With the wide variety of dangers awaiting kids online, it might seem easier to simply ban smartphones and internet access altogether.
Unfortunately, forbidding your children and teens from using a smartphone isn’t a practical solution. There are so many hours when they’re not under your watchful eye, and they can access the internet at school or at a friend’s house, which they’re likely to do if it’s the only opportunity they have to go online.
Aside from those logistical considerations, remember this: we really wouldn’t want to prevent them from using the internet. Like it or not, the world is online now, and kids need to be online with it. They need to learn how to interact online in a safe and appropriate way because that’s where they’ll find much of their school, work, and social life.
The key, then, is not about preventing internet use. It’s in education and monitoring to ensure your children use their smartphones responsibly. This is where to start to teach responsible smartphone use:
When Is Your Child Ready for a Smartphone?
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific age at which it’s appropriate to give a child a smartphone. This depends largely on the individual: some younger children are mature enough for their own mobile device, while some older children are not.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that children younger than 18 months should not be using screens except for occasional video chatting. From 18 to 24 months, parents can introduce children to high-quality programming on a mobile device. As the children grow, screentime should be limited and monitored. The best way to monitor? The good old fashioned way of having smartphone/tablet spot checks because children can easily have secret or multiple accounts that you do not know about.
This National Public Radio article notes that parents have different opinions about when a child should have a smartphone. Some have pledged not to give their children their own phones until eighth grade, while other parents want their kids to have one at a younger age, often for safety reasons. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal points out that kids often start pressuring their parents to give them a smartphone at a young age.
You should ask yourself some of the following questions when deciding whether or not your child is ready for a smartphone:
- Does he demonstrate responsibility, such as getting ready on time and arriving when he says he will?
- Does she regularly lose her possessions?
- Is his ability to get in touch with you a safety concern?
- Would a smartphone be good for her friendships and social life?
- Can he understand internet dangers?
- Can she follow the guidelines you set regarding smartphone use?
Talking About Safety
Discuss some of the risks and problems with using the internet in a way your child can understand, which may depend upon his age. For example:
- Respect: Teach him how to have respectful discussions, avoid name-calling (even if someone else starts it), and to never post anything that would hurt or embarrass someone else.
- Highlight Reels: Help them to understand that not everything she sees online is true (or completely true). On social media, people often share the best parts of their lives. Make sure she understands that everyone has challenges and sad days–they just rarely talk about them publicly. Discuss the digital altering of photos, as well.
- Information Sharing: Make it clear that they should never share their personal information online.
- Predators: Explain that not everyone on the internet is who they say they are. If anyone, including friends from school, sends inappropriate or cruel messages, your child should tell you about it immediately.
This talk should happen before the phone is given to the child, but make it clear that it’s an ongoing conversation. The internet changes every day. New information, new trends, and new social media sites are constantly catching your child’s attention, so it’s important that you both feel you can approach each other with questions and concerns.
As if you need another task as a parent: it’s essential to stay up-to-date about the latest internet and social media trends. Certain peer challenges, hashtags, and sites can prove dangerous for children, so it’s important for you to hear about these things as your kids do.
Just like you ask your child how their day was or what they are doing in school, ask about what they’re doing online, too. Watch the news for updates about social media and what’s popular among kids. If you hear a term or a hashtag you don’t understand, look it up. It might seem harmless, but it could indicate a serious behavior you would want to know about. For example, the hashtag #annie refers to anxiety while #cat can refer to cutting (self-mutilation). In this way, seemingly harmless hashtags actually link people who have some serious problems or engage in risky behaviors.
Setting Guidelines for Internet Use
In addition to the safety talk, you should also set clear guidelines for smartphone use and discuss that with your child before he gets the device. It’s easier to set rules and give more slack as you go along than it is to bring in new restrictions, so give it plenty of thought. Some considerations:
- For what is he allowed to use his smartphone? To stay in touch with family? Family and friends? To do schoolwork? To play games? What social media sites are allowed?
- When can she use the phone? Is it okay to have it during school? At what time does your child need to put it away at night? Can they listen to music in bed?
- With whom can they use the device? Is it okay to use while other people are trying to talk to them, like at the dinner table?
- Who sets the passwords? Are you, as the parent, allowed to access her phone? Should you require her to be friends with you on social media?
To some degree, you must trust your child to follow the rules you set regarding internet use. However, the lure of social media and peer pressure can influence your child to break those rules at times, which is why trustworthy mobile parental controls can provide some peace of mind. With parental controls, you can disable internet access to your child’s device at night, during school, and at the dinner table to ensure they stay focused on the real-world tasks at hand: sleeping, studying, and connecting with the family.
You may also want to block certain apps and even categories to eliminate some risk. For example, if you only want your child using Facebook and Instagram, you can block Tinder, Snapchat, Kik, Tumblr, and any other site or app you deem inappropriate for your child.
Today’s kids are smart. If they can learn to use their devices so quickly, they can certainly learn to use them safely and responsibly.