September 17, 2018

12 Things to consider if you’re thinking of getting your child a smart phone.

If you’re a parent, the day will inevitably come.  The day that you start thinking about getting your child a phone. You’ve thought about it, analyzed it, heard about all of the dangers and heard all about how your child is “the only one without a phone”.

Smart phones became popular when my youngest child was born. The fact that I could take photos of her and videos whenever I wanted was just the best! As she grew older, I would sometimes let her watch videos as we waited in line or had to sit somewhere for a prolonged period of time. (I’m sure you can relate!)

One day,  I was sitting in a doctor’s office with my then 4 year old daughter and trying desperately to keep her entertained. She loved Dora the Explorer at the time so I quickly searched You Tube for a Dora episode to keep her entertained. I sat back and began flipping the pages of a magazine while we waited our turn. Suddenly, I began to hear very explicit sexual and verbal exchanges between Dora and her friends. I grabbed my phone back and looked at the video. The video was unchanged but someone had taken the time to do a voice-over on what Dora and her friends were doing. Let’s just say they were not done with good intentions and the words and sexual suggestions were horrifying. It was a lesson that I learned early on and there was so much that I wish someone had told me before I handed my kids their own device.

Sometimes divorce can be the beginning of having the conversation of whether to give a child a phone. Parents want direct communication with their children when they are with the other parent. I understand it. I just hope that you understand that phones these days are not just phones, they are smart phones. Smart phones are essentially computers that hold an uncensored and extensive amount of information that your child may not be ready for. It also has ways of connecting your child to people all over the world that, lets just say, may not have your child’s best interest at heart.

So take the time to do your research. Remember that once your child has heard or seen something you can not erase it. The more visual and explicit that it is the more it will stay in your child’s mind. Many things they are not ready to see and honestly as a parent it feels like a full time job to try to manage it.

When I grew up, if I had a question, I looked in an encyclopedia, asked older friends or family to try to find the answers. Movies were restricted and could only be seen in the Movie theater. I did not have access to sexually explicit books or movies in my home. It was a time where parents had significantly more control over what they allowed or didn’t allow their child to see.

Fast forward to today and things are very different. Think about it….any question, any image, anything your child may have heard from another friend is just a You-Tube or Google search away. Just let that sink in. Your child will quickly surpass you in their knowledge of technology. Their lives are surrounded by computers and electronics making it very easy for them to outsmart the busy parent or grandparent that hasn’t kept up.

Here are some tips before you take that step:

  1. What age you should give your child a phone is a frequently asked question. I think for each family it is a little different but I believe somewhere in Middle School is when it is appropriate. This is usually the time when kids are spending more time with their peers perhaps without you there. You want to have a way for your child to communicate with you if they need you.
  2. Before you hand over the phone go into the settings and find the Restrictions setting. Here you will create a personal pin where you decide the maturity level of videos, apps, books and music. You can select based on age. It is not perfect and unfortunately there are many loop holes in these smart phones but it is a start. Here you can also decide if you allow your child to purchase apps on their own and/or inapp purchases (there have been many stories of parents finding bills in the thousands from virtual purchases their child allowed). Some companies will help parents in this situation but I wouldn’t count on it.
  3. Next, I would disable You-Tube. You-tube is uncensored and contains videos about everything and anything that you ever wanted to know about life. Sure there are educational videos and useful and interesting information there too, and you can of course allow your child to watch these videos, but be careful. There is no way that I know of to control the information your child can see in You-Tube. Personally as a mom I wish they did. They did create You-Tube-Kids but this is geared mainly towards kids 3-8 years old. So that very delicate age between 9-13 is what worries me the most.
  4. Make rules that your child must abide before you hand them a phone. I find that writing them down and maybe even having your child “sign” a copy saying they have read it and understand the rules is a great way to show that you are serious.
  5. You should always know their password
  6. Do not allow phones or electronic devices in your child’s room at night. Make this a rule from day 1. Find a designated spot in your house where all the kids leave their devices to charge. This will set the ground rules and ensure that your child is getting the necessary sleep that they need. In the virtual world, there is not sleep. There is always someone awake and the desire to “just look at one more thing” can be overwhelming. This lack of sleep can begin to affect your child’s performance in school, mood and overall health.
  7. Try your best to restrict use of electronic devices 1 hour before bed. Studies show that when people use electronic devices before bed they suffer from more nightmares and have more difficulties staying and falling asleep. This is a great time to read or do projects that do not require their computer.
  8.  Teach them that what they text someone or any image that they send to someone is permanently attached to their name in Cyber Space. Sometimes even if they think they are just being funny, someone may not think so and take it personally. Anyone can take a screen-shot of your child’s text/photo and show it to a parent, friend, teacher or administrator. As a general rule, I tell my kids. If you are okay with me, your dad, your teachers, and your principal seeing what you are sending then go ahead and send it. If you think that you would be embarrassed or that someone would find what you’re sending hurtful or insulting, DO NOT SEND IT. Colleges and employers are sometimes searching up their prospective students or employees to get a better idea of their views and ideas. There have been many that have lost opportunities based on offensive or threatening behavior they have displayed on line. They are creating their “digital persona” from the day they first step into social media so make sure they take it seriously.
  9. Any naked photos of anyone under the age of 18 years found on someones phone is considered child pornography. No exceptions. The sooner they learn this the better. Sexting is a very popular thing and I am hearing about this from parents with younger and younger teens than every before. Did you know that nearly 40% of teens have sent sexually suggestive messages or photos to their boyfriend? (this is more common in boys than girls) What they don’t think about is that these photos can be shared and sent to anyone in a matter of seconds. …think about it.
  10. Make sure when your child is playing a game with friends that they not use their real name and make sure their accounts are private. There have been cases of pedophiles using this information to find and lure children either in the virtual world or even in the real world. Turn off location settings for social media and do not allow your child to post photos in their school uniform. This is giving too much information to someone that becomes interested in your child.
  11. Talk to your kids. Ask them about what they are playing. Answer their questions honestly so that they keep coming to you for answers.
  12. Limit screen time from day 1...minutes turn to hours and hours can quickly turn to days of nothing but screen time. Pay attention and encourage your child to get involved in other kinds of activities on the weekends whether it be sports, clubs, volunteering or outdoor activities.

Being a parent in this digital age is difficult. No one prepared us for what was coming and it seems everyone has just been swept away by the fancy phones and unlimited information. So before you give your child his/her electronic device remember to plan, be smart and adjust accordingly.

Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.

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