If you're a parent, I'm sure you'll agree that the world has changed drastically since we were kids.
We had after-school cartoons, our kids have high-tech gaming consoles. Another thing our kids have that we didn't are cell phones. And it's not just teenagers - according to consumer research done by Influence Central, the average age for children to have their first smartphone is now 10 years.
Mobile technology can be a great safety tool - children can use them to call for a ride, let parents know they've arrived safely at their destination, or to call for help in case of an emergency. Like any tool, though, smartphones also provide the opportunity for misuse. They can even make our kids vulnerable in certain situations.
What is the bottom line? Even though there are just as many concerns with cell phone use as with computer internet use, you can have the best of both worlds. With the right strategy, cell phone safety for kids is achievable. I'm going to share with you some practical guidelines and clever tools designed to give everyone in your household peace of mind.
In This Guide
Should Kids Have Cell Phones? Understanding the Risks
Every parent wants to think "my child would never behave inappropriately online" or that their kids are savvy enough to understand that certain types of smartphone activities put them at risk. The harsh reality, however, is that many children simply don't have the information they need to stay safe online. An even harsher reality is that even if we tell them what to do and what not to do, their judgment isn't always good enough to follow our advice.
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In fact, research has slowly been catching up with what rental car companies have known all along - that the rational, decision-making center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, really isn't fully developed until about age 25. Impulse control isn't well established even in older teens, which means that we as parents need to be that much more aware as our kids get to the age when they're interacting independently with the people and the world around them. And with the average age a child receives his or her first cell phone lowering, we need to be aware of the various threats they might face.
Things that could put your child in danger through the use of their mobile phone include:
- Inappropriate internet content - according to GuardChild, a parent-run organization dedicated to keeping kids safe online, 70% of kids between ages 7 and 18 have accidentally seen pornography on the internet.
- Sexting - if you're thinking to yourself "my child would never do that", you could be wrong. In a study by Drexel University, over half of participants admitted to sexting as teens. Even more alarming is the fact that 61% of those who included nude photos in their texts were unaware that such photos can be considered child pornography under the law.
- Predators - apps like Foursquare and Facebook allow your kids to post their location. If these posts are made publicly rather than just to close friends, someone with less than honest intentions could get a hold of the information, making your child extremely vulnerable.
- Car accidents - texting while driving increases the risk of a car crash by as much as 23 times, according to research. Since young people are already at higher risk than adults for accidents, your child texting at the wheel is a recipe for disaster. Even a hands-free device can be a distraction.
Even though these statistics can be extremely intimidating when it comes to giving our children access to technology, there are things you can do to mitigate the risks. Next, I'll talk about how to set both you and your kids up for success so that you can enjoy peace of mind while they're enjoying their mobile devices.
Related: Check out The Ultimate Guide to Internet Safety for Kids
Setting the Ground Rules
So you've made the big decision and you're going to allow your child cell phone privileges. Making the rules is where the rubber hits the road in terms of ensuring everyone's on the same page. Cell phone safety for kids is much easier when expectations are clearly defined.
When you're sharing these conditions with your son or daughter, remember that you'll always get better results by conveying a positive attitude about your confidence in them. Let them know that you feel they're able to handle the responsibility and that these guidelines are in place for their safety rather than as a way for you to be controlling.
This set of rules is a list of basic suggestions. You know your child best and can modify your household's child cell phone rules based upon your own family dynamics. You may even consider having your kid sign a cell phone contract committing to the rules before they can have their device.
- Only give your phone number to people you know. Don't post your telephone number on social networks or any other public forum.
- Ask before you download. Parents should know which apps their kids are using - they're not all safe. Plus, they often have in-app purchases which add up fast.
- Tell a parent or trusted adult if you receive a text or photo that makes you uncomfortable and delete it immediately. Possession of inappropriate photos of minors is a felony. If another child texts you something even a little questionable, tell someone.
- Keep your location private. Posting where you are, or where you plan to be at a certain time, puts you in a vulnerable position if a predator sees it. Keep in mind that many phone cameras use geolocation to identify where a photo is taken, so be sure this feature is turned off.
