Earlier this week, I was talking to a parent of an eleven-year-old.  She is on the cusp of purchasing her daughter a smart phone (all of her daughter’s friends have them already), and she was asking me for some advice.  I always tell parents that if they are going to let their kids use technology (lap tops, cell phones, tablets, gaming devices) they should set up a clear set of Internet/Gaming/Smartphone Rules.  

Sit down with your son or daughter, and ask them how they are going to stay safe online.  What does being safe online look like from their eyes?  Are they aware of anything scary online?  Have any of their friends encountered anything upsetting?  Help your son/daughter understand that you understand that there are a lot of great things about being online and being able to connect with their friends, but that you know there are a lot of scary things online too—things that can be harmful.  You want your son or daughter to be able to use technology as safely as possible—to take advantage of the good while being spared from the bad.

So here are some general mobile phone safety guidelines to get you started:

  1. Use parental controls and Internet filters on all Internet-connected devices, including smart phones.  Many service providers have parental control options available for smartphones—when you purchase your service plan, be sure to fold in these services if they are available.  Parental controls for cell phones can monitor and even block chats and photo chats, can notify you of problematic content online, can filter explicit content online and can block your child from apps and sites that you don’t want them visiting.
  2. Be kind online.  Talk with your kids about how the same manners and ethics you’ve always taught to use in the offline world must also be used on phones and the Web.  Things can escalate very quickly through the web, and cyberbullying can be especially devastating to a young person.  If your child every feels threatened or every finds that a classmate or friend is making them feel uncomfortable, then tell them to come to you immediately.  Remind your kids of the Golden Rule: do unto others as they would have other do unto them.
  3. Decide whether your son/daughter is allowed to share media files through their phones.  With the rise of sexting, the safest stance is to disable your child’s photo and video sharing feature.  If, however, you do allow your child to send and receive photo and video files, then set clear parameters for what constitutes an appropriate picture and video and clarify what constituted an inappropriate picture and video.
  4. Only communicate with people that you know in the “real” world –in the offline world.  It can be tempting to keep expanding social circles on the Internet, but the safest approach is for your children to only connect with and text with people that are parent-approved, people that your son or daughter knows from school, sports and church.
  5. No GPS/mapping/geolocation apps.  Many apps today and social networking sites allow users to update and post information (or “check in”) with their exact location.  The safest approach is to restrict or block your child from being able to use these apps—some of them notify other app users in the area when someone checks in nearby, potentially placing your son or daughter at risk from being identified and contact by a stranger.
  6. Limit texting.  If you have text restrictions, make sure your child knows that.  If your child goes over the text limit, then make sure they understand they will need to pay for the overage.
  7. Set time limits, and don’t allow online use in the bedroom.  Today’s smartphones are like mini-computers, meaning that kids have access to all of the good and all of the bad of the Internet through their phones.  So the best approach is to make sure that your child is using their smartphone in common, family space, or with some limit (like not late at night), or, if they are using their phone in their rooms, ask them to leave the door open.

Tell your child what constitutes an appropriate site to visit vs. an inappropriate site.  If you don’t want your kids to visit social networking sites like Facebook, then let them know that.  Explain that if you find them visiting dating sites, hook up sites, porn sites or questionable entertainment sites, that there will be repercussions. 

Once you have agreed to a set of mobile phone safety rules, then explain that if your child breaks those rules, you will take their phone away.  Many parents don’t get on the front end of protecting their kids and setting clear rules and repercussions for breaking those rules, but the best approach is to be proactive and clear with your child.