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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

The smartphone generation

Can I have a cell phone?”

It’s a question that parents of 11- and 12-year-olds have become used to hearing over the last few years. For a time, we could hope to put the decision off for a few years, or at least until they turned 13. But not anymore. Through peer pressure – and perhaps some over-protective parenting – cell phone ownership among tweens has now become the norm.

But recently the question many parents are hearing has undergone a subtle change. Instead of “Can I have a cell phone?” it’s now “Can I have smartphone?” Suddenly a simple device that can be used for calling and texting is no longer enough. Now it has to have Web access, a camera, IM and e-mail capability, games, access to an app store, and multiple other features.

To be fair to most 11-year-olds, they aren’t looking to spend all day surfing the Web. The two big attractions of smartphones are music and games. Kids don’t see smartphones as phones anymore; they see them the way manufacturers want all of us to see them – as mini computers and media hubs.

At the top of every tween’s must-have list is Apple’s iPhone. This Cadillac of smartphones has everything a kid could want: texting, music, games, access to hundreds of thousands of apps…and, oh yes, the ability to make the occasional phone call. But if you are thinking of buying your youngster an iPhone, or any other kid of smartphone, there are a few things you should consider.

1. Smartphones are unfiltered Web browsers

You may be savvy enough to have placed the home computer in the living room so you can keep an eye on what the kids are up to, and installed parental controls, but as soon as you hand over a smartphone, then all those controls go out the window. Most smartphones offer completely unfiltered access to the Web. Where there are parental controls, like on the iPhone, it’s a question of all or nothing. You can leave access to Safari turned on or you can turn it off completely.

2. Apps cost money

A lot of parents are surprised when that first smartphone bill arrives and they see a lot of line items they don’t recognize. Or, in the case of an iPhone, their iTunes account starts to see a lot more action than usual. Whether it’s The Sims 3, Doodle Jump, Wordsmith, or any one of the thousands of other games, downloading apps costs money. Add in the extra data plan and the cost of providing your youngest with a smartphone can start to add up.

3. Sharing is not always caring

An HD camera and the ability to instantly share pictures online is not always the safest combination in the hands of a pre-teen. The powerful e-mail and photo-sharing features call for a level of maturity that is far beyond most 12-year-olds. We have all read the tragic stories of sexting and cyber bullying, and it’s no coincidence that many of the cases involve younger and younger children.

4. Smartphones are expensive to replace

Smartphones are often surprisingly delicate – witness the iPhone’s notorious reputation for cracked screens – and can be very expensive to repair or replace. Plus, they don’t respond well to being dropped in snow banks or rain puddles. If your child has recently lost or broken an iPod, then that’s a pretty sure sign that he or she isn’t quite ready for the big leagues.

The explosion in smartphone technology – and the race to bring competitive phones to market – has meant that mobile parental controls have largely been an afterthought. Although manufacturers, service providers, and third-party developers are striving to plug the hole, it will be quite some time before effective controls are in place.

Of course, the exception is the iPhone. But, as stated above, most of the iPhone controls disable features rather than filter content. If you plan on buying a smartphone and switching off the web browsing and app download features, then you might wonder why your child needs a smartphone in the first place!

Does your tween have a smartphone? What restrictions have you put in place? Share you thoughts with The Online Mom!

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