- Tell a parent or teacher if you're being cyber-bullied. This includes any type of threatening or intimidating message or social network post.
- Ignore and block text messages or phone calls from unknown numbers. Only answer calls from people you know.
- Follow school rules on cell phone usage. This usually means your phone cannot be out of your bag during class.
- Charge your phone in a central location in the house. This means leaving your phone in a room other than your bedroom at night.
- Only say things online and by text that you would tell the person. In other words, treat others as you want to be treated.
- Never text and drive. This is one of the biggest causes of road accidents.
- Remember that the internet is forever. Any text, photo, or social media post that you put out there can be copied, forwarded, or reposted. Nothing that you put out into cyberspace can be taken back so be sure that you're okay with anyone seeing it, including your parents, teachers, family, and friends.
It may be helpful to keep a list of cell phone rules for your kids printed out and posted on the fridge or in another main location in the house.
Related: How to Block Your Caller ID
Key Considerations When Choosing a Child's Cell Phone
The type of mobile phone and features that you choose for your child depend on their age, maturity level, and ability to be responsible. Some preteens, for example, may walk home or to an after-school activity alone while you're at work. You want to make sure they stay safe, but don't have access to inappropriate content on their phone. Older teenagers, on the other hand, tend to want more functionality and internet access so they can text their friends and browse social media sites. There's no one-size-fits-all choice when it comes to cell phones for kids.
What Kind of a Phone Do They Need?
These days even middle schoolers experience peer pressure when it comes to having the latest, greatest smartphone. Just ask my daughter, who luckily for me is perfectly fine with not being one of the "cool" kids. This state of affairs does, however, make it difficult for parents to figure out the best cell phone options for their kids.
Related: We have a list of the best child-friendly smartphones.
Elementary Kids and Tweens
If your child is not a teenager yet, they probably don't need the internet on their mobile device. There are plenty of basic phones available which can give you peace of mind knowing your child can contact you if they need to. Yet they are more affordable than an iPhone or Android smartphone, so won't cost you an arm and a leg if your kid loses or breaks theirs.
Teenagers are an entirely different animal. They're past the play date stage and want to be in constant contact with their friends via text and social media, plus be able to search the internet and access GPS directions while driving. A smartphone will likely be the best choice for your teen. You can still keep the cost reasonable, however:
- Pass down your old smartphone. Most of us have slightly older smartphone models lying around that we don't use anymore. Last year's iPhone or Android smartphone make the ideal free yet perfectly functional choice for a teenager.
- Buy used cell phones. If you don't have a hand-me-down phone available, buying a secondhand device is a great way to save money.
- Let them share the responsibility. Cell phone contracts are expensive. If your teen has a job, there's no reason they shouldn't pay at least part of their own device cost and phone bill. This helps prepare them for adult responsibilities and is likely to make them more careful about losing or damaging their cell phone.
- Choose a modest model. There are plenty of options aside from flagship models. Choose a more affordable Android phone, like the Galaxy On5, which runs under $200 yet still has everything your teen wants, like a high-quality phone camera and a five-inch screen.
Just because your child has a smartphone with internet access doesn't mean you have to set them loose to do whatever they please with it. There is useful and innovative technology that gives you some measure of control over what your teenager uses their phone for, which I'll cover throughout this guide.
Choosing a Cell Phone Plan for Kids
Just as you evaluate the cell phone plans for yourself, you need to decide on things like how much data and which features your child will need. You should also consider whether you want to put your child's phone on your postpaid plan, or a separate prepaid cell phone plan.
For young children with a basic phone, a simple calling and texting plan will do fine. These kinds of plans are very reasonable - for example, T-Mobile plans have a $3/month pay-as-you-go service that comes with 30 minutes of talk and 30 texts (you can add more if you wish).
For teenagers, you might want to go with one of the unlimited data plans now available from carriers like Boost Mobile. You can find plans with unlimited music streaming, perfect for adolescents who can't seem to get enough Spotify or Pandora. Plus, you won't get hit with an unpleasant surprise at the end of the month in the form of data overages.
