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Family Matters

Rules for Kids' First Cell Phone

Are you considering getting your child their first cell phone?

If they are in the double digits, starting to spend a little time on their own or getting home by bus or walking, a cell phone can be a parent's friend. Some of us have chosen an age when a cell phone will happen; whether it's grade 3, 7 or 10, no judgment here. Every family is different and has different reasons for getting their child a mobile phone. Our oldest two set the precedence in our family when they were 12 and started bussing and being away from us for short stints. If you've decided your child will not have a cell phone until they are an adult or old enough to pay for it monthly, these rules may not be relevant for you and I applaud your resolve. I chose differently and I've had to learn along the way what that choice meant.

What I've learned and want to share is how to avoid or address some of the pitfalls we've faced as parents of five kids with five different cellphone experiences. These are mostly for elementary and junior high and are fluid, always changing. Our access and privacy rules definitely changed when they entered high school.

First, consider why your child NEEDS a cell phone. If it is for safety and your piece of mind knowing where they are, do they need a smart phone with access to the World Wide Web when they are out of the house with no supervision? If they are in elementary, probably not, but again it's your call. Just realize that your sweet, innocent 9 year old is curious and has friends who may be more curious. If you just put one curious word like... Say, "boobs" in a search engine, guess what will show up on their screen? A whole lot of boobs! This may or may not be a big deal to your family but imagine all the other curious words they can choose to access, with photos and videos! I had a friend find the word "fagina" in her computer Internet history when her sons were 8 and 10, which was her time to figure out how to safeguard them on the computer. Thank goodness for poor spelling :)

You can still get cell phones with voice and text only options or you can get a smart phone with no data plan for it: however, know they will still have access in wifi areas like friends' houses or at school. Be prepared to find questionable history if they have access to everything and anything. Kids are curious and you have just given them the answer to all their questions at their fingertips in Google!

Here are the RULES I wish we had started with before giving any of our kids a phone:

1. Access
The point of getting a cell phone for kids is usually because we want to be able to reach them (and they can reach us) when we or they are away from home. If we call or text, they should answer or respond as soon as possible.
Moms/dads have all the passwords and WE OWN the phone. The child is allowed to use the phone but it is not their possession to keep from you. If they are younger, maybe they only get access when they will be separated from their parents.
We will check the activity on the phone and the kids need to know up front that nothing is private, even if they delete it we can access the account history. This is not a spying tool for parents but an opportunity for our kids to learn about doing the right thing and for parents to help guide their child's journey in the online world.

2. Safety
If you do go the smartphone route, whether they are little or in high school:
- install a "find my phone" app. This allows you to find a lost phone... Or a lost or non-responsive child. Their location services must remain on at all times for this function to work.
- No communication with people they do not know. This holds true if they have a phone or when they begin playing online games on the family computer or tablet. These are scary discussions to have with our kids but if they are online, you need to have them. Age appropriate examples of online predators and the risks may save their lives.
- No downloading of apps without permission. Moms and dads need to know what's out there to be able to say yes or no. This is a daunting task if you aren't tech savvy and I guarantee your kids are more in-the-know then you are. If they ask to download an app you aren't familiar with, look into it. There are loads of parenting reviews available online. Say no if you're not comfortable and set an age when you may be more comfortable and they can have it.
- Set up parental controls on each device so they need a password to access downloads or certain apps. Each phone is different so check your specific phone details to do this. Don't wait, do it now.

3. Phones do NOT go to bed. The temptation of texting friends all night, the ambient light of a phone ruining sleep patterns and just a total disregard for the importance of sleep all get tested if phones go to bed with kids. They may try the "but it's my alarm clock" or "I just use it to fall asleep to music". Do not fall for this! Get them a clock radio or CD player with an alarm.

4. No phones at meals (I've broken this one on occasion and heard about it). Meal times should be spent together as much as possible and without the distraction of texts, games, videos, etc. It is a hard habit to break if you don't make the rule from the get-go. The people in front of you are much more important than the device in your hands; show them that.

5. Take care of it!
Consider what feels right for you, making them earn money for their first phone or gifting it to them. Kids are growing and learning to be responsible and they will make mistakes - that includes with their phones. Whether you bought the first one or they did, you have to decide if you will have mercy if they have one accident or lose it. I guarantee they will appreciate it more and take better care of it if they paid for it but that will work too if the repair or replacement phone was earned. Just whatever you do... Do not repair or replace a second time. It will never end! Trust me .

6. Photos, Videos and Sexting (I know, but read it!)
For the little ones, no taking pictures or videos of people without permission. Elementary kids have gotten themselves into hot water just being silly and thinking it's fun to share or show pictures of classmates in embarrassing situations, but it isn't fun for everyone. See, that was easy!

