By Lisa Anthony, reprinted with permission from CellPhones.org
Editor’s Note: Attachment Parenting International doesn’t take a stance on cell phone use for children and adolescents. This article is to inform parents who do allow cell phone use, or who are considering it.
Each new generation of parents faces obstacles and menaces with which the previous generation never had to contend. The changing times have brought with them a new, more complicated world in which our children must learn to live, to thrive, and most importantly of all, to survive.
Contemporary problems arrive without guidelines on the best way to teach our children to stay safe and protect themselves or precedents to guide us in teaching them. It is our job as parents to define the method and provide clear guidelines our children can follow and live with. But when you are in uncharted waters whose depths and dangers frighten you, how are you supposed to steer your children towards safety when you aren’t certain that your directions won’t lead them into more treacherous areas or point them in the wrong direction?
With so much uncertainty, there is one point of which you can be sure: No directions or guidance is definitely more dangerous than any of the practical advice you can provide. Establish specific and clear rules for your child to follow. It is important that you do not leave room for interpretation or risk ambiguity. Your child needs to know what is expected of them and how to protect themselves.
Common sense is still the prevailing premise when creating rules, regardless of whether it is for home, school, or technology. If you aren’t already comfortable with handling a cell phone, take the time to familiarize yourself with your child’s cell phone. Read the cell phone manual. Have your child demonstrate how to work the cell phone. View tutorials on the internet that explain how to work the cell phone. You can even go to the store for the cell phone provider and have them show you how to work the cell phone. Ignorance shouldn’t prevent you from monitoring and, when needed, restricting your child’s activity on the cell phone and creating basic rules for your child to follow. It is your responsibility, one without doubt, you take very seriously to ensure your child understands the risks posed by these innovative marvels.
Be Aware of Surroundings
Emphasize to your child the importance of being aware of his surroundings. The element of surprise is a powerful tool. All of this new technology, cell phones, and iPods have created a diversion of sorts for criminals who are intent on performing an illicit or unlawful act. Cell phones are a distraction that detracts from a person’s attentiveness to their surroundings. When you are preoccupied with a phone conversation, you may not hear footsteps behind you or notice a person who seems to be just a little too interested in what you are doing. It is easier to overpower a person who is unaware than it is to face one who is prepared. While your child is absorbed in what the friend on the other end of the line is saying, a predator could be sneaking up behind them.
It isn’t just criminals your child must be concerned about. Talking on a cell phone while walking, bicycling, skateboarding, rip sticking, or driving can be a hazard. It is important to pay attention to traffic when performing any of these actions near a roadway. If your child becomes too wrapped up in a conversation on the cell phone, she may not notice the car coming down the road. Your child should know they cannot rely on the drivers to notice their presence. Drivers have to divide their attention among too many things while on the road. If your child isn’t paying attention and steps or rides in front of a vehicle, the results could be devastating.
Parental Safety Controls
Take time to carefully consider which cell phone to purchase for your child. Choose a cell phone with parental safety controls. Programmable cell phones allow you to decide who your child can receive phone calls from and who they are permitted to call. You can set the numbers in their cell phone and eliminate the opportunity for someone to whom your child should not be speaking to call or be called from the cell phone. No need to worry about a wrong number resulting in an undesirable friendship. Some experts recommend you don’t buy a cell phone with a camera. You won’t have to worry about inappropriate images (i.e. nude photos of your child) being sent.
Limit Internet Access
Purchase a cell phone that doesn’t provide access to the internet. In all likelihood, your child already has a computer at home or school with internet access. Not only can accessing the internet on a cell phone be extremely costly without a data plan, but it also provides another window for predators to reach out to your child. Everything that can be done on a computer through the internet can also be done on a cell phone. Instant messaging, emails, blogging on MySpace.com, or any of the other social sites are all available with internet access on a cell phone. The difference between a cell phone and the computer is the level of privacy afforded with a cell phone. A computer can be kept in a common area so that you can monitor what your child is doing on the internet and to whom they are talking. On a cell phone, these activities can be done with you none the wiser.
Never Talk to Strangers
Though you probably already gave this advice to them when they were young, as your children grow older they lose some of their fear of the people they don’t know and often need to be reminded that this rule still stands. Their growing confidence in their own ability to recognize danger often leaves them vulnerable. Children are generally not skilled in recognizing danger in unfamiliar people. They don’t realize that predators are skillfully adept at blending in and appearing harmless. These predators are truly the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, patiently developing friendships over time with the intent of eventually luring your child into a face-to-face meeting. A reminder of such facts could prevent a tragedy.
Sexting, for those of you who don’t know, is the act of sending sexually graphic pictures or messages from one cell phone to another. The most common instances of sexting in the younger set involve sending pictures of themselves in provocative clothing or completely nude. It is important that you discuss this practice with your child and let them know in no uncertain terms that it is not allowed and will not be tolerated. Don’t wait until you see evidence that your child is engaging in this practice before establishing this rule. If you avoid this discussion because of a fear that you will be informing your child about something of which they know nothing about, you run the risk of them facing serious consequences.
