Guest blog post by Katie Mitchell, Director of Training and Fidelity at the Appalachian Replication Project.
It’s not uncommon for students in middle school to get their first smartphones. Middle school students have more opportunities for extra-curricular activities and may have siblings in elementary or high school. Parents often feel a smartphone will help everyone be able to communicate about their schedules and transportation needs.
As helpful as they are, smartphones can also be dangerous to kids. Here are some ways you can protect your child from inappropriate content and cyberbullying.
1. From the beginning, explain to your child that having their own phone is a privilege, not a right, and that the device belongs to you. Tell your child what is acceptable phone use and what is not, and prepare to restrict their phone usage if they break the rules. Experts recommend having a charging station for all your kids’ devices in one location in your home that is not a child’s bedroom. This way they can plug in their phones by a certain time each night, wind down for bed, and everyone’s phones will be charged up by morning.
2. Make sure your child understands that nothing can ever really be deleted. Photos, texts, social media posts… these all continue to exist on a server even if your child deletes them. Ask your child to think about the consequences of taking, sending, or forwarding a sexual picture. Consequences for inappropriate texting/posting can range from embarrassment to arrest. No one should take photos of themselves that they wouldn’t want others to see. While apps like Snapchat make photos “temporary,” anyone can screenshot something they see and pass it along to someone else. See Netsmartz for more information about phone safety.
3. Consider using some apps that will block certain content from your child’s device. The internet is generally unregulated, which means your child could stumble into all kinds of adult content. You can disable their browser using the parental controls on the device, but those controls don’t always work perfectly. For example, links on Instagram profiles will open on your child’s phone even if you have disabled Safari or Chrome. Internet safety technology has exploded in recent years. Here’s a link to a list of apps you might consider using:
4. Set up your child’s device so that you have to approve all downloads, and then within each downloaded app, set some accessibility restrictions. Kids download apps we know nothing about all the time. If you have to enter a PIN before your child can download anything, at least you’ll have a chance to research the app before your child interacts with it. Common Sense Media has compiled reviews of hundreds of apps and their age appropriateness.
5. Be a model for your kids. You are the biggest influence in your child’s life. They are observing your behavior as an example for how they should behave. During the pandemic, parts of our lives went from analog to digital. We’ve been working, playing, and learning on screens. Pediatricians tell us, however, that two hours a day of screen time is all that children and adolescents should have. As COVID-related restrictions start to lift and activities resume, consider ratcheting down your kids’ screen time. Lower their limits by 30 minutes a day until you’re as close to that 2-hour max as possible, and do your best to limit your own screen time, too. Consider establishing certain times when and spaces where phones are not allowed, and find activities to replace on-screen life.
Here are a couple sources that list non-screen activities:
These 5 steps were adapted from https://www.care.com/c/stories/9914/cell-phone-rules-kids/This blog post was contributed by Katie Mitchell of SexEdVA, a division of James Madison University working to support sexual health education, family life programming, and positive youth development across Virginia. To inquire about partnering with them or to find out more, visit www.sexedva.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.