The folks from Location Labs, maker of SafelyGo asked me to share a few thoughts about kids and cell phones. I wrote out the following post last Friday, an hour or two before I learned about the horrific events unfolding in Connecticut. Back in the day, I rarely carried in a cell phone. In fact, I was known for misplacing my phone for days at a time, much to my husband's frustration. "Meh, I don't need to be reachable every second of every day regardless of where I am," I'd tell him. And then the Twin Towers fell and everything changed. I did want to be available 24/7. Once my kids started becoming more independent, I wanted them to be available, too. While I don't think last week's tragedy will affect our cell phone habits, I couldn't just jump into the post I'd written. The world changed again. Do you feel it, too?
We first started my boys on their own phones when I was offered a "kids' phone" for a blog review many years ago, but really, somewhere around 5th or 6th grade is where we found it made sense for each boy to get a cell phone of his own. Around that age, the boys started getting dropped off at activities and heading out the park and other places without us, or sometimes any adults, following along.
In our view, a phone was, and is, a safety tool, a useful device to facilitate parent-child communication, a way to keep in touch when they are out of sight. For my kids, their phones are important communication devices, though primarily ones used to text (and listen to music), not talk. Over the years, we've heard the pleas for a smartphone, but have patiently reiterated that the reason they have any phone is so that they can reach us when they need to and vice versa. In addition, my son who is prone to distraction does not need the distractions a smartphone makes available, but your child may vary
My smart teen's not-so-smart phone landed in a toilet last week. And he broke his previous phone doing an "experiment" with it. (Don't ask.) So, regardless of what kind of phone you get for your tween, consider shelling out an extra few bucks on an insurance policy for your kid's cell phone.
What else should parents think about when giving their child a new or upgraded phone?
Besides basic care information (i.e., don't keep it in your pockets when you head to the bathroom), it's important to discuss rules of use and consequences for abuse. Over the years, we've found written contracts to be helpful when laying out guidelines for The Important Stuff. In this case, we talked about proper use, who to include in their contacts and times of use. We also stressed that they need to notify us about anything unusual.
We discussed that they shouldn't text anything they wouldn't say in front of their parents, grandparents, teachers, or a police officer. And we've made them aware that the cell phone company can provide us with a transcript of their texts should we need to see it, driving home the point that a person can't truly undo or delete a message.
We instructed them not to forward texts that bully another person or have any hint of sexting, explaining that unless they put a stop to the chain of messages, they become part of the problem. As boys, they could wind up with a criminal record as a sexual predator for having inappropriate photos of an underage girl on their phones.
When the boys were first starting out with phones we used parental controls to set limits on their times of use and contact lists. As they've gotten older, they've become more accountable for their cell phone behavior (and maybe we've gotten more lax?). But we haven't thrown all caution to the wind. Their cell phones charge overnight in our bedroom, with a curfew of about 10 PM.
We also toe the "my house, my stuff, my rules" line. If I read their texts, I don't consider it sneaking, because we've warned them that it might happen at any time. For junior high boys, it seems a sample conversation goes like this.
Not much. Sup w u?
Maybe add in a mention of MineCraft and that's the convo.
High school students have more to say (actually, the difference might be including girls in the convo, not age), but I've only looked in here and there. I haven't seen anything alarming and the one time there was something alarming, my son came to me with it.
It started out with a text exchange from an unknown number. With teens and tweens an surprising number of texts can go back and forth without the people on either end knowing quite who the other is. It sounds stupid until I remember the goofy prank calls my friends and I when we were in junior high. Anyway, after a meaningless few exchanges with an unknown person, things got weird, inappropriately so. My son blocked that number on his phone and then showed me the conversation when he got home from school.
(Sidenote: teach your kids how to block phone numbers. I'm embarrassed to say my son showed ME how to do that.)
My initial reaction was, eww! delete! but then I calmed down, used *67 to block our caller ID and call the phone of origin. Of course, I didn't know what to do when the guy answered, so I just hung up and turned to my Facebook friends for advice.
In the end, we went to the police station to make a report. Fortunately, I had not deleted all of the evidence. We did not file charges, but made sure that the texts and the man's phone number were on file in case anyone else reported him. We captured screen shots of the offending texts and then deleted them. It seemed more like a weird incident than some pervert who was stalking my child. Though I might have felt differently if I had a daughter. Would you?
So yeah, don't just hand your kid a phone and set them free in the world. Make sure they understand why they have the phone, how to treat it, and what the rules are, and don't be shy about using parental controls to monitor and reinforce the limits you set.
This post was sponsored by Location Labs, the makers of Safely apps for families and publishers of Safely Times, a monthly newsletter offering tips and resources for parenting in a digital age. All opinions are my own.
Location Labs has a variety of apps that can help you safely navigate parenting in the digital age. I'm sure we'll be looking into their Safely Family Locator (available through AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) and Drive Safe (available through Sprint), once the teen starts to drive. Safety that feature age-appropriate tips, or Common Sense Media has useful, age-appropriate tips for parents on integrating cell phones and other tech into family life.