Child Cell Phone Safety

Here is the promised cell phone safety tools follow up to my New Trends in Child Safety Monitoring Tools for PC’s.

With 21% 8-10 year-olds, and close to 70% of 11-14 year-olds having their own cell phone, providing families the ability to help protect their children in the mobile environment is critical.

Family safety tools, often called parental controls or child protection tools, for internet accessible mobile devices were slow to arrive, but today several a flurry of products aims to fill the void by merging state of the art technology with the customization families need.

Though still not perfect, mobile safety products are worth considering if you have kids, tweens, or younger teens using cell phones, and the safeguards you can put in place through the phone and service provider are not enough.

However, monitoring tools can only do so much toward protecting your children, teaching youth how to be responsible online, how to protect themselves, and what to do if there’s trouble is a job that can’t be delegated to software.

Mobile safety choices:

  1. Select a phone that is appropriate for your child. There are very simple phones for the youngest users that can essentially do only one thing – place calls – and those calls can be restricted to certain numbers. On the other end of the spectrum are the ‘smart phones’ that are likely to include photo and video filming and viewing, GPS (location tracking) functionality, the ability to chat and use social networks, conduct financial transactions, have removable memory, and more.  Think through the safety and privacy implications and responsibilities that come with each feature and select a phone that you and your child/tween/teen can both be comfortable with.
  2. Choose the carrier that best fits your needs. Consistent coverage is always the first concern for phone purchasers, but for youth you want to also consider what safety features the carrier offers. Verizon has the most comprehensive family safety/parental control options (see also Verizon Safeguards)among mobile service providers, but all the major carriers have at least some safety features. (see comparison chart below)
  3. Pick the phone plan that provides only the functionality you want for your child. You can choose to purchase a plan that allows text messaging, photo sharing, and internet access – or not. Add these as you feel your child is ready to take on the greater responsibility for appropriately using these features. Talk to your carrier’s sales personnel to learn more about the safety functionality they provide, and, if you feel anxious about your ability to set the controls on your child’s phone yourself, ask the sales person to set these up for you.
    1. Another consideration when choosing your child’s phone plan is whether you want your child to have a prepaid plan, a monthly independent plan, or include your child on your family plan. Selecting a plan that allows you to review the bill each month gives you a strong method for monitoring their use and safety. The phone bill should show you what times of day calls/texts are made or received, how much time is spent on the phone, who your child is interacting with, what websites they’re visiting, etc. This helps you to see where there may be concerns like texts/calls during school hours or late at night or calls to numbers you don’t know.
  4. Have the ‘Talk’. Before your child gets their first phone, talk about each type of functionality they’ll be able to use, and what is – and isn’t – appropriate behavior, what types of information are ok to share and what isn’t, what times of day and with whom it is suitable to communicate, and how to treat others with respect. Talk about how to report trouble and assure your child you’ll help if they need you, learn together how to block callers, and use other safety features Based on your child’s age, talking about talking/texting and driving, cyberbullying via cell phones, and sexting may be appropriate.Discussing in advance your family’s safety rules, and being up front about the technologies you will employ to monitor behavior is crucial. Though many programs allow you to spy on your kids using a stealth mode, doing so will break down the trust between you and is likely to cause serious harm to your relationships.Include in your discussion clear ground rules for using the phone and the consequences of failing to use the phone appropriately. Cell phones aren’t a ‘right’ they’re a privilege and failure to appropriately handle a privilege can result in the retraction of that privilege.

    That said, I am not a proponent of taking away a child’s cell phone as a punishment for things unrelated to cell phone use. For example, if you wouldn’t take away pens and pencils from your child if they wrote mean notes, then taking away the cell phone of someone who writes mean texts doesn’t really make sense. The punishment for bullying should be about the behavior, not the tool. However, if your child is making or accepting phone calls in the middle of the night, taking the phone away at bedtime and giving it back in the morning makes sense.

    Be clear about your level of direct monitoring. If you feel that periodically sitting down with your child and reviewing their contacts, texts, photos, etc is appropriate – and it is based on age and the child’s maturity – this expectation should be well understood by your kids up front so you avoid unhappy confrontations in the future.

  5. Continue having the ‘Talk’. Once your child has a cell phone, sit down periodically to discuss how well they’re managing the freedom and responsibility the phone affords them. When they demonstrate that they can use the existing phone features appropriately, allow them to add additional features and functionality and step up their level of self management.
  6. Decide if your child needs additional safety or monitoring tools. These tools break down into three primary categories: tools that filter content and contact, tools that monitor and block usage, and tools to track the child’s location. Which tools will be appropriate for your situation is something only you can determine, but you have a number of options. GetParentalControls.org provides an excellent overview of available cell phone safety services in their Mobile phones Parental Controls Product Comparison 2010 (see comparison chart below). Like all comparisons, this chart (see below) represents a snapshot in time. Since its release, additional tools have come available. Most noteworthy of these is McAfee‘s Online Family Protection for Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. To find the latest

Your goal is to help protect your kids while helping them to become fully capable, independent, responsible online citizens on any device. As kids mature, the settings you use to monitor them need to be reevaluated. Ideally you do this 2-3 times a year, but at least do so once a year. You need to transition responsibility for their behavior, and for the content, programs and sites they use as they demonstrate they have mastered the skills needed, and accepted the corresponding responsibilities that new services and activities require.

Linda

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