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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!

Taming Kids’ Tech Obsession

January 1st, 2016

By Michele Kambolis

Technology is changing childhood, with as many opinions on healthy usage as there are gadgets to distract us. While technology holds possibilities and benefits, there are known drawbacks associated with over-usage. According to the latest release from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average 8 to 10 year old may be in front of a screen up to eight hours a day. Teens top the list as excessive tech users, with many dedicating up to 11 hours a day to texting and other screen activity. With technology use changing so rapidly, the old rules simply no longer fit the world we live in. Parents are left wondering whether a healthy balance exists. It is important to sit down and discuss tech usage with children and teens, and try to find the right balance.

Talk About a Healthy Media Diet

When children understand that what we feed our mind is equally important as what we feed our body, they become more mindful about what they are consuming.  Talk to your child about what they are seeing, hearing, and doing. Ask, has this time on technology been helpful or meaningful in some way? What have they discovered or learned? Co-viewing programs and talking with your kids about the pros and cons, all the ways technology helps improve lives, or threatens your quality of life, can get them thinking about the kind of impact technology might be having.  

Set Guidelines

Parents are all too aware of the need for technology guidelines. However, setting limits on something so pervasive in our homes can be easier said than done.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has looked closely at the issue and recently set new standards; children under 2 should have little to no screen exposure, and children and teens should have no more than 2 entertainment hours of screen time per day. That’s a far cry from the current average. Just like any house rule, be specific and consistent with your expectations, including when, where and how they should be using it.  Here’s the key: when a child understands why a rule is in place, they are far more accepting of the guideline. You’ll get further by saying, ‘I notice it’s time to power down so we can make room for family time’, rather than, ‘You need to turn off your computer now’.  As they become better critical thinkers, kids come to understand their own limits, planning a healthy tech-life balance and making wise choices.

Safety First

The types of activities children engage in while using technology can range from creative and educational to downright destructive. Work with your child to educate them about responsible technology use, including acceptable and safe behaviours.  And while you don’t need to spy on your child’s every move, it is important that children understand you are aware and monitoring their online safety. Get curios about what is happening on your child’s screen; children love to be regarded as experts, especially by their parents.

Disconnect to Connect

Disconnecting from technology gives children the kind of brain rest they need to synthesize information, become creative, explore and even connect with their sense of self.  But it’s important to work together. Disconnecting should include parents too.  Powering down all electronics at dinnertime, in the car, and when company is over is an easy standard for most. Even better, create technology free zones to promote play, creativity and connection.  Crowding out screen time with other enjoyable activities sends the message that disconnecting is not a negative thing, but rather something to look forward to.

Quality over Quantity

Recent studies show that active technology and screen time can actually help develop key skills; hand-eye coordination, language skills, social skills, memory and critical thinking can all improve when quality tech programs are used in moderation. Balance out social media and computer games with eBooks and educational programming; have your child choose a program that offers educational value during the first half of tech time, then leave room for them to choose something with sheer entertainment value. Keep in mind, technology should be used to enhance our knowledge, not replace real-life experiences, so link programs with meaningful conversation.

Technology and the Brain

There is little yet known about the impact of technology on the brain, but we do know this: technology can improve visual-spatial ability, reaction time, increase focused-attention and the ability to identify details. On the flip side, playing violent video games or watching violent television is linked to lower brain activity in regions responsible for emotions and impulse control. Some studies show that more than four hours of screen time a day is connected to anxiety and depression, low levels of physical activity and social interaction.  And lower levels of face-to-face connection means less of the kind of right-brain activity so critical to empathy development. The more technology a child engages in, the less room they have for key activities needed for brain development, like outdoor play, reading, hobbies, imaginative play and relationships.

The Sleep Solution

If you’re worried about the impact of technology use before bed, your instincts are well tuned. The blue light from most screens decreases melatonin levels, contributing to poor sleep and increased anxiety. Consider giving technology its own curfew, placing all gadgets on their chargers at the same time each night, and lay them to rest well away from bedrooms. As a guideline, cut out screen time at least one hour before bed. Your child will not only sleep better, they will live better.

Technology for Mindful Living

The most powerful tool we have for creating a healthy relationship with technology is our self-awareness. Internal cues tell us when we are distracted, disconnected or revved up from a computer game and when something on social media is making us feel ‘less than’ or inadequate.  Ask what your child is aware of when they use technology; what thoughts enter their mind, what  they are feeling, and what is happening in their body. You can even enlist technology itself; there are many apps that can aid in calming the mind, and clearing it of negative thoughts, creating mind-body balance. Smiling Mind, MindShift and The Thought Room all guide the user towards mindfulness skills and other tools for resiliency.

While our electronic universe has us working even harder to make sure our kids have everything they need, radical cultural shifts call in radical parenting attention. With small daily changes you really can create big results, cultivating a well balanced, tech aware, generation.

Michele Kambolis (MA) is a registered Child and Family Therapist and Parent Educator and a Registered Clinical Counselor dedicated to raising awareness about mental health issues. Kambolis writes a popular weekly parenting advice column, “Parent Traps” for The Vancouver Sun and Postmedia Network chain of newspapers and is the author of Generation Stressed: Play-Based Tools to Help Your Child Overcome Anxiety. She is currently a candidate for a PhD in Mind-Body Medicine at Saybrook University.

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