Parents Guide to Cell Phone Safety: Technology, Social Media, Sexting, and Cyberbullying
Recent studies have found that the average age of most children when they receive their first phone is 10.3 years old. Influence Central found that the average use of smart phones among children has increased rapidly since 2012, and that the average age in which a child receives their first phone continues to decrease.
Regardless of your child's age there are important questions that you need to ask and steps that need to be taken in order to protect your child's safety.
- How Do I Know if My Child Is Ready for a Phone?
- What Type of Phone Should I Get My Child?
- What Are Ways to Protect My Child?
- How Can I Reduce Their Digital Dependency?
- Social Media Safety Tips
- The Dangers of Sexting
- How to Prevent and Deal With Cyberbullying
Many parents buy a child their first phone for safety reasons and as a way to keep in touch. This should be one of your first questions that you ask yourself: Does my child need a phone to let me know where they are?
If your child takes public transportation to and from school, participates in a lot of after-school activities, or after-school programs then it might make sense to look into getting a phone so that they can keep in touch with you and let you know where they are.
A second question to ask yourself is: Is my child responsible and do they understand the risks of letting others use their phone, giving information to strangers, etc.? This is an important question to ask because if you don't feel that your child understands the dangers and privacy concerns that come with owning a cell phone, it is your job to educate them.
Lastly, ask yourself whether or not your child will be able to respect limits on cell phone use and not use their cell phone during class or family time. This is an area where you should lead by example and put your own limits on your use of your cell phone and other gadgets in the home. By putting the phone aside, you are demonstrating healthy habits that your children can follow.
Once you've decided to purchase your child their first phone, ask yourself how they will be using it. Do they need just a simple phone to make calls and send texts from or do they need something with more capabilities.
Will they also be using the phone as an MP3 player, to play games and watch videos? If so then they might need something more complex like a smartphone.
If it is their first piece of technology, it's best to go with something that is simple. Smartphones can be expensive and very costly to replace, not to mention a major privacy concern. Start with an easy-to-use, call-and-text-only, cost-efficient model.
Your child can learn the basics of using a phone and how to be responsible with their electronics, without you feeling too much grief if they end up losing or breaking it. As your child grows and they become more responsible, their phone can be upgraded.
There are also many low-cost family plans that will help you teach your kids how to responsibly use their phones, by allowing you to control how often they use them. One such plan in the U.S. is Krew Mobile, which provides you with three cell phone lines on the T-Mobile network for $19.95 per month.
The main line which belongs to mom or dad has 2GB of 4G LTE data, unlimited 2G data, unlimited nationwide talk, unlimited worldwide text, and free parental controls. The other two lines come with only unlimited nationwide talk and worldwide text, and parents can check usage and set limits on use from an easy to use dashboard.
It's important to do your research on the different plans that are available and choose which one is best for your child and family. As a general rule of thumb, it's best to start with the simplest and cheapest phone and plan.
The first step to protecting your child is making sure that they know about the dangers that exist out there.
If you've decided to get your child a simple phone with only text and call capabilities, make sure that they know:
- Never to share their number with strangers or post it online.
- Don't let others use their phone, especially not strangers.
- Don't answer calls that aren't in their contacts. You should set up your child's contact list to contain your home, cell, and work number, along with the numbers of other family members and family friends that they may need to contact.
Ensure that your son or daughter keeps in mind these tips when they get a smartphone:
- If you can lock your phone with a security code, set one. Also make sure that your phone's screen locks quickly when you're not using it.
- Don't let others use your cell phone, especially not strangers.
- Don't answer calls from unknown numbers that are not in your contact list. Use a phone tracer app, like CallerSmart, to check an unknown number before calling them back.
- Check privacy settings frequently and make sure that you're not sharing unnecessary data with apps.
- Enable phone finder or download an app that will allow you to find your phone if it's lost or stolen. On iPhones this is called "Find my iPhone."
- Turn off bluetooth settings when not in use and don't connect to untrusted Wi-Fi networks.
- Only share your location with family and trusted friends. You can learn more with our helpful guide on location sharing on the iPhone.
If you or your teen has an iPhone you can learn more about making your iPhone safer. As Edward Snowden said, "We used to say that a man's home was his castle but today a man's phone is his castle." The amount of information that can be gained if your phone is stolen or hacked is staggering, and it's important for you to take every precaution possible.
Set healthy limits for your children and encourage them by following some of the same rules you set for them.
Some easy ways to decrease digital dependency are:
- Ban phones and other technology at mealtime.
- Set a tech curfew that means no phone calls, texting, mobile games, or social media after a certain time in the evening.
