Cellphones can help keep our children safe but they can also make them more vulnerable in certain situations.
Children can use cellphones 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. But smartphones are also tiny computers which give internet access, photo and video technology and GPS tracking, all of which are open to misuse.
With the right strategy, cell phone safety for kids is achievable, and you can have the best of both worlds.
In This Guide
Start with a Basic Cell Phone
Only a parent can decide the right age to give kids their first cell phone. The maturity of your child is more important than their age. How able are they to follow rules at home and school? How's their sense of responsibility?
For younger kids, consider bare-bones phones with only the features they need to stay in touch with you.
Younger kids: the key need is for them to stay in touch with you, so we are talking basic phones with very simple controls, big buttons, and extremely limited features. Phones that only make calls to a short list of contacts and that have no games, no Web access, and no camera are good choices. Consider the Sprint WeGo, the Firefly, or the FiliP 2, a watch that makes calls to an abbreviated contact list and receives -- but can't send -- texts.
Tweens: Phones that look grown-up but offer limited features or that come with a service that allows you to customize options are good choices for older kids. Take a look at the Kurio phone, which can't download apps.
What's the Right Age to Give Kids a Smartphone?
The next step, to a smartphone, is a much bigger decision. A smartphone is a tiny but powerful computer in the hands of your child. It can help them create text, photos, and videos - that's great but those creations can be widely distributed and uploaded to websites instantly.
So there are some important questions for a parent to consider when judging whether their kids are ready to use a smartphone. How about these for starters:
- How responsible are they? Do they let you know when they leave the house? Do they show up when they say they will?
- Will they use text, photo, and video functions responsibly and not to embarrass or harass other children?
- How likely are they to lose their (expensive) phone? A clue might be whether they tend to lose their backpacks or homework!
- Would they use cell phones responsibly - for example, not texting during class or disturbing others with their phone conversations?
- Would they be able to stay within limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded?
- Would they benefit from having easy access to friends for social reasons?
Explaining the Risks to Your Child
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.
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 public rather than just to close friends, someone with less than honest intentions could get a hold of the information, making your child extremely vulnerable.
- Cyberbullying - a study by the Cyberbullying Research Center showed that 34% of those surveyed had been cyberbullied at some point their kid life, with 26% of people reporting that they had been cyberbullied twice or more in the past 30 days.
- 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
Take the Smartphone Journey One Step at a Time
The good news is that you can choose a cell phone plan with functions and safety features suited to each stage of your child's development. You just add features (like text messaging, photo-sharing, or Internet access) only when you feel your child is ready to take on each new responsibility.
What Kind of Smartphone 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.
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. There are plenty of smartphones out there that are great for kids.
- Let them share the responsibility. Cell phone plans can be 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 Samsung Galaxy J3, which runs under $100 yet still has everything your teen wants, like a high-quality phone camera and 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.
Setting the Ground Rules
So you've made the big decision and you're going to allow your child smartphone privileges. Making the rules is where the rubber hits the road in terms of ensuring everyone's on the same page. Smartphone 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 on 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 cyberbullied. 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 and texts 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.
- Let a parent know your password or code. This will give them access to all of your phone call history and text message history.
- 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.
Pro Tip: 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.
Choosing a Cell Phone Plan for Kids
When choosing a phone plan for your child, you'll need to consider how much data, minutes and texts your child will need. As we discussed above, for younger children you will probably be looking to start with talk only plans.
Using an old family phone will keep costs low, especially if you use one of the low-cost carriers (known as MVNOs or Mobile Variable Network Operators to give them their full name). These carriers rent space on one or more of the Big Four networks, so they are able to give you the same nationwide coverage but at much better prices because their overhead costs and advertising budgets are much lower.
As your child matures, you will want to add text messaging and eventually internet access. Again these MVNOs are perfectly poised to help. Whereas the big four carriers love to push their unlimited data plans, it is very unlikely that you will want that for your child. So you can take advantage of the more flexible, lower data usage plans offered by low-cost carriers like Twigby and Mint Mobile.
Another way they keep costs low is by asking you to bring your own phone, so you can use a smartphone no longer used by an older member of the family - perfect!
Keeping Control as a Parent
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.
Here are a few more things to keep in mind as you approach this complex new parenting landscape:
- 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.
Setting clear rules and talking and listening to your children will help smooth out your child's cell phone usage for everyone involved.
Technology is There to Help You
It's helpful to explain clearly why you are using safety tools and how they will help ensure your children's information security. Even better, set them up together.
The most reliable protections are those on the phone itself because when a phone uses a wireless network, it bypasses the carrier and its tools.
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.You can choose to filter or block websites and content according to the age and maturity of your child.
Related: Read our guide to setting up parental controls.
For the youngest, consider blocking Internet access completely; for teens, you will probably want to restrict access to adult, gambling, and other inappropriate sites.
You can filter lyrics, video, and other content that is violent or explicit.
You can restrict access to forums (including in games) unless they are moderated by humans.
Be careful how you use GPS. Consider disabling the location feature on your child's phone; at the very least, turn it off in the phone's camera.
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.
At the end of the day, the control is with the person who pays for the phone and for the phone bill. Unless your teenager has a job and is making a financial contribution, the parent should be in full control of the situation.
Smartphones 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.