Techie Tykes

Monitoring your child’s use of cell phones.

Remember when cell phones were a rarity? Now in the hand of nearly every mom, dad and child who is in the 6th grade or higher, cell phones are like mini mobile computers. Yes, people still talk on cell phones. But they— especially young people— also use cell phones to browse the Web, play games, listen to music, download software and send text messages, photos and videos.

Tween and teen texting has been all over the news. In spring 2008, Nielsen Mobile announced that teens sent and received an average of 2,272 texts a month. More recently, a 15 year old told the Washington Post that she “would die” without texting. And have you heard about sexting? A combination of the words “sex” and “texting,” according to Wikipedia, “sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between cell phones.” Is this something you as a parent have to worry about? In a word, yes. Studies by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com report that 39 percent of teens and 59 percent of young adults have sent or posted sexually suggestive e-mails or texts. Twenty percent of teens and 33 percent of young adults have sent or posted nude or partially nude photos of themselves. There were also two cases of suicide last year involving teens who were taunted after sexting.

We know how much kids use their cell phones’ photo features, video cams and music players. And Facebook and MySpace have long offered phone-based social networking, making constant communication even more accessible. Phones are also becoming a major platform for games, with speculation that Apple’s iPhone could soon replace handheld game players. Forbes has reported that games comprised a quarter of the more than 800 million applications (“apps”) that have been downloaded to iPhones since Apple opened its App Store in mid-2008. Indeed, the iPhone can be anything from a musical instrument to an entertainment diversion with learning software for wee ones to a digital personal trainer for teens and adults. Not that the iPhone is the only smartphone attracting kids. Nokia has one that a 14 year old told her reporter father she refused to give up because it’s skinnier than the iPhone and slips easily into her jeans’ pocket.

So with these mobile phones that can do pretty much anything and connect with anyone a child desires, what’s a parent to do? Actually, you have a whole toolkit of resources, both technological and parental.

As daunting as this technology talk seems to many of us parents, it’s important to know that it’s not rocket science, and we don’t have to understand everything in order to raise good-natured children. In fact, letting your children be the household tech experts can go a long way in helping you understand technology and your children’s use of it. Ask, or lovingly require, your kids to explain how they employ a particular device or technology.

Perhaps more vital than teaching you something new, it fosters parent-child communication, which is a crucial tool in the parental arsenal. Other parenting tools include:

  • Strong family values and ethics. Model good communication with people outside your family, whether it’s via technology or in day-to-day conversations. As you model good habits, ensure your children know to follow suit. Show respect for other people you converse with on the phone and online as you do in person. Treat others on the phone as you would want to be treated. Talk to the person you have a problem with before talking to others. Be present in a gathering, instead of texting or being on the phone. Think about the impact on yourself and others before you send a text message, post a comment, play certain games or share photos.
  • Family discussions. Use things in the news and at school as talking points about sexting, cyberbullying and imposter profiles on social sites. Ask your children about their awareness of certain issues and whether they have seen cyberbullying or heard of sexting among their peers.
  • Rules. Advise family members that phones must remain off during meals, family discussions, homework and bedtime. Kids should always answer the phone when a parent calls and keep parents informed about the technology they use and in what capacity. Tell your kids never to send an inappropriate photo or video. Just Google “sexting” for some talking points on the dangers of this now widespread trend.
  • A family agreement. There’s a great sample cellphone-use contract at the Wireless Foundation’s site, www.wirelessfoundation.org/wirelessonlinesafety/family_cellphone_agreement.cfm.
  • Questions. Ask your kids things like: You only text and talk with people you or I know, right? Have you ever been bullied or harassed on your phone? Do you know kids who have been harassed by phone calls or on social networking sites? What happened? Do any of your friends text you too much? What should you do about that?
  • Repercussions. Explain to kids that if rules aren’t obeyed, then their phones become unavailable for a specified period of time. Also inform children that if you feel they are texting excessively, you may block that feature.

All mobile carriers have some parental controls, which are expanding constantly. Here’s what they all have:

  • The ability to turn off Web access on children’s phones under a parent’s account.
  • Basic filtering if Web access is allowed, as well as blocking of phone-based purchases at no extra cost.
  • The ability to turn off text messaging and other features on phones.
  • The ability to block text messages or phone calls from specific numbers on some of the phones each carrier offers.
  • The ability to monitor kids’ minutes, text messages and bills via the carriers’ Web sites.
  • The ability to limit the times of day or night that children use their phones (sometimes at an additional charge).