Cell phones present unique challenges for parents. In a wired world, they seem essential for keeping kids safe and connected. But without supervision, even the best-behaved kids can get into mischief.
At the very least, cell phones allow kids to make and remake plans so fast that parents can't keep up. More seriously, they allow kids to elude bedtime, drive while distracted and sidestep family rules about entertainment involving pornography and violence. At their worst, cell phones make it much easier to distribute nude photos or violent video clips, cheat on tests, trash friends and locate parties where drugs and alcohol are available.
In response to problems like these, all major phone companies offer parental control options-sometimes for an additional fee of about $5 a month. (To find out what your cell phone company offers, go to its Web site and type in "parental controls.")
Here are questions you'll want to ask:
Why? Now that babies have their own apps such as ipacifier (Ipacifier.com), it's no wonder kids want cell phones. Parents have to decide when and whether a child can handle the responsibility.
In most households, a cell phone starts to feel like a necessity around middle school. Before putting a phone in a pre-teen's hands, be sure he or she understands rules about acceptable use. If a child uses a phone to harass someone, cheat, distribute sexual photographs or break other household rules, phone privileges are revoked. No discussion.
Who? Just because a child has a cell phone doesn't mean he or she should talk or text with everyone who calls. Take advantage of parental controls that allow you to block and approve numbers. Starting younger children with a short, approved list limits their exposure to bullies, scammers and spammers.
When? Parental controls allow you to decide when your child is able to call or text. If your child's school has a no-cell phone policy, help them enforce it by making the phone inactive during school hours. In some cases, the only way to be sure a child gets a full night's sleep is to turn off the phone at bedtime. Be sure the phone can still be used to call 911 when these controls are in place.
Where? Most phones now include GPS technology that allows parents to "track" their kids and to create dead zones where the phone can't be used. Many experts feel this level of surveillance is counter-productive-unless a child repeatedly breaks your rules. Parents should be more concerned about new apps like Foursquare that allow kids to broadcast their whereabouts to friends and potentially to predators.
What for? Depending upon the phone, kids can download everything from ring tones and games to music and TV shows. Discuss what's acceptable and who will pay. For younger children, install content filters.
Most parents will find the tools they need to keep track of cell phone use through their cell phone carrier. If your child needs extra protection, or you don't want to pay a monthly fee, consider free-standing software. Mykidissafe (mykidissafe.com) offers a very comprehensive toolkit and Smobile software (www.smobilesystems.com/parental-controls) includes virus protection as well as parental controls.
Before activating any of these options, talk to your child about what you're doing and why. Kids will probably object to cell phone supervision just as they've always objected to curfews and bedtimes.