- Set up a charging station where phones can be left overnight to charge. This should be outside of and away from the bedrooms.
- Use an analog alarm clock instead of phones in all bedrooms.
- Encourage after school activities, like sports or band, or some form of outdoor exercise.
- Find a hobby that both you and your child can enjoy together.
Over 90% of American teens report going online at least once daily. Much of their time online is dominated by social media sites, 71% of 13 to 17 year olds have a Facebook account, 52% have an Instagram account, 41% have a Snapchat account, 33% a Twitter account, 33% a Google+ account, 24% a Vine account, and 14% a Tumblr account.
It's likely that your teen is using multiple social media platforms and could be over-sharing personal information on some of those sites. When it comes to boys and girls, girls are much more active on social media than boys are. Boys focus more of their attention on video games, while girls seem to be drawn to visual social media platforms, like Instagram and Snapchat.
Have open discussions with your child about social media, discuss things like:
- Privacy settings and how to improve them. Every social media site has privacy settings that you can make stronger, make sure that your child's profile isn't public and that only friends can see the things they post.
- What they are posting. Once something is online, it can go on forever. It can be downloaded, screenshots can be taken and it can be shared millions of times. Discuss things that are inappropriate to post and how posting them could affect them in the future.
- Don't publish personal details. There might be an area in your social media profile to include your phone number and personal email, this doesn't mean that you should include it. Posting personal details on social media can increase your risk of identity theft and make you vulnerable to cyber stalkers.
- How to create non-identifying usernames and complex passwords. Social media accounts can easily be hacked, it's important to create passwords that won't easily be guessed.
Sexting is never a good idea at any age, it can destroy lives. Once a sext is sent it takes on a life of it's own and there is no way to control what the person who received it will do with it. They could forward a picture that your child sent in a text to their friends, they could post it to social media or other places online as a form of revenge.
Minors who sext are in a particularly bad situation since the possession of a sexually explicit image of a minor is a crime and sending a sexual explicit image of a minor is a crime. If a 15 year old girl sends a sexually explicit photo to her 15 year old boyfriend, she's technically committed two felonies and he's committed one felony for also being in possession of the photo.
If the couple was prosecuted they could go to jail and would be registered sex offenders. Though most prosecutors won't go after a couple like this, if the photo somehow was shared and posted online then the two could face these severe penalties. Also because teens' cell phones are typically under their parents' contracts and name, civil suits can be brought against parents in these types of cases.
If your teen ever receives a sexually explicit image of someone they know or a classmate that was forward to them by another friend, tell them to immediately delete it. If there is an investigation they can report that yes they did receive a picture or video, but they deleted it. Chances are that the image is being shared without the consent of the person who sent it originally or is in it. By deleting the image your child stops it from spreading on their behalf and they eliminate themselves from committing any criminal acts. For more resources on how to handle and discuss sexting, Cyberbullying.org has great resources.
A sexually explicit photo even when it's taken years ago can always find it's way online. For this reason, it's best not to engage in any form of sexting. For more information on sexting laws Mobile Media Guard has an excellent breakdown of state by state sexting laws.
Sexting can be a form of cyberbullying when the images are shared without the consent and knowledge of the person in the video. Cyberbullying also includes many other forms of abuse, such as:
- Sharing or posting videos online that are meant to embarrass or are cruel in intention towards a person.
- Making threats of physical harm or telling a person to kill themselves via email, text, or social media.
- Attacking a person online based on their physical appearance, religion, sexuality or mental ability.
- Impersonating other people online in order to trick someone into sharing personal details, and then using the information against them.
- Hacking into another person's social media accounts in order to send untrue and hurtful messages to others.
Smartphones make it easy for cyberbullies to harass their victims. Images and messages can be shared instantly at anytime of the day. Attacks can be sent via texts, message apps, or social media platforms.
Have an open conversation about cyberbullying with your child and ask them if they've ever seen any cases of it in their school or with their friends, be sure to listen and don't be controlled by your emotions. The most effective thing you can do is listen, let your child know that they are loved and supported, and encourage them to never address a cyberbully or participate in cyberbullying by sharing or liking posts that could be hurtful.
Look for changes in your child's behavior, to ensure that they are not being bullied. Signs of cyberbullying are changes in your child's technology use, depressed or angry moods, refusing to go to school, or doing poorly in school. Children who are the victims of cyberbullying are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, have low self-esteem, and may even contemplate and commit suicide.
It's important to look for signs of cyberbullying and address it. For more information on cyberbullying, please see our guide on cyberbullying and how to prevent it.