Cell phones can be a very valuable tool in maintaining one's safety, so understandably many parents are extending the use of this tool to their children. An estimated 79 percent of teens and pre-teens have cell phones, and those numbers continue to rise.
Most parents are aware of the dangers that exist online for their children and take active roles in minimizing these risks by utilizing content controls on their home computers. But many overlook the dangers that cell-phone usage may pose to their children. Content-control tools also exist for cell phones and can help protect children when their parents cannot oversee their online safety. Parents should contact their children's cellular service providers to learn about the parental controls service providers offer for free or at minimal charge and how these tools can ensure that their children will not encounter unsuitable Web sites, receive unwanted text messages or make unapproved purchases online. The Wireless Foundation's Tools From Your Wireless Carrier page provides links to the parental control tools offered by the four major carriers.
Without a proper understanding of the consequences of their actions, teens can find themselves in uncomfortable or dangerous situations. This is true even for decisions a teen makes about his or her cell phone activities.
Because of the nature of mobile phones, people often use them within earshot of strangers. Kids need to be aware of their surroundings and avoid reciting personal information when others may overhear them. In particular, they should not give out their address, phone number, Social Security number, full name or parents' names or mention times when they might be home alone and other statements that might leave them vulnerable. Similarly, they should never answer calls from people they do not know or an unknown telephone number.
Driving a car is serious business that requires one's full attention. Anything that distracts drivers should be avoided. This includes talking on or texting with a cell phone. In some states, these activities are illegal. Parents should discuss the consequences of distracted driving with their children.
Most wireless devices have Internet and/or text-messaging capabilities. As with home-based Internet, Web sites with harmful or inappropriate content can be accessed from cell phones if parents do not take proper precautions.
Parents should evaluate – based on their child's age, needs and maturity – whether to enable web-browsing for their child. Additionally, most cell phone carriers offer free and fee-based services that can help parents restrict the content and times of day their children are browsing.
Just like with email, chat or instant messaging on the Internet, text messaging can be used against kids to get them to reveal personal information or lure them into meeting a stranger. To help protect your kids, teach them not to respond to strangers or any messages that make them uncomfortable. And, of course, they should NEVER give out personal information or set up a meeting with someone they do not know, regardless of how interesting that person may sound. Make sure they know that the person sending the messages may not be as described – that 14-year-old boy may actually be a 48-year-old man!
Another problem teens and pre-teens can get into with text messaging is related to a relatively new trend. According to one recent survey, 22 percent of all teen girls – half of whom were between 13 and 16 years old – say they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves. And these photos don't always remain private – oftentimes, the intended recipient forwards them to other people or posts them to a public Web site.
Lastly, text messaging can be used for "cyberbullying," or using tech devices to intimidate, embarrass or hurt another person. Cyberbullying can leave its victims with decreased self-esteem and feelings of fear, depression and anger. Teach your child that if they cyberbully someone, it may have consequences. They could lose their internet privileges or worse – many states have introduced legislation against digital harassment. Education to promote respect and take a stand against bullying can make a difference.
Reducing the threat starts with education. Children need to know about proper cell phone use and steps they can take to protect themselves from unwanted attention.