In our technology driven world, mobile phones have become nothing short of a necessity, and rightly so; not only do mobile phones help parents know when to pick their children up from school or sports practice, or to simply keep in touch, they also aid children in communicating with friends or just help to pass the time.

But how should you decide when your child is ready for a phone? Will it be possible to keep them safe while they’re browsing the internet or social media outlets?

According to an article on ConsumerReports.org, nearly six out of ten children in the United States from age eight to twelve have a cell phone. The age you purchase a phone for your child should depend on the level of the child’s maturity and their ability to handle ownership responsibly. And with some time and a little effort, you can put into place safety measures to help protect your children. Many social media sites, web browsers and certain devices have parental controls and/or a plethora of options to choose from in order to provide online safety coverage for your child. There are also some new parental software tools bring offered that can add a layer of protection on top of the built in parental controls found in social media sites and web browsers.

Still not sure where to begin? No problem! Sit back, relax, and follow this complete guide to buying your child their first mobile device.

How to Begin the “Rules Conversation”

Talk About the Rules First

Taking steps to ensure your child’s safety is part of being an educated and engaged parent in today’s digital world. It’s important to have a conversation with them, discussing the proper practice of their mobile devices, along with teaching them how to stay safe and secured while using it. Having a meaningful discussion can help cement the basic idea that you want to respect and trust them in providing a device. To properly converse with your child, it’s important to:

  • Be friendly and open: You are having a simple discussion with them regarding their mobile device in order to offset future problems that could arise if the device or online actions are mishandled. Your intent is to have a clear understanding of their responsibility in becoming a digital citizen.
  • Be willing to hear your child’s thoughts and feelings: It is imperative to listen to your child about what they have to say about their mobile device as well. Perhaps they think that some rule is very strict or unjustified. In those cases, resolving the issue and reaching a mutual understanding is recommended

Have your child repeat back to you what they understand about the responsibility and rules of device ownership. When all is said and done, your goal is to make sure that everyone understands what’s been discussed in order to avoid confusion or conflict in the future.

Set Up a Technology Contract

All families are different and will find their own path to rules that specifically work for them, and when that is done, an actual contract between the two of you could solidify your talk, provide guidance when conflicts arise, and ensures that the whole family is on the same page. It’s important to ensure your child understands the consequences of breaking the rules you’ve put into place, and nothing makes things more official than a contract that encompasses all of these things.

Need an idea of what to include in your contract? Consider:

  • Advising your child that their phone is a loan and they do not actually own it
  • A pledge to not share anything mean or inappropriate
  • How to handle bullies or inappropriate media they may see
  • Willingness to check in when requested, or respond when you contact them
  • Appropriate times of the day to use the cell phone
  • Keep priorities straight, such as getting schoolwork done before using the device for entertainment
  • People they are allowed to communicate with, provide personal information only to people they know in real life
  • Web and social media sites he/she is allowed to access
  • What to do if the phone is lost or damaged
  • Consequences for breaking the rules

Discuss How to be Technologically Responsible

Whether you’re a child or an adult, owning a cell phone comes with its own set of rules and precautionary measures that must be taken seriously. Explain to your child that while the internet holds wonderful things to explore, it also comes with certain risks and you want to make sure they remain safe. Enough.org says that about eighteen percent of teens actually met up in person with a stranger they met online. Along with the issue of connecting with strangers online, there are other risks to consider, such as cyberbullying and sexting. It can be challenging to strike the right balance in discussing these issues with your child so as not to scare them and yet encourage them to use caution as they begin this journey of device ownership. Here are some pointers to help you get the conversation started:

  • Never use any type of social media, messaging or video chat services to communicate with a person you don’t know
  • Advise your child to never share personal information via the internet, social media or messages
  • Explain to your child the dangers of texting and driving and why it’s extremely important to be aware of this issue
  • Sometimes people use social media or texting as an outlet to express their emotions which can quickly escalate into cyberbullying; if this happens to them, reassure them that you’re there to discuss and find a solution together
  • Suicide and depression – Talk to your kids about how cyberbullying and information on the internet can trigger suicidal and depressive thoughts. Kids tend to lean on their peers when facing a difficult situation, often before going to a trusted adult, and your child may find themselves in a situation where a friend needs support. It’s important that your child knows that you’re there for them, and even their friends, should a difficult situation arise. Kids need to know that an adult will work with them to find a solution together while doing their best to respect the people involved.

Basic Ground Rules for Your Child and Their Cell Phone

Depending on your child’s age or your family dynamic, you need to decide if you are going to have a rule around knowing logins and passwords to your child’s accounts. It’s also good to review which apps are not allowed to be downloaded to their device. As part of general security for your child, you may want to explore different monitoring services, such as Circle, Torch and OurPact for screen time and safe browsing.

Or you may want to use the monitoring services of Bark (https://www.bark.us/) an online software tool that alerts parents to potential issues like cyberbullying, sexting, drug use, and even depression and suicidal thoughts.

In fact, Bark encourages using the introduction of their monitoring tool as a way for parents to start meaningful conversations with their children about internet safety and security, underscoring the value of letting your child know that openness promotes trust and respect.

One topic to address is how important it is for your child to notify you as soon as possible if they’ve lost the device so that you’ll have a better chance of recovering it. iPhone and Android each offer avenues to set up ways to recover your phone if it’s been lost or stolen.

