehensive document that covers how, when, where, and why your family uses technology.
“Your family’s rules should change with technological innovation as well as with the growth and maturation of your children,” she recommends. “During the summer especially, I would suggest being more lenient with when, where, why, and for how long kids can talk, text, and play games on their phones. Just make sure that all changed rules—and corresponding consequences—are mutually understood and agreed upon.
“There’s one more thing to pay close attention to if you have a teenager in charge of his or her own transportation: texting or talking while driving,” Lupold Bair adds. “According to AAA, Memorial Day to Labor Day constitutes “The 100 Deadliest Days” for teen drivers, so have a serious talk with your teen about the dangers of distracted driving. You might even consider asking him or her to sign a pledge to keep the phone out of sight while in the car.”
Here, Lupold Bair shares nine things to think about when determining what your children’s mobile phone usage should look like:
Determine the right age to get a phone. Odds are, your tech-savvy child will start asking for a mobile phone long before you’re comfortable with providing one. But sooner or later, you’ll think about relenting. Your child’s extracurricular schedule will get too busy and unpredictable, perhaps, or you’d like her to have a way to communicate with you while she’s at camp. Or you might simply decide that she’s finally mature enough to handle the responsibility!
“In addition to ‘biggies’ such as the need to communicate, safety concerns, and your child’s maturity, there are several other questions to consider when determining the right time to purchase your child’s first mobile phone,” Lupold Bair says. “How tech-savvy is she? Will she follow the rules you set up? Does she understand that acceptable mobile phone usage might differ throughout the day; for example, what’s okay at home may not be okay at sports practice? And does your family budget allow for the additional monthly cost?”
Choose from call-only, kid-friendly, and prepaid phone options. Despite what your kids may try to tell you, a smartphone with all of the bells and whistles isn’t the only mobile phone option you should consider. If you want your child to have a phone for safety or convenience but decide that he doesn’t need smartphone functionality, you may want to purchase a model with limited functions. First, determine whether you would like to purchase a standard phone contract or a prepaid phone plan, such as a phone with limited monthly minutes or one for which you can add minutes at a set rate per minute.
“Chances are, your wireless phone service provider offers devices that don’t include the data plans that come standard with a smartphone,” Lupold Bair comments. “While these phones typically include additional features (cameras and texting capability), you can indeed purchase a phone without being saddled with a texting or data plan. Before making a decision, you’ll want to compare costs, look into whether additional features such as texting are available on certain models, and decide whether you want your child’s phone to be locked into a contract.”
Prepare your kids for safe phone use. After you determine that your child is old enough to have a mobile device of her own, you’ll want to take a few precautions to ensure that she uses the device safely. First, focus on the phone itself. Set up parental controls; help your child select and set up a password; and add important phone numbers to the phone, including your own, emergency numbers, and those of any relatives and friends you’d like your child to have access to.
“Secondly, talk to your child about phone usage rules you expect her to follow,” suggests Lupold Bair. “Discuss appropriate usage, phone curfews, guidelines for when to share concerns with adults, rules regarding texting and apps, and what your child should do when answering calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize, to name a few examples. Again, I recommend writing all of these rules down—along with consequences if they’re broken—in your Digital Family Policy.”
Compare limit options through your service provider. Every mobile service provider offers products and services to help parents set limits and protect their children. Depending on which company your contract is with, you might be able to add a filter that blocks sites with mature content from your child’s phone, for example. Other optional features may allow you to remotely locate your child’s phone, block certain numbers from calling it, or control how much data is used each month—and more.
“Before committing to a certain phone or plan, be sure to ask a representative of your mobile service provider about which limits are available,” Lupold Bair says. “If you add a few well-placed controls before giving your child a phone, you can save yourself a lot of worry, money, and trouble!”
Learn about parental controls available by mobile phone device platform. In addition to controls set by your mobile service provider, many mobile phone models and platforms allow you to set additional limits regarding what your child can and can’t do on her phone. Learn what you can about content control, access to apps, privacy settings, and so on—and take advantage of them!
“Many parents aren’t aware that they can restrict access to apps and web browsing, for example, or prevent their child from viewing specific types of content,” shares Lupold Bair. “You might also be able to block changes to the phone’s privacy settings, restrict access to multiplayer games, and even set volume limits!”
Use monitors and restrictions for content and usage amounts. When you’re a parent, there’s no such thing as too much control when it comes to your child’s safety, right? If your head is nodding right now, you’ll be happy to know that in addition to controls available from mobile service providers and those that are built into phones themselves, you have one more line of defense: parental control software or applications.
“You can find programs to monitor and control usage, block content, and locate your children through their phones,” Lupold Bair asserts. “For example, PhoneSheriff allows parents to block functions according to time of day, track the mobile device via GPS, block communication with certain numbers, and record all text messages and phone calls. Mobistealth allows you to access your child’s location in real-time as well as through a historical tracker, record calls, listen live to calls, access an activity log, view web history, and view contact details.”
Think about GPS and your children’s privacy. Increasingly, mobile phones—especially the “smart” types—come equipped with built-in GPS. The upside, of course, is that GPS allows you to locate your child via his phone. However, GPS also allows applications, services, and potential predators to locate your children—so be very careful.
“If you and your child choose to keep the GPS function activated on his mobile phone, consider asking him to opt out of allowing applications such as Facebook and Twitter to access this function,” recommends Lupold Bair. “Applications that allow your teen to check in at specific locations publicly alert strangers to where he is. Some programs even allow friends to post your child’s location without your child’s permission.”
Discuss texting and driving. A 2012 study by the University of Michigan found that more than 25 percent of teens admitted to reading or sending a text message while behind the wheel, making them far more likely to be in an accident. And as Lupold Bair has already pointed out, the days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are “The 100 Deadliest Days” for teen drivers. Some of the implications of texting and driving are a parent’s worst nightmare.
“Yes, you can place apps on your child’s phone to help prevent her from texting and driving, but be sure to also talk to her about the dangers, and to include rules about texting and driving in your Digital Family Policy,” urges Lupold Bair. “Also, remember that kids watch you to know which behaviors are and aren’t appropriate. If you don’t want them to text and drive, make sure that you aren’t texting while driving, either!”
Talk to your children about sexting. According to the Pew Research Center, sending a sexual text message with or without a photograph affects at least 15 percent of teens; that is, they’ve received this type of message via their mobile phone. Parents need to talk frankly with their children about this dangerous trend—and include rules and consequences in their Digital Family Policy—before providing kids with access to a phone that supports text.
“When talking with your children about sexting, create a plan for what your child should do if he receives a sexting message from someone,” Lupold Bair suggests. “Remind him not to immediately delete inappropriate messages because they could be crucial if you need to report potentially dangerous behavior. Also, be sure to discuss the consequences of sexting—other people could be humiliated or hurt emotionally, and so could your child. Some sexting might even break child pornography laws. Finally, encourage your children to come to you if they feel pressure to participate in this type of behavior.”
“Since the invention of the telephone, kids and teens have loved using them to connect,” concludes Lupold Bair. “This generation just has a lot more bells and whistles to contend with! As a parent, the best thing you can do when giving your child a mobile phone is to be fully informed about how the phone works, what it’s capable of, and the dangers your child might face. Then, address all potential problems and concerns up-front. Here’s to making the most of being connected this summer—and beyond!”
# # #
About the Author:
Amy Lupold Bair is the author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies®. She is the founder of Resourceful Mommy Media, inventor of the Twitter Party, and developer of the Global Influence Network for social media-savvy bloggers like herself. Amy shares the wisdom of a mom and the feedback of a thoughtful consumer on her blog, ResourcefulMommy.com.