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Being Smart About Smartphones!

By Stacey Ross

When one of my kids asks “Mom, when can I have a smartphone?” my standard response is “When it’s time to keep tabs on each other, we’ll revisit this.”  That’s worked for me so far – until now. My daughter will be starting middle school soon, and I admit I am panicking a bit inside. While part of me wants to endow her with this privilege, the other side of me is just a little paranoid that I will become too overbearing!

To many parents, smartphones are still considered more as accessories and diversions than necessities. But as we discover for ourselves the added value they offer to our lifestyles, we are begin to open our minds to the idea of integrating mobile technology into our kids' everyday lives.

According to a recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 31 percent of children between the ages of 14 and 17 already have smartphones. And a recent article on Mashable quoted a Harris Interactive poll suggesting that 43% of parents think the right age for kids to get a phone is between 10 and 12 years old. While this growing trend doesn’t mean I need to run out and buy phones for my kids today, it’s clear I will be joining the “Smartphone Family Club” fairly soon. Before I take the plunge, I have some homework to do!

My greatest concern for my daughter is not that she will text her life away, nor that she will become addicted to games. Quite frankly, I worry about her safety! For families with multiple kids and busy schedules, cell phones serve as fabulous tools for communicating and staying in touch. Smartphones also allow you to turn off features you don't want your kids to use (like the ability to purchase apps), and keep the ones that you're fine with (like texting).

There are also numerous parental control options for phones now, so check to see if they are available through your phone carrier or through third-party apps. Google Latitude, an app that comes pre-loaded on many Android smartphones, allows kids to "check-in" to certain locations, notifying parents or caregivers that they have arrived at school, home or the library.  Apple’s App Store has a Find My Friends app, and Verizon offers Family Locator, allowing parents to set up alerts and locate any phone on the family account.

While it is comforting to have friends and family know when your kids have arrived at a local hangout, like a mall or concert, it’s a good idea to restrict status updates to people outside the immediate family or a carefully-designated network. Constant use of services like Foursquare and Twitter can become an open invitation for outsiders to monitor your child’s location. Similarly, parents are smart to restrict the use of Facebook on their kids’ mobile devices. We just don’t need our children leaving traces of their current whereabouts. For me, this is where the “but everyone’s doing it” argument ends!

I have some time before my kids are car drivers, but as a parent I must not gloss over the inherent risk of using a phone while behind the wheel. Parents can instill a heightened awareness in their teen drivers by not only modeling proper use, but by sharing with them the horror stories that have impacted other families’ lives. A recent survey by Consumer Reports found that 30 percent of teenagers admitted to texting while driving, with 50 percent confessing that they had also talked on the phone.

A smart move is to simulate with teen drivers the wise safety precautions that you, as parents, expect them to practice while driving. tXtBlocker is reliable in eliminating texting capabilities for most phones while in motion, and another option is DriveSafe.ly, a free service that reads text messages and emails aloud as they are received. Some of the latest Windows phones have location features that can help with navigation without providing a distraction.

While helpful, these safety precautions and phone features are no substitute for firm rules and guidelines and the constant vigilance of parents. For kids, the trade-off for this greater responsibility is a lofty entitlement. Happy smartphone parenting!

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being. 

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