The First Smartphone for Free-Ranging Kids

By on Aug 28, 2020

The First Smartphone for Free-Ranging Kids

In an earlier article, we took a look at smartphone alternatives for free-ranging kids. Next up is the follow-on conversation … the time you give them their first, fully functional smartphone—and how to manage having it in your lives.

For children, learning to use a first smartphone is just like learning to ride a bike. And that’s just as true for you just as it is for them.
When a child learns to ride a bike, they take it in steps and stages. Maybe they start tooling around on little kick-bikes, a tricycle, scooter, or so on, just to get their feet under them so to speak. Next, it’s that first bike with training wheels, and then the big day that they come off (complete with a few scrapes and bruises too). They’re on two wheels, and a whole new world has opened up for them—one that you have to monitor and parent as you give them increasing freedom to roam—from the block, to the neighborhood, to your town—as they grow older and more responsible.

Your Child’s First Smartphone

Now, apply that same progression to the day your child finally gets their first smartphone. Plenty has led up to that moment: the times when they first tapped around your phone as a toddler, when as a preschooler they watched cartoons on a tablet, and maybe when they got a little older they had some other device, like a smartphone alternative designed just for kids.

Then comes along that first smartphone. And for parents it’s a game-changer, because it opens up yet another new world to them. The entire internet.

As you can see, your child doesn’t enter the world of smartphones entirely cold. They’ve already been on the internet and had the chance to experience selective slices of it under your supervision. But a smartphone—well, that’s another story entirely. A smartphone, out of the box, is a key to the broader internet. And just as you likely wouldn’t let your brand-new cyclist ride five miles to go and buy ice cream in town, there are plenty of places you wouldn’t let your new internet user go.

What follows here are a few words of advice that can ease your child into that new world, and ease you into it as well, so that you can all get the tremendous benefits of smartphone ownership with more confidence and care.

Start with the Basics: Smartphone Protection and Parental Controls

Whether you go with an Android device or iPhone, make sure you protect it. You can get mobile security for Android phones and mobile security for iPhones that’ll give you basic protection, like system scans, along with further protection that steers your child clear of suspicious websites and links. While I recommend protection for both types of phones, I strongly recommend it for Android phones given the differences in the way Apple and Android handle the code that runs their operating systems.

Apple is a “closed platform,” meaning that they do not release their source code to the public and partners. Meanwhile, Android is “open-source” code, which makes it easier for people to modify the code—hackers included. So while Apple phones have been historically less prone to attacks than Android phones, any device you own is inherently a potential target, simply because its connected to the internet. Protect it. (Also, for more on the differences between the security on Android phones and iPhones, check out this article from How-To Geek. It’s worth the quick read.)

Next up on your list is to establish a set of parental controls for the smartphone. You’ll absolutely want these as well. After all, you won’t be able to look over their shoulder while they’re using their phone like you could when they were little. Think of it as the next line of protection you can provide as a parent. A good set of parental controls will allow you to:

• Monitor their activity on their phone—what they’re doing and how much they’re doing it.
• Limit their screen time—allowing you to restrict access during school hours or select times at home.
• Block apps and filter websites—a must for keeping your children away from distractions or inappropriate content.

The great thing about parental controls is that they’re not set in stone. They give you the flexibility to parent as you need to parent, whether that’s putting the phone in a temporary time out to encourage time away from the screen or expanding access to more apps and sites as they get older and show you that they’re ready for the responsibility. Again, think about that first bike and the day you eventually allowed your child ride beyond the block. They’ll grow and become more independent on their phone too.

You need more than technology to keep kids safe on their smartphones.

Unlike those rotisserie ovens sold on late-night infomercials, a smartphone isn’t a “set it and forget it” proposition. Moreover, you won’t find the best monitoring, safety, and guidance software in an app store. That’s because it’s you.

As a parent, you already have a strong sense of what does and does not work for your household. Those rules, those expectations, need to make the jump from your household to your child’s smartphone and your child’s behavior on that smartphone. Obviously, there’s no software for that. Here’s the thing, though: they’ve established some of those behaviors already, simply by looking at you. Over the years, your child has seen your behavior with the phone. And let’s face it, none of us have been perfect here. We’ll sneak a peek at our phones while waiting for the food to show up to the table at a restaurant or cracked open our phones right as we’ve cracked open our eyes at the start of the day.

So, for starters, establishing the rules you want your child to follow may mean making some fresh rules for yourself and the entire household. For example, you may establish that the dinner table is a phone-free zone or set a time in the evening when phones are away before bedtime. (On a side note, research shows that even dim light from a smartphone can impact a person’s sleep patterns and their health overall, so you’ll want to consider that for your kids—and yourself!)