Related: Of course, you're likely to have a family cell phone plan if you have children. You can use our plan comparison tool here to see what plan suits you.
More Tips for Parents
All of this information on kids and cell phone safety may seem a little overwhelming and scary. The good news, though, is that in this age of rapidly advancing technology parents are stepping up to the plate. According to the Pew Research Center, 43% of parents know the password to their child's cell phone. It may feel like an invasion of privacy, but it's our job to keep them safe and monitoring their phone usage is a big piece of that puzzle.
Related: Our guide can help you and your child learn how to create strong passwords on any device.
Here are a few more things to keep in mind as you approach this complex new parenting landscape:
- Consider using parental controls that allow you to help your kids make good decisions. Programs like PhoneSheriff are helpful for younger kids - they allow you to track your child's whereabouts by GPS, monitor call and text message info, and set time limits on usage. Apps like DriveSafe Mode allow you to shut off certain functions while your teenager is driving, like texting and web surfing. These parental control services, along with traditional programs like Norton Family Premier, are available for iPhone as well as Android phones.
- Model the behavior you want to see. Don't text and drive, and put your phone away at the dinner table. Even using a hands-free device behind the wheel is illegal in some states, so make sure everyone knows the law. Kids learn best by example, so this is a simple way to get your message across.
- Watch out for cell phone addiction. Whether or not you believe cell phone addiction is a real affliction, overuse can become a problem, particularly when it comes to social media. Don't be afraid to set limits.
- Approach topics on cell phone safety by having a conversation rather than giving a lecture. Kids want to be treated with respect just as adults do. When we lecture, they tend to become very good at tuning us out. The more comfortable your child feels the more likely they will be to come to you if they do happen to encounter a situation.
- Monitor your child's cell phone records. These are available online in your account with most major carriers. If you see telephone numbers you don't recognize or notice your child texting or talking late at night, you'll know it's time for a talk. You can also check out your child's browser history on the phone itself if you're concerned about their online activities. Mobile browsers have an option in the menu, just as when you check the computer internet history.
- Stay connected (pun intended). Talk to your son or daughter every day, even if just for a minute, about what they've been doing and to whom they've been talking. Show interest, and your child's response may surprise you. Some of the best times with my teenagers are when I ask them about something they're laughing at on their phones - they're usually more than happy to share it with me so we can have a laugh together.
- Make sure your name in your child's contact list is followed by ICE (in case of emergency). This way others will know what phone number to call if something should happen. In case your child's phone is locked, consider taping your contact info to the outside for quick access.
- Investigate your carrier's parental control features. Most major providers like AT&T and Verizon offer parental control services which help you monitor and restrict your child's activity on his or her cell phone. Utilize built-in phone features as well, such as the option to turn off in-app purchases.
Setting clear rules and talking and listening to your children will help smooth out your child's cell phone usage for everyone involved.
Long-Term Health Concerns
When cell phones came into widespread use, there were some concerns about radiation exposure from the radiofrequency energy produced by these devices. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has set limits on the levels of energy phones sold in the U.S. are permitted to produce. This measurement is called a SAR value. The SAR value - or Specific Absorption Rate - for mobile phones is set at a maximum 1.6 watts per kilogram.
Child phone usage, in particular, has spurred concerns about potential health risks. The FCC says that there is currently no scientific evidence of long-term health risks from using cell phones. Still, if you're worried about this issue you can encourage your kids to use speakerphone or headphones rather than holding their phone to their ear and to place their phone away from their heads at night while sleeping.
Kids are a lot of work, there's no doubt about it. Keeping them safe is the most important job we have, and the results are definitely worth the effort in the end. Taking advantage of technology means your kids will always be able to contact you, and you will be able to monitor their after-school activity and location quickly and easily.
Cell phones can be both a blessing and a curse. If you follow these guidelines, however, you can make them work in your favor - which means the whole family will have more peace of mind and an enhanced connection with each other.
Wearable tech is a popular trend parents can take advantage of to keep their children safe. A child GPS tracker can help you identify the location of your child at any time from the convenience of your phone. Check out our buyer's guide to GPS trackers for more information.