Parents Guide to Smartphone Safety: Technology, Social Media, Sexting, and Cyberbullying
A 2019 study shows that by age 11 53% of children have a smartphone and by age 14 81% of children have a smartphone. The Common Sense Media study also found that tweens (10-12 years old) spend an average of 4 hours and 44 minutes of screen time per day and teens spend a whopping 7 hours and 22 minutes of screen time. This amount of time doesn’t include additional screen time for school and homework.
It’s obvious that smartphone usage isn’t going anywhere. Kids find many reasons to want and use a smartphone, or other connected device. Most common uses reported by tweens and teens included: watching TV/videos (1st), playing games (2nd), browsing websites (3rd), and social media (4th).
There are important questions that you need to ask and steps that need to be taken in order to keep your kids safe when using their smartphones.
- 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?
- Letting Your Child Know About Safe Search Habits and Downloads
- How Can I Reduce Their Digital Dependency?
- Social Media Safety Tips
- The Dangers of Sexting
- How to Prevent and Deal With Cyberbullying
Knowing what age is right to give your child a smartphone can be complicated. Rather than asking what age is right it’s better to ask, “is my child responsible enough to have a phone?”, and “do I have enough time to teach them responsible smartphone use?” Devorah Heitner, the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, outlines several questions to ask yourself before getting that iPhone 11 for your 11 year old.
- Is my child responsible and do they have good judgement? If you trust your child to do things on their own and they’re responsible for their belongings, then they could be a good candidate for a smartphone. Additionally, your child should display good decision making skills before being given a smartphone.
- Does your child approach you if they need help? If you and your child have a trusting relationship that will help in keeping them safe while using their smartphone. Situations can quickly spin out of hand with social media, letting your child know that they can come to you if they don’t know how to handle something is essential.
- Lastly, can my child focus? If your child can respect limits on smartphone use and not use their phone during class or family time, then they’re a good candidate for a smartphone. You don’t want a phone creating a distraction from other more important things, like family time, school work, and after school activities. This is an area where you should lead by example and put your own limits on your use of your 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 use it. Will your child's phone be used to make calls and send text messages or do they need something with more capabilities?
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. PCMag recommends the simple Alcatel GO FLIP 3 phone for children ages 11 to 13 who are getting their first phone. If you’re looking to get something with a bit more capabilities they recommend the Moto G7 that’s compatible with all U.S. carriers.
With a more economic phone your child can learn the basics of using a smartphone 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 from various service providers that will help you teach your kids how to responsibly use their phones, by allowing you to control how often they use them.
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.
No matter their age, teen, tween, or younger children need to be aware of phone safety. The first step to protecting your child is making sure that they know about the dangers that exist out there.
Most people add a child to their existing data plan. It is easy to use a family link to connect phones, track mobile phone use, and monitor the child's usage and location. 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 including on social networking sites.
- 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 they may need to contact.
Ensure that your son or daughter keeps in mind these tips when they get their first smartphone:
- If you can lock the phone with a security passcode, set one. Also make sure that the 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 WiFi 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 with our guide. 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.
There is another danger to allowing younger children to have their own phones. Inappropriate content can appear almost anywhere, even on supposedly safe websites designed specifically for children. It's important that children know how to access safe sites and what to do when faced with inappropriate content.
If your child uses a smartphone for homework or simply looking things up for fun, make sure there are parental controls set in the search engine. All commercial search engines, including Google, Bing, and Yahoo have parental controls. These controls will allow you to block specific content from your child's phone.
Kids love games. App stores on both Android phones and Apple devices allow people to download games and other apps. The problem is that not all games and apps are free. Ensure that your child knows not to download any apps without permission. Otherwise, you could end up with a large bill. Keep a close eye on your statements to ensure you won't be hit with a big bill at the end of the month.
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 and family time.
- Limit screen time.
- 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.
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 online gaming, while girls seem to be drawn to visual social media platforms, like Instagram, TikTok, 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 cyberstalkers.
- How to create non-identifying usernames and complex passcodes. 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, advise 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.
A sexually explicit photo even when it's taken years ago can always find its way online. For this reason, it's best not to engage in any form of sexting.
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 any time 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. There are resources available to help victims of cyberbullying. For more information on cyberbullying, please see our guide on how to stop cyberbullying.