Growing Up Online: Training Wheels for New Cell Phone Users

If your child is one of the lucky kids getting a new cell phone during the holidays, now is the time to think about the rules that should go along with it. Kids need to understand from the get-go that having a phone is a privilege and, like all privileges, comes with responsibilities.
Family contracts that outline those responsibilities are available from several reliable sources including Connect Safely ( and Sprint ( Even if you don’t feel the need to sign a formal contract with your child, these documents cover important talking points.
Being clear about expectations is step one, but many children also benefit from a little extra structure. Fortunately, parents have access to a wide range of technical tools that will help children remember and respect their rules.
The checklist that follows provides an overview of protections available for cell phones. It’s unlikely most parents will want or need all of these tools. The features that make sense for your family depend partly on your parenting style and partly on your child’s temperament.
In addition to age and maturity, you’ll want to think about the following questions: Is your child able to keep track of belongings? Does he or she generally follow household rules? How easily is your child distracted? How susceptible are they to pressure from peers or strangers? Most important, how will this tool help you reach your ultimate goal—having a child who makes good, independent decisions about how and when to use a cell phone?
Once you’ve decided which protections you want, find out whether they are available from your phone carrier. All major companies offer some of these services free and others for a monthly fee. To figure out what’s available on your plan, search for parental controls on their website. Better yet, visit one of their outlets and have someone describe and demonstrate the relevant features so you’ll actually be able to use them.

Curb phone calls. For very young children, it’s often a good idea to establish an approved list of phone numbers so your child can make and receive calls only from those people. For older kids, you may still want software that shows traffic on the phone. Remember, specific numbers can always be blocked if your child is being harassed or unduly influenced by peers or strangers.

Control texts. Depending on your family’s plan and your child’s self-control, you may want controls that limit the number of texts your child can send and/or receive. Some controls also allow parents to monitor texts for content that seems risky. There’s even an app, Ignore No More, that lets you lock the phone if you don’t get a prompt response to your text messages!

Monitor websites. A smartphone allows a child unrestricted access to the Internet, so you may want filters that block access to pornography, gambling, hate speech, and other content.
Supervise social media. A cell phone makes it all too easy to share impulsive messages, photos, and videos. Parents can arrange to be notified whenever a child posts or is tagged on social media. Or you can set up controls that alert you only if your child uses unacceptable language, is involved in bullying, or exchanges inappropriate photos.

Manage time. If the phone seems to be taking over a child’s life, most carriers offer a timer that will allow you to establish intervals when the phone simply doesn’t work because your child should be sleeping or paying attention in class.

Most families find they can protect their children adequately with services provided by cell phone companies.

Track location. If your child struggles to keep track of personal items, you may want an app that will locate the phone if it’s lost. Some parents also use GPS to confirm kids are where they are supposed to be—home after school, on the soccer field, at a sleepover.

Limit downloads. Kids with smartphones will want to explore the wonderful world of apps. Some apps simply aren’t suitable for children. Some cost money that will show up on your phone bill. Some introduce malware onto the phone. If you have any doubts about your child’s judgment, look for software that will alert you when your child tries to download a ringtone, game, or social media app.

Disable while driving. If your child is old enough to drive, consider using a feature that disables the phone whenever it’s moving at the speed of a car.
Most families find they can protect their children adequately with services provided by cell phone companies, supplemented perhaps by free apps like MamaBear. If you decide to invest in more comprehensive software, detailed reviews of 10 options are available at  Some of these programs brag about how they can be used in “stealth” mode so kids will never even know their parents are watching them. In many ways, that kind of spyware subverts the goals of good parenting. If you do find something worrisome, you won’t be able to discuss it without admitting that you’ve had your child’s phone under surveillance. It is better to talk openly about what safeguards you plan to use and why you think they are important. Being upfront about your concerns actually makes it more likely your kids will become such savvy, skilled, and responsible cell phone users they won’t need “training wheels” anymore.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. For other Growing Up Online columns, visit  
© Copyright, 2014, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.  

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