For lost iPhones, Apple provides this detailed support page (https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201472) to help you locate. Similarly, you can find details to locate a lost Android device on this support page (https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/6160491?hl=en).

Some points to address could be:

  • Not using the phone while engaging in real-life conversation with someone
  • Not saying mean and hurtful things to friends or strangers over the internet, or in real life
  • Not using the internet to view things they’re not supposed to view, such as violent, pornographic or derogatory movies and/or videos

Institute Parental Controls for Data and Content

Setting Controls Via Your Cell Phone Network

Of course monitoring what your children are looking at is important, but it’s also important to decide how much time they should spend staring at their phones.

Most of the major cell phone service providers offer apps and services that will allow you to limit and monitor your child’s data usage. For example:

  • AT&T uses SmartLimits to limit the amount of time per day that a child’s phone can be used, as well as the number of texts and the amount of web browsing
  • Sprint uses Mobile Controls to block text and picture messages from certain numbers, to track the phones and even to deactivate the camera function
  • T-Mobile’s FamilyWhere tracks the phone and offers Web Guard to filter inappropriate content
  • Verizon has three different parental control services:
  1. Usage Controls set limits on minutes, data and messages
  2. Family Locator tracks the phones
  3. Parents can also restrict content by age, for children aged: 7+, 13+ or 17+

Setting Controls Via iPhone or Android

Cell phone networks aren’t the only players offering ways to curb your child’s data and content usage. Limit your child’s Apple device usage with OurPact. This app allows you to restrict what your child views on the internet, as well as how long they use the internet – from anywhere! Screen Time is a parental control app for use with Androids that allows parents to monitor and set limits on their child’s data usage as well as what they’re viewing.

Setting Controls Via Social Media Outlets

Teens love social media, but sometimes it can get them into trouble. As parents, we’re concerned about bullying, child predators and an array of privacy issues. Because of these issues, knowing how to control privacy settings in any social media app is important.

Facebook Settings

  • Limiting the number of friends your child has
  • Controlling who can view your child’s profile and posts
  • Use the ‘about’ section to limit what information about your child can be viewed by the public
  • Turn off your child’s location feature so that their location isn’t shared with their posts
  • Review your child’s tags before they’re able to be posted
  • Limit sharing in Facebook apps to “Only Me”

Also, always remind your child to log out of their account when they are finished.

Twitter Settings

Twitter is another popular social media site for kids and teens. Try some of these privacy settings:

  • Choose the setting for Twitter to verify log-in requests
  • Choose limited photo-tagging options; parents can even choose the option titled: “Do not allow anyone to tag me in photos”
  • Select “Protect my Tweets”
  • Just like with Facebook, turn off the location feature
  • Uncheck the discoverability options to make your child ‘less visible’

Instagram Settings

Instagram is a great way to share important life moments and fun images. However, your child’s pictures shouldn’t be shared with just anyone, so these privacy settings are very important:

  • Turn on the Private Account setting to make your child’s account private (it cannot be viewed by the public)
  • Don’t add any personal information to your child’s profile that someone could use to find your child or otherwise do harm
  • Remove photos from Instagram’s map for even more privacy
  • Use Instagram Direct to see who is looking at the photos and/or to send photos to a certain group of people

Snapchat Settings

Because the images disappear, many kids think that Snapchat is completely safe. However, snaps can be screenshot and saved, or a photo of the snap can be taken with another phone or camera. This is why it is important to snap responsibly while utilizing advantageous privacy settings, such as:

  • Choose “My Friends” or a custom setting as the View My Story privacy setting to only share content with people your child knows
  • Set a strong password

Although the aforementioned list of social media websites are the most popular ones used today, they’re not the only ones your child may want to use. Nearly every social media app has privacy settings that will allow you to have a discussion with your child about knowing how to protect themselves online and be a responsible digital citizen.

Browser Safety Settings and Safe Search Sites

In addition to using social media and texting, your child will likely be browsing the internet, a concern most parents share when thinking of their young ones having unfettered access to the internet. According to an article on guardchild.com, forty-four percent of tweens admitted they’ve watched something online their parents wouldn’t approve of, and only twenty-eight percent of parents were aware!

Setting Parental Controls on Browsers

You do have some control over online content through most major browsers.

  • Chrome allows you to remove saved passwords, change content settings and lock on Google’s safe search function. You can also add Nanny for Google Chrome, or another similar extension, to set time limits on sites and to blacklist sites you deem inappropriate
  • Firefox has some security options like removing the password memory. However, the add-on, BlockSite, is a great option when you want added security for your child
  • Internet Explorer sets the standard for parental controls. It gives you Content Advisor along with the ability to use ratings to block inappropriate content from your kids. Feel even more at ease by setting a list of approved sites for your child to access

Using Safe Search Sites

If simply setting limits using parental controls on your browser just doesn’t seem like enough for you, you can set your child’s phone to use Safe Search sites. These sites limit what your child can view, according to the options preset by you, the parent! Some of these sites include:

  • Zoodles
  • Kido’z
  • Ask Kids
  • KidInfo
  • TweensBrowser
  • Zillladog

We all know that parents generally want their child to have a cell phone so that they can contact them when needed. Keep in mind that parental controls, sites, apps and services can be used to ensure the safety of our children. However, developing trust and exceptional communication skills with your child is also an excellent way to keep your little ones out of harm’s way.

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