Q: We held off as long as we could but finally decided to give our child a smartphone for Christmas. He is 11 and our oldest. I can already feel the shift in our home and in his attitude. Do you have any tips for newbies (both parents and kids) just stepping into this world? We put a few rules in place but it’s pretty clear after just a few weeks, we need more guidance, please help! ~ Kara S., Midlothian, Va.
A: Hats off to you for caring enough to research this question and reach out to us, mom. A phone gives your child daily access to a community that is outside of your influence and largely, your control. So, you are not alone in your concerns or in your feeling that your family dynamic is shifting. Giving a child a personal phone is a big step that requires your child possess maturity and responsibility. With all its positives, a phone also brings risk: It exposes your child to the world where cyberbullies, hackers, and predators live and opens him up to peer drama, body image and material pressures, and other anxieties that come with increased connectivity. While these aren’t reasons to prohibit owning a phone, all are important discussions to have with your child as circumstance and maturity warrants.
To begin, just keep things simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself or your child with too much too fast. We hope this jumpstart will give you some tools to help you all move into this new digital season with confidence and peace of mind.
7 safety basics for new phone users
- Set up the phone together. Your child likely already knows how to use his new phone since he’s been using yours and his friends’ for a while. Still, don’t just give him the phone. Put aside uninterrupted time to set up the new phone together. Program your number and emergency numbers in first. Turn off location services, adjust privacy settings, turn on password protection. Lastly, discuss safe apps and apps that are strictly off limits.
- Establish limits and expectations. This will be the area where things get messy over time — the more kids integrate phone use into their lives, the more dependent they become, and the more defensive they get about rules. So, stick to your guns. Set time limits on day one along with consequences. For instance, perhaps you allow phone use after chores, homework, or family time and only for an hour. Also, decide on no phone zones such as the dinner table, restaurants, movie theaters, hospitals, classroom, the bus, or while walking anywhere. The most important part of this tip? Enforce the consequences you put into place. If your line is always moving, your child will continue to step over it. This Family Tech Gameplan download is a good place to start the conversation.
- Communicate the basics. Don’t make assumptions here. Be clear and firm on the basics: Teach your child not to share his location, address, phone number, personal plans, or the name of his school online. Also, not to share his phone number or social media accounts with anyone he doesn’t know. If a phone number appears that does not have a known name attached, instruct your child never to answer it. Another way to keep up with kids and avoid many of the safety pitfalls online is to invest in family filtering software for both phones and PCs.
- Understand malicious and dangerous apps. Apps are awesome, and kids can’t get enough of fun ringtones, photo editing apps, and games. However, every app comes with risks of malware that can quickly ruin the fun. Malicious apps can spy on a user’s location, personal data, and financial information. Teach your child to choose apps carefully. Read the app’s reviews and make sure an app is trustworthy, here’s are 5 questions to ask before downloading an app. Along with malicous apps, there are also apps that repeatedly have been linked to bullying and predator cases. Know what these dangerous apps look like. Also, agree on periodic phone monitoring that will allow you to make sure your son hasn’t downloaded any of these dangerous apps.
- Follow legal guidelines. Most social media networks require kids to be 13 before establishing an account. This rule is for two reasons 1) the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prohibits companies from collecting data on kids under 13 and 2) Thirteen considered the age that kids understand what’s appropriate to share online. While some parents opt to allow kids to open Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat accounts before they reach 13, remember, the rules are in place for a reason. Discuss the pros and cons of opening different accounts and consider other, safer platforms for kids under 13 such as Yoursphere, and the Instagram alternative, Kuddle.
- Teach responsibility. Kids are hard on phones; it’s just a fact. Because they don’t understand the monetary value of a smartphone, they will drop it, lend it, and lose it. Get a screen protector and a good case. Both will earn their worth immediately. Also, teach your child to hide his phone in a secure place when it’s not in use and to keep it close in public. Unfortunately, thieves are everywhere. Discuss responsibility and value for technology. For instance, if your child gets $20 a week for allowance, let him know up front that it will take him three months to save enough to replace a phone that he loses.
- Be the example. Rules you set for your kids will not matter if you break them yourself. While it goes without saying for most parents, the fact remains, everyone (even adults) make mistakes sometimes. We lose our cool online, we use our tech inappropriately or too much, and we can post things that are impulsive and even hurtful. So be mindful that your child is watching you and learning how to be responsible online from your example.
The road in front of you may look a little perilous from time to time but you’ve got what it takes to do this. Both your child and technology will change faster than you can keep up. For that reason, it’s more important than ever to keep the lines of communication wide open. The more you talk as a family, the more equipped and confident your child will be online.
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family and @ToniBirdsong.