Now the hard part... Sending pornographic pics or videos of themselves or others through their phones (tablets and computers too) happening at far too young ages. I know this sounds horrific if you have kids who are very young and the concept of even bringing this up seems ridiculous; However, it's happening everyday in almost every junior high in the city. Ask your school administrators and you will find they are dealing with online bullying and sexting issues all the time. Cell phones make these situations very easy to get involved with and sadly it has become the norm. It freaks me out too, but if we don't have these conversations, monitor online activities and stay in the know, it may be our kids making this mistake, and it's a big one.
Can you imagine yourself when you had your first big crush? Can you remember peer pressure? Talking about societal issues and sexualization in the media is a whole other post, but media is influencing a generation and we can't turn a blind eye hoping it's not our child participating in these activities. I hope it isn't either, but they likely know, have seen or heard about a boy or girl who sent nude photos. Have the conversation.
Taking nude pics of underage kids is child pornography. Sending it through the Internet or a cell phone is distribution of child pornography. Even if it's the child taking and sending pictures of them self, it is still illegal. There are too many examples of kids being expelled from schools and some have been charged with these offenses. Even worse though is how it impacts the child when their private photos are shared with the entire class, school or on social media. They just didn't know how bad it could be sending one simple picture, but it can be horrible.

We need to educate our kids and prepare them for how their actions with their cell phones can change their lives in a moment. We also need to educate ourselves on the realities and dangers having access to anything can create.

Communication about the tough topics, set clear boundaries and rules, research apps, and "you own the phone" messaging all can help you in navigating the rough waters. Kids will make mistakes so be prepared for bumps in the road but by knowing and discussing in advance I hope these tips will help make your child's first cell phone experience a good one. Good luck!

Family New Year’s Resolutions

December 31st, 2013

By Sara Kendall

Promise and possibilities emerge as the New Year rolls around. Many take stock of where they are and where they want to be. This year, try making resolutions as a family. Doing so will give your kids an opportunity to learn about working together as a team and the value of goal setting. Get started by gathering everyone around to discuss goals as a family. We suggest five attainable family goals to set in motion to see what your family can accomplish together. Don’t tackle them all at once, choose one, and focus on this goal for several weeks before adding a new one.

Eat Healthier

It’s one of the most common New Year resolutions out there, but it’s truly important to put your family on the path of eating more natural foods and fewer processed meals. Think about incorporating more veggies into the meals you already serve like adding shredded carrots to your mac-n-cheese or chopped veggies to meatballs. Kids will hardly notice but it adds more vitamins, minerals, and fiber to their dinner. For dessert, serve the fruit of the season instead a pre-packaged, processed treat.

Search online for healthy family recipe ideas. Homemade meals do take a bit more time to prepare than those highly processed frozen or boxed meals. As you get started, look for simple recipes not requiring a lot of prep time. Get your kids involved by helping with some of the food preparation. Takeout is convenient and sometimes unavoidable, but homemade meals are far healthier and much cheaper.

Get Fit Together

Here’s another top resolution that is often forgotten in just a month or two, but regular exercise has been associated with enormous health benefits. The more active you are the better you will feel and the healthier you will be. Figure out a schedule and make a plan to get moving biweekly or every other day. If your family can only work out once a week, it’s better than nothing. Active families are healthier families, so get yours moving. Here are a few suggestions to get your family started.

·         Take a walk around the neighbourhood

·         Hit the bike trails through a local park

·         Play laser tag or paintball

·         Go rollerblading or ice skating at an indoor rink

·         Create an obstacle course in your backyard or indoors

Unplug Once a Week - Technology is an incredible tool that, for better or for worse, will forever be a part of our lives. On the downside, many have become obsessed with constantly checking in on social media sites, playing games, or endless hours surfing. Completely unplug once a week and have a Screen-Free Day. You will inevitably get protests from your kids and even your spouse, but everyone will learn different ways to fill their time. Kids will get active and their creativity will blossom. Parents will get back to the basics and spend more time with their kids.   

Simplify Schedules - Over-scheduling has become a common concern in many families. Look at your calendar to see if this issue applies to your family. Is your family’s calendar jammed with multiple activities on each day? Are your kids tired and grumpy all the time? Grades slipping and their friends don’t come around as much anymore? Eating take-out every night? If you’re nodding your head yes, you need to make a change. Kids need time for their homework, playing with friends, hanging out with family, and just relaxing. If your kids are overscheduled, it typically means parents are too. Reduce activities, and stress levels will drop for the whole family.

Argue Less, Talk More - Sibling rivalry is alive and well in most families. You can hear it loud and clear by all their screaming. Explain there is a nicer way to communicate with each other. Teach your children to take five by taking some deep breaths and removing themselves from the situation. A strategically placed break from the action will allow emotions to calm down resulting in less screaming and more talking. Constant reinforcement of this new process will be needed to make an improvement. Watch yourself and be the example for the new plan. It will be worth your family’s efforts. Your home will be a healthier and happier environment for everyone.

Each of these five resolutions is worthwhile for your family to make and keep. When it’s a group effort, there’s a greater chance for these resolutions to turn into habits. Positive changes can be put in place and every family member will reap the rewards.

Sara Kendall is a freelance writer and mom of two daughters.

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