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A Parent’s Guide to Mobile Phone Safety for Children

By Erin Vaughan on 08 Mar, 2016

Baby’s first iPhone? The truth may not be that far off.

Last year, The Daily Mail reported that more than 50 percent of parents said they had bought their kids a phone before their tenth birthday. And by high school age, the number is even greater—around 70 percent of teens in the UK carry and use smart phones, according to ABC News. While the idea of being able to get in touch with children anywhere, at any time, has obvious benefits for parents’ peace of mind, asking young kids to carry and operate a cell phone safely is handing over a huge responsibility. And statistically, teens may be even more vulnerable to dangers than we suspect:

-       The average British teen sends 137 texts a week, reports Ofcom.

-       Nearly 50 percent of young drivers regularly text while behind the wheel, according to BBC News.

-       A typical teenage girl in the UK may get asked for naked pictures as much as two or three times a week, according to an exposé performed by Channel 4 News and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

-       A study lead by Ofcom revealed that 35 percent of girls aged 12 to 15 report seeing a friend or fellow student bullied via mobile phone.

-       Additionally, 20 percent of teens surveyed say they recall seeing something that was “worrying, offensive or nasty,” the Ofcom study further elucidates.

What’s the right age?

Many a bitter argument has unfolded—between child development professionals and on parenting forums alike—around this crucial issue. The truth is that like most responsibilities, the right age depends on the child, and your own knowledge of your kids’ maturity should be the final arbiter of when, exactly, they are ready. But generally, if you’re trusting your kids to go unsupervised—walking home by themselves, staying alone after school—they should probably have a cell phone for safety’s sake. Fortunately, modern kid-friendly phone models include features that allow parents to track their young ones’ locations via GPS and monitor their contacts and messaging, making them a pretty good choice for a youth that’s just being inducted into cell phone etiquette.

Nix texting while driving

As if parents didn’t have enough to worry about when handing over the keys, teens now face a plethora of distractions, which could slow young drivers’ reaction times by as much as 35 percent, according to RAC Foundation research. Recently, the Transport Secretary raised the fine for texting and driving to £90, and offending motorists could incur as many as three points on their driving record. But a ticket or a fine doesn’t mean much if your child is involved in a collision. Speaking to your adolescents about the dangers of distracted driving can have a huge impact here, but your words will mean nothing if you’re engaging in risky behaviour yourself. Set an example for your teen by putting your phone down every time you get in the driver’s seat. Of course, some teens just can’t seem to pry the phone from their hands, no matter what you do. If that’s the case, several blocking softwares are available for install that can detect when a car is in motion, and disable distracting apps like text, as well as directing phone calls to voicemail. These services are usually more widely available on Android, however, so bear that in mind when shopping for phones.

“Be kind, all the time”

The extent that kids can use social media to harass or even—in more dramatic cases—stalk schoolmates is truly frightening. Because digital communication occurs behind the protection of a screen, it can often compel harassers to act in ways that are much more vicious and persistent than a few schoolyard taunts. Additionally, youths that identify as LGBT are particularly vulnerable to this kind of bullying. Cyberbullying is unique from typical teasing in its virulence and ubiquity—it can be experienced every day, at any time. Children should be cautioned that, although internet communication feels less serious than day-to-day conversation, it can have real repercussions, and manners matter, even online. Meanwhile, if your child has been the victim of cyberbullying, instruct them to screen capture any and all harassing communication so that it can be documented. This evidence will assist you in reporting the behaviour to social media sites and ISPs to get bullies blocked. But you can also keep problems from escalating by keeping a watchful eye over your child’s internet activities—if they become depressed and secretive about online use, it may be a sign that they are having difficulties.

Discuss graphic photos

At their most innocuous, nudes and other graphic pictures can cause embarrassment, but given the reach of the internet, they can also have devastating effects on the lives of the youths who send and receive them. In the UK, forwarding and receiving graphic images of minors is considered child abuse, even if the offenders in question are under age themselves. It may feel uncomfortable to discuss, but teens need to be instructed that on the internet, images that may be intended for one person’s eyes only can be stolen, reshared, and redistributed, even if the recipient is a friend they trust. Even services like SnapChat, that purport to delete pictures a few seconds after sharing, house “deleted” photos on a database, meaning these apps can be hacked and the images duplicated. The best time to have a conversation about safe sharing is not after receiving an incident phonecall from the principal, however. Since it’s such a sensitive topic, concerns about sexting should be addressed early, in a nonthreatening environment. Like most parenting issues, taking preventative measures and paying attention to your child’s behaviour is your best bet for keeping them safe.

Erin Vaughan is a writer and blogger at Modernize.com