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Kids need to understand from the get-go that having a phone is a privilege and, like all privileges, comes with responsibilities. Family contracts that outline those responsibilities are available from several reliable sources including Connect Safely (connectsafely.org/family-contract-smartphone-use/) and Sprint (sprint.com/4netsafety/phoneContract-feature.html). Even if you don’t feel the need to sign a formal contract with your child, these documents cover important talking points.
Put a structure in place
Being clear about expectations is step one, but many children also benefit from a little extra structure. Fortunately, parents have access to a wide range of technical tools that will help children remember and respect their rules. The checklist that follows provides an overview of protections that are available for cellphones.
It’s unlikely most parents will want or need all of these tools. The features that make sense for your family depend partly on your parenting style and partly on your child’s temperament. In addition to age and maturity, you’ll want to think about the following questions: Is your child able to keep track of belongings? Does he or she generally follow household rules? How easily is your child distracted? How susceptible to pressure from peers or strangers? Most important, how will this tool help you reach your ultimate goal — having a child who makes good, independent decisions about how and when to use a cellphone.
Once you’ve decided which protections you want, find out whether they are available from your phone carrier. All major companies offer some of these services free and others for a monthly fee. To figure out what’s available on your plan, search for parental controls on their website. Better, visit one of their outlets and have someone describe and demonstrate the relevant features so you’ll actually be able to use them.
Curb Phone Calls. For very young children, it’s a good idea to establish an approved list of phone numbers so your child can make and receive calls only from those people. For older kids, you may still want software that shows traffic on the phone. Remember that specific numbers can always be blocked if your child is being harassed or unduly influenced by peers or strangers.
Control texts. Depending on your family’s plan and your child’s self control, you may want controls that limit the number of texts your child can send and/or receive. Some controls also allow parents to monitor texts for content that seems risky. There’s even an app, Ignore No More, that lets you lock the phone if you don’t get a prompt response to your text messages!
Monitor web sites. A smartphone allows a child unrestricted access to the Internet, so you may want filters that block sites that link to pornography, gambling, hate speech, and other adult content.
Supervise social media. A cellphone makes it all too easy to share impulsive messages, photos, and video. Parents can arrange to be notified whenever a child posts or is tagged on social media. Or you can set up controls that alert you only if your child uses unacceptable language, is involved in bullying, or exchanges inappropriate photos.
Manage time. If the phone seems to be taking over your child’s life, most carriers offer a timer that will allow you to establish intervals when the phone simply doesn’t work because your child should be sleeping or paying attention in class.
Track location. If your child struggles to keep track of personal items, you may want an app that locates the phone if lost. Some parents also use GPS to confirm that kids are where they are supposed to be — home after school, on the soccer field, at a sleepover.
Limit downloads. Kids with smartphones will want to explore the wonderful world of apps. Some simply aren’t suitable for children. Others have fees that will show up on your phone bill. Some introduce malware onto the phone. If you have any doubts about your child’s judgment, look for software that alerts you when your child tries to download a ringtone, game, or social media app.
Disable while driving. If your teen is driving, consider using a feature that disables the phone whenever it’s moving at the speed of a car.
Most families find they can protect their children adequately with services provided by cellphone companies, supplemented perhaps by free apps like MamaBear. If you decide to invest in more comprehensive software, detailed reviews of 10 options are available at: cell-phone-parental-control-software-review.toptenreviews.com.
Some of these programs brag about how they can be used in “stealth” mode so kids will never even know their parents are watching them. In many ways, that kind of spyware subverts the goals of good parenting. If you do find something worrisome, you won’t be able to discuss it without admitting that you’ve had your child’s phone under surveillance. Better to talk openly about what safeguards you plan to use and why you think they are important.
Being upfront about your concerns actually makes it more likely that your kids will become such savvy, skilled, and responsible cellphone users they’ll no longer training wheels. • For more, go to lookout.com/resources/reports/smartphone-family-guide MP
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about parenting online for a decade and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit growing-up-online.com to read more.