Cellphones are a big part of kids’ lives. It’s how they keep in touch, make plans and even make contact with new friends — and strangers.
While parents are allowing younger and younger children access to phones, these devices are opening up both opportunities and dangers that kids might not be ready for. A whopping 84 percent of teens 15 to 18, 60 percent of kids 10 to 14 and 22 percent of kids 6 to 9 own phones, according to C+R Research.
But the dangers can lie with any smart device.
“Parents also need to think in terms of handhelds such as iTouches, tablets and anything with Wi-Fi capability,” said internet privacy and cybersecurity lawyer Parry Aftab, who founded and runs WiredSafety, a cybersafety help group. “Parents withhold cellphones without realizing they’ve handed a child an iPad or tablet that’s just as connected.”
Not understanding just what kids are doing on their phones is a big mistake.
“The No. 1 thing parents find surprising in general is that anything parents can do on their home computer kids can do on their phones,” said Rob Zidar, co-founder of internet safety firm ThirdParent. “Adults use technology differently than kids. There’s no way a parent can keep up. You use common sense but there’s no rating system for apps,” Aftab said.
“One hundred percent, phones are opening up things kids are not ready for,” Zidar said.
While parents would never let their child drive a car without training and a license or even cross the street without teaching them to look both ways, “at the age of 9 or 10 we hand them a phone and it opens up a whole new set of risks,” he said.
Open a dialogue
Concerned parents may want to ban phones and social media, but a better idea is to show a concerted interest in kids’ online lives, both experts agreed. Signing a cellphone contract works for some people, but “in general kids vary so much and one size doesn’t fit all,” Zidar said.
The goal is tech transparency. Ask your child how they use their phone. Ask what apps they’re using and how they’re using them.
“Convince your child they can talk to you if they are unsure of anything. If they think something is unsafe online. If someone they don’t know or someone they think is inappropriate has followed them. If they think they’ve been hacked that they can come to you,” Zidar said. “Parents need to parent even when the child is more tech-savvy. Parents have the life experience to help.”
Educating kids about digital safety is a constant dialogue and requires a strong relationship. Many children fail to tell their parents about something they were uncomfortable with online because they’re afraid their parents will take away their phones, Zidar said. Losing phone privileges means losing their lifeline to their social group, he added.
Parenting in the 21st century means teaching your child to have digital street smarts.
“Trust but verify everything,” Aftab said. To find age-appropriate apps, talk to your school librarian or media specialist then test the apps out with your child, Aftab said.
Set rules, time limits and guidelines for disconnecting, such as at the dinner table and before bed, Aftab said. Parents should lead by example.
Kids don’t understand privacy issues like adults do.
“Make them aware that people can misuse their information. (Tell them) don’t share anything you wouldn’t want shared with your least-favorite person at school who might misuse that information,” Aftab said.
What is the right age?
A level of trust must be in place once you’ve decided your child needs — not just wants — a phone.
“Are they old enough to deal with the stuff the comes with owning a phone? Are they good enough decision makers? Do you trust they’ll come to you if they’re unsure about something?” Zidar said.
Parents should always have kids’ passwords, but when they’re older than about 13 keep them in a sealed envelope and use them only in an emergency, Aftab said.
You should be checking in but only when they give you reason to, she said. If left on, location services will show a user’s location either publicly or in metadata.
Zidar recommends turning location services off so that others cannot find where your child is, especially if she’s Snapchatting photos from Dunkin’ Donuts every day after school.
A more sophisticated option is to go into each app and turn off location services to prevent it from tagging a child’s geographic location, he said.
Be active and engaged, but realize the best way to protect a child is to limit the amount of screen time and balance it out with other healthy activities, Aftab said.