This trend has become so prevalent, it has even caught the attention of legislators. Lawmakers have begun to draft and create legislation making the act a prosecutable offense. Some have gone as far as to label it a child pornography offense with an equal punishment. These new laws are not arbitrary legislation created for the purpose of appearances; individuals caught engaging in sexting have already been prosecuted for the crime of distributing child pornography. Distribution doesn’t even require that you take the picture in order for you to be prosecuted under such a law; it only requires that you send it. So if your child receives one of these graphic sexting messages and forwards it to a friend for a laugh, your child could face prosecution. Explaining all of this to your child could save both of you a lot of heartache.
Cell Phone Monitoring Software
Purchase a subscription to a cell phone monitoring program or software. My Mobile Watchdog is one such service. It monitors all of your child’s cell phone activity and allows you to view it online. It is not done secretly, so you will have to let your child know you are monitoring them. The website allows you to preset which phone numbers are trusted or unapproved to contact your child. There is also an assigned setting for suspicious. Alerts are sent out to warn you when an unapproved, suspicious, or unknown person attempts contact. You also have access to a transcript of every text message your child sends and receive. You can read the entire content and see the phone numbers associated with the messages. You also have the option of printing the reports if you needed. You can also view every picture sent or received from the cell phone. The website also offers practical tools such as appointment and task reminders.
Keep Tabs On Cell Phone Activity
If a subscription to a cell phone monitoring website is not in your budget or just isn’t something you choose to do, then you should check your child’s cell phone and activity regularly. Random checks will allow you to read the text messages going out or coming in as well as to see what pictures are being sent and received. You can also check the phone number on the incoming and outgoing call lists to see who is calling and at what times. Most cell phone providers make this information available to their customers online. Though it may be perceived by your child as an invasion of their privacy, explain that is not your intent. It isn’t that you distrust your child; you are only trying to protect them.
Don’t Disclose Private Information
Advise your child to be careful about what information is discussed in public. A person who is looking to do someone harm will eavesdrop on public conversations to gather any information that might be useful. Private and personal information can be used at a later time to gain your child’s trust. Once again, predators are devious creatures practiced at developing illicit relationships. Having personal information about your child will assist these types of people in forging a friendship based on common interests. It can also reveal places where the predator can plan “chance” meetings with your child. Discussions about the school they attend, activities they participate in, or places they frequent can supply a wealth of information to the wrong persons.
Identity theft is another concern. Your child may be too young to have need for credit lines, loans, or credit cards, but there are plenty of dishonest people who are old enough to find them useful. Even with limited information, a motivated criminal can find a way to obtain the remainder of the information they would need to use it to their full advantage. Your child is too young to understand the deviousness and conniving of these types of individuals and just how damaging their actions can be, but they would learn quickly when they eventually get out on their own and discover their identity has been stolen. The process of repairing the damage is time consuming and often costly. Identity theft usually leaves residual stain which cannot be completely eliminated. Teach your child to limit public calls on their cell phones to general conversations and leave the private conversations for times when they are in private.
Be Respectful In Public
Teach your child to try to be respectful of others when using your cell phone in public. Instances of violence relating to cell phone usage are becoming more commonplace. The latest news reports of violent acts being committed as a result of someone’s inconsiderate use of a cell phone are becoming more prevalent. Protect your child from cell phone violence as you would from road rage. Explain that being courteous when using a cell phone is important. For example, tell your child that the cell phone ringer should not be turned on while in a movie theater and of course should not be answered either. If a call comes through that must be answered, they should leave the theater and answer it in a hallway. A courtesy reminder could help protect your child from senseless violence and will ensure they remember their manners.
Place a Curfew on Cell Phone Usage
Children despise curfews, but they are in place for a reason. A telephone curfew is nothing new. Many of us had such curfews on our home phones when we were younger. Phone calls were not permitted during or after certain times. Just because the phones are now mobile doesn’t mean this practice is now irrelevant. The same reasons that a curfew was important when we were young still apply. Late night phone calls interfere with sleep, studying, and can lead to trouble: Prank calls and sexting are more likely to occur after bedtime.
Have a Plan for Unusual Calls or Text Messages
Encourage your child to talk to you about any concerning phone calls or text messages they may receive. It is important that your child knows what to do in the event that he receives harassing phone calls on the cell phone. Any type of threatening or bullying phone calls or text messages should be reported to you, so that you can help them decide how best to handle the situation. This includes sexually inappropriate pictures, messages, or requests. If something like this occurs, there are a couple options available to you and your child:
- You can contact your cell phone provider and ask to have the number changed. Most providers will do this at least once free of charge.
- You can request that text messages be blocked from the cell phone. Though it will be an inconvenience, since this action will block all text messages from coming through, this is an effective method of stopping offensive texts from being sent. After a couple of weeks of unsuccessful attempts, the person sending will grow tired of the constant rebuffs and quit trying. You can always have the service reactivated.
Technology is rapidly evolving and will continue to do so. You have to be prepared to adapt your rules accordingly. Remember that criminals are not intimidated by technology and are using it to find easier ways to find victims. They are just waiting for opportunity to present itself. And criminals are not the only danger from which your child needs protection. Your child depends on you to lead them away from trouble, even if they do not always appreciate your guidance. You do not need to be an expert in the use of technology to establish relevant, general rules. Don’t use inexperience as an excuse. A few basic steps and rules could help protect your child from danger and you from heartbreak.