Monitor, Encourage Responsible Cell Phone Use


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Cell phones present unique challenges for parents. While they make it easier to stay connected with kids, they also make it harder for parents to monitor where children are and whom they're talking with, much less what apps and media they are using.

Without supervision, even the best-behaved kids are likely to get into mischief. At the very least, cell phones allow kids to make and remake plans so fast parents can't keep up. More seriously, they allow kids to elude bedtime, drive while distracted and sidestep family rules about entertainment that contains pornography and violence. At their worst, cell phones make it much easier to distribute nude photos or violent video clips, cheat on tests, trash friends, and locate parties where drugs and alcohol are available.

In response to problems like these, all major phone companies offer parental control options, sometimes for an additional fee of about $5 a month. (To find out what your cell phone company offers, go to its Web site and search for "parental controls.") All kids don't need all options, and all options don't work on all phones, so parents have to do their homework. Here are questions you'll want to ask.

Why? Now that babies have their own apps such as ipacifier (Ipacifier.com), it's no wonder young children want cell phones. Parents have to decide when and whether a child can handle the responsibility. The first question, of course, is whether he or she can keep track of stuff. No one needs the headaches created by a lost or stolen cell phone.

In many families, a cell phone starts to seem necessary around middle school when children have independent activities and need transportation. Without a phone of their own, they will inevitably run up minutes on their friends' phones. Before giving a preteen a phone, be sure he or she understands rules about acceptable use. If a child uses a phone to harass someone, cheat on schoolwork, distribute sexual photographs or break other household rules, phone privileges are revoked. No discussion.

Who? Just because a child has a cell phone doesn't mean he or she should talk or text with anyone and everyone who calls. Take advantage of parental controls that allow you to block some numbers and approve others. Starting younger children with a short, approved list limits their exposure to bullies, scammers and spammers.

When? Parental controls also allow you to decide when your child can call or text. If your child's school has a no-cell-phone policy, help enforce it by making the phone inactive during school hours. In some cases, the only way to be sure a child gets a full night's sleep is to turn the phone off at bedtime. Be sure the phone can still be used to call 911 even when these controls are in place.

Where? Most phones now include GPS technology that allows parents to "track" their kids and create dead zones where the phone can't be used. Many experts feel this level of surveillance is counterproductive unless a child repeatedly breaks your rules. Parents should be more concerned about new apps like Foursquare that allow kids to broadcast their whereabouts to friends and potentially to predators. These should be off-limits for younger teens.

Because cell phones quickly become an extension of the child, parents need to establish more mundane rules about where the phone can be used. These rules will vary from family to family with one exception. Teens should never use a cell phone while driving. Since one in four teens admits to texting while driving — the actual number is probably higher — you may want to consider software that disables cell phone service when a car is moving. Check out Zoom Safer (http://zoomsafer.com) and Drive Assist  (www.aegismobility.com).

What for? Depending upon the phone, kids can download everything from ring tones and games to music and TV shows. Discuss what's acceptable and who will pay. For younger children, install content filters. (Verizon has an especially good system.) If you have any doubts about your child's willingness to follow the rules, take advantage of controls that block downloads.

How much? Be sure kids understand the parameters of the plan you've purchased. How many text messages can they send? Are they charged for everything they receive as well? Show kids how to check their usage so they don't exceed the limits.

Most parents will find the tools they need to keep track of cell phone use through their carrier. If your child needs extra protection, or you don't want to pay a monthly fee, consider freestanding software. Several programs are available. Mykidissafe (http://mykidissafe.com) offers a very comprehensive toolkit; Smobile software (www.smobilesystems.com/parental-controls) includes virus protection as well as parental controls.

Before activating any of these options, talk with your child about what you're doing and why. Kids will probably object to cell phone supervision just as they've always objected to curfews and bedtimes. When parents use these tools well, they're less likely to catch their kids making mischief and more likely to support them in making responsible decisions about when, where and how to use cell phones.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.

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