Whatever the rules you set in place end up being, make them as part of a conversation. Children of smartphone age will benefit from knowing not only what the rules are but why they’re important. Aside from wanting them to be safe and well, part of the goal here is to prepare them for the online world. Understanding “the why” is vital to that.

“The (Internet) Talk”

And that leads us to “The Internet Talk.”. In a recent McAfee blog on “What Security Means to Families,” we referred to the internet as a city, the biggest one there is. And if we think about letting our children head into town on their bikes, the following excerpt from that blog extends that idea to the internet:

For all its libraries, playgrounds, movie theaters, and shopping centers, there are dark alleys and derelict lots as well. Not to mention places that are simply age appropriate for some and not for others. Just as we give our children freer rein to explore their world on their own as they get older, the same holds true for the internet. There are some things we don’t want them to see and do.

There are multiple facets to “The Talk,” ranging anywhere from “stranger danger” to cyberbullying, and just general internet etiquette—not to mention the basics of keeping safe from things like malware, bad links, and scams. That’s a lot! Right? It sure is.

The challenge is this: while we’ve grown up with or grown into the internet over the course of our lives, the majority of children are amongst the first waves of children who were “born into” the internet. As parents, that means we’re learning much, if not all, of what we know about digital parenting from scratch.

The good news is that you’re far from alone. Indeed, a good portion of our blog is dedicated entirely to family safety. And with that, I’ve pulled out a few select articles below that can give you some information and inspiration for when it’s time to have “The Internet Talk.”

Stranger Danger
Keeping Your Kids Safe from Predators Online
Building Digital Literacy
Screen Time and Sleep Deprivation in Kids
Lessons Learned: A Decade of Digital Parenting
Social Influencers and Your Kids
Getting Kids to Care About Their Safety Online

And those are just a few for starters. We have plenty more, and a quick search will keep them coming. Meanwhile, know that once you have The Internet Talk, keep talking. Making sure your child is safe and happy on the internet is an ongoing process—and conversation, which will cover more in a moment.

Keeping tabs on their activity

One reason parents often cite for giving their child a smartphone is its location tracking capabilities that allow parents to see where their children are ranging about with a quick glance. And whether or not you choose to use such tracking features, that’s a decision you’ll have to make. However, consider your child’s privacy when you do. That’s not to say that you’re not in charge or that you shouldn’t track your child. Rather, it’s a reminder that your child is in fact getting older. Their sense of space and privacy is growing. Thus, if you choose to monitor their location, let them know you’re doing it. Be above the board with the intent that if you don’t hide anything from them, they’ll be less inclined to hide anything from you.

The same applies to parental controls software. Many of them will issue a report of app usage and time spent using the app, along with surfing habits too. Go ahead, monitor those early on and then adjust as them as it feels right to you. Let your child know that you’re doing it and why.

Another thing I’ve seen many of the parents I know do is share the credentials to any social media account their child sets up. Doing this openly lets your child take those first steps into social media (when you feel they’re ready) while giving you the opportunity to monitor, correct, and even cheer on certain behaviors you see. Granted, it’s not unusual for kids to work around this by setting up alternate accounts that they hide from their parents. With parental controls in place, you can mitigate some of that behavior, yet vigilance and openness on your part will be the greatest tool you have in that instance.

While you’re at it, go ahead and have conversations with your kid about what they’re doing online. Next time you’re in the car, ask what’s the latest app their friends are using. Take a peek at what games they’re playing. Download that game yourself, give it a try, and play it online with them if you can. This kind of engagement makes it normal to talk about the internet and what’s happening on it. Should the time come to discuss more serious topics or pressing matters (like a cyberbullying event, for instance), you have a conversational foundation already built.

The common denominator is you.

So, as we’ve discussed, technology is only part of the answer when managing that first smartphone in your child’s life. The other part is you. No solution works without your engagement, care, consistent application of rules, and clear expectations for behavior.

So, as you once looked on proudly as those training wheels came off your child’s first bike, you’ll want to consider doing the digital equivalent in those first months of that first smartphone. Keep your eyes and ears open as they use it. Have conversations about where their digital travels have taken them—the games they’re playing, the friends they’re chatting with. While you do, keep a sharp eye on their moods and feelings. Any changes could be a sign that you need to step in and catch them before they fall or pick them up right after they’ve fallen.
In all, your child’s first smartphone is a wonderful moment for any family, as it represents another big step in growing up. Celebrate it, have fun with it, and play your role in making sure your child gets the very best out of it.

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About the Author

Judith Bitterli

Judith Bitterli currently serves as Vice President of Consumer Marketing at McAfee. She is a passionate advocate for online security, family safety and safeguarding our digital experiences. She has been in the security space for eight years and technology for over thirty years. She brings to her work a fundamental belief that online security is ...

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