When I ask friends with tween children about their biggest parenting concerns, the answer—without hesitation—is safe smartphone use.
For parents of much younger or older children, the first question might be, “Why does a tween have a smartphone?” You might be surprised to know that 60 percent of tweens own a cell phone, according to the Center on Media and Child Health. An astounding 22 percent of kids aged 6 to 9 own cell phones too! Age 10-11 is the most popular age for receiving a first cell phone.
The main reason for giving a tween a cell phone, not surprisingly, is for emergencies or to stay in touch after school hours. So many of today’s families have abandoned their landlines—nearly half of all households are mobile only—that it’s essential for each family member to have his or her own device.
Whether a child spends some time alone at home after school or is involved in after-school activities, a cell phone is crucial for many busy families. It makes kids feel safer because their parents are always just a phone call or text away. And texting is increasingly the main way for parents and children to stay in touch, since it’s less intrusive for working parents to receive a text.
So why a smartphone versus a cell phone? For many families, it’s simply a matter of kids getting their parents’ hand-me-down devices. Remember, however, that you can trade in your used iPhone for cash and buy a bare-bones phone for your young tween. If you’re afraid your older tween will outgrow a basic cell phone, consider a smart phone with a corresponding parental controls app, such as Kids Place, ParentKit or OurPact, which lets you use your phone as a remote to control your child’s screen and app access.
Many parents rely on a smartphone’s location settings to keep track of their tweens’ comings and goings and to find a lost phone. If your child is allowed to use social media apps, check to make sure the location services are turned off for each app. It’s far too easy for photos and posts to get shared, carrying with them specific information about where your child can be found.
Consider these other common parental concerns:
Is she following school rules about cell phones?
Find out your school rules and enforce them. If phones are to be turned off, you can always call the school office with an emergency message, like in the olden days. For less critical messages, just text and she’ll see it when she turns the phone on after school.
What the heck is this new app, and how private is it?
It’s always wise to keep your app store password private, so only apps you approve can be downloaded. Still, it can be tough to identify all the features of an app before you approve it. My friends’ most recent concern is over Music.ly, which lets a person make videos of himself lip synching to popular songs. Those videos can be posted to social media, but they also exist within the Music.ly community, which is cause for concern: Who can see your tween’s videos? Can they identify their location? Can they start a private conversation? Often, it’s best to just download the app and experiment with it for yourself.
Is she taking and texting racy selfies?
The sad truth is that a small number of tweens are involved in sexting. Even if you think your tween would never do that, you need to have a conversation about it, including the unfortunate information that her crush or bff could someday share when they’re not getting along.
Is he communicating with someone he doesn’t know?
Online predators can be very charming and convincing. Make sure he knows not to “friend” anyone he hasn’t met in person.
Is she becoming addicted to her phone to the point she’s ignoring human interaction?
About 50 percent of teens admit to feeling addicted to their mobile devices, according to a recent poll by Common Sense Media. Internet addiction has been labeled a significant public health threat in China and South Korea, according to a report by CNN.
Is computer and mobile device use affecting his health?
According to Common Sense Media, tweens spend an average of about six hours a day on entertainment media (watching TV, movies, online videos, social media, computer games, reading and listening to music). This doesn’t include time spent on the Internet at school or for homework.
The most common complaint is sleep interruption. Make it a habit to charge phones overnight in a common place outside the bedroom. Notifications for texts, messages, emails and games could keep a kid up all night long. Even just looking at a phone or tablet screen right before bed can interrupt healthy sleep patterns; recent research shows it prevents the brain from releasing melatonin, the hormone that signals it’s time for bed.
Other complaints include eye strain and digital thumb. Stay informed about current research on the side effects of radiofrequency radiation exposure. In a 2-1/2-year study by the National Toxicology Program, rats exposed to the type of radiation that comes from cell phones had a higher incidence of brain and heart tumors. The research isn’t conclusive about humans, but for now, why not have your kids use a headset rather than holding the phone up to their ears? Encourage them to store the phone in a purse or backpack rather than a pocket.
Common sense and staying one step ahead of your tweens should make for safe smartphone use.