Are you like most parents who purchased a cell phone for your child to keep in touch? Does this give you a sense of security? Unless you have strict rules about phone usage, some 411 on how kids use cell phones and what is considered illegal will help keep your family safe.
A solid 75 percent of children between 12 and 17 years old have cell phones and 80 percent of teens between 14 and 17 have them. Most of the phones are part of a variety of family plans setting up multiple phones with calling and data access. According to one study published in 2010, 29 percent pay at least part of the phone bill, but the majority of teens say their parents pay all of it.
Kids between the ages of 12 and 17 almost never use the phone to "talk." They use it to "text," take photos and post to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. An informal poll at a Belmont County high school bears this out. An average monthly total for this group is 47 minutes of call time, ranging from 25 minutes to three hours per month.
If your child has a cell phone to keep in touch, be sure to set some strict rules about phone usage to keep them safe and responsible.
Texting, however, is a far different story. More than half of American teens with cell phones send 50 or more texts per day. Thirty-three percent send at least 100 texts per day. The local high school group is within the average at 99.6 texts per day each. The lowest number was 900 per month (30 per day) and highest was 8000 per month (267 per day.) This is how kids communicate about everything-even if they are in the same room with each other.
One father became curious after his 16 year old daughter invited friends over for a party. "I didn't hear any noise in the basement-no music, no talking, no television," he recalls. "I went down to see if they were still there, and everyone was holding a phone and listening to an iPod. All you could hear was clicking. The weirdest part about it was they were texting each other in the same room instead of talking."
This lack of face-to-face communication has psychologists, educators and parents concerned about social skill development. Parent comments online discuss receiving texts from their children about difficult subjects-grades, discipline, schedule changes-that kids don't really want to talk about. Teachers have also noticed a decline and difficulty in engaging students in conversation, citing lack of eye contact and impatience when talking to students one-on-one. By conversing only through text, teens miss nuances of expression, body language and voice that could hinder social maturity. The concerned father mentioned above has put a curfew of 8 p.m. on his youngest daughter's texting for this reason. "If she wants to talk to her friends after that, she'll have to call them on the phone," he says.
Sleep disorders are another result of excessive texting and media exposure in the evening, according to a study at JFK Medical Center in New Jersey. The group in the program averaged around 110 texts every evening, and 80 percent of the students had trouble falling asleep. During the day they suffered from Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), anxiety and learning difficulties and showed an increased risk for injury, poor performance, lower grades and mood disturbances.
Also, out of texting has come an abbreviated text "language" to accommodate the limited characters available per text. LOL means "laugh out loud," because, of course, the text receiver isn't hearing a response. Other common texts include CYL8R ("see you later"), LUL ("love you lots") and ONL ("online").
If you check your children's texts and emails, there are a few of which you should be aware: PAW ("parents are watching"), P911 ("parent alert"), RUMOF ("are you male or female") and A3 ("anyplace, anywhere, anytime"). An online text "dictionary" of common phrases is available at http://www.texted.ca/app/en/acronictionary.
A study done in 2009 by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that drivers who text are 23 percent more likely to have an accident. Research also shows that 26 percent of teens with phones text while driving. New York passed a ban on texting while driving when five teens were killed the week after their graduation as their SUV crossed the center line head-on into a semi. The driver and other passengers were texting. This July, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to make texting a primary offense, meaning drivers texting can be pulled over by police immediately. Since then, tickets for texting have more than doubled in 33 counties, already over 1100 tickets more statewide than 2010's total, evidence of a habitual problem.
Meanwhile, 33 other states plus the District of Columbia have texting while driving bans, but Ohio is not one of them. House Bill 99 passed earlier this year by the state House, but has seen no action from the Senate. A similar bill passed the House in 2010 and stalled after that. Several Ohio cities have taken matters into their own hands and instituted bans on texting while driving within their corporate limits. Of the local high school group polled, 38 percent admitted to texting while driving. However, about half of the group said they don't drive, bringing the texters to closer to 75 percent. Though texting while driving is not illegal in Belmont County, insurance companies discourage the practice especially when it's a contributing factor in accidents.
Another feature on many phones is the ability to access the web. For some this means doing research or coursework if there is no access to a computer. For most it means instant messaging (IM,) chatting and hitting the social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and MySpace. Unfortunately adult predators are already waiting for them. Chief Tim Zdanski of the Bethesda Police Department and the Sexual Predators Internet Initiative (SPII) Task Force knows that it only takes signing on to some of the social sites and chat rooms to attract a predator. Once acknowledged by the child, the adult can converse like a peer and find out information that your family doesn't want him to know: names, streets, schools and hang-outs. Even posting an innocent photo or video taken in front of the family home with kids wearing school colors can provide valuable information to a savvy stalker.
Posting on social sites like Facebook has become complicated. Too often teens use it as a tool to bully or spread gossip about other students. The SPII Task Force does presentations at schools on cyber bullying and sexting, (sending sexually explicit suggestions, information and photos via text messaging). This is all illegal and can be prosecuted. In fact, sexting can carry two felony counts: producing child pornography and the dissemination of child pornography. Those involved may also be required to register as sex offenders, even as juveniles. "They don't think they can get caught," says Chief Zdanski. "The truth is they couldn't give police better clues than when using a cell phone."
How can you keep predators, bullies and identity thieves away from your family? First, check with your carrier for parental control packages that can set limits on available apps for smart phones and block unwanted sites. There are also programs that send parents copies of each incoming text to your child's phone. Become familiar with your child's friends and with the text lingo.
Second, set rules about phone usage. If you are concerned about too much texting, try scheduling a family night weekly or monthly; see if your child might be interested in other activities like 4H or dance lessons that would have them interacting with their peers rather than texting; establish an evening electronics curfew allowing your child to "wind down" before bed; set a limit on the number of texts per day or month, and stick to it, especially if grades are an issue.
Third, instill these questions to think about in your child's head before they hit "send:" 1. Would I say this to "X" in person? 2. What will happen if someone sends this message/photo on to other people? 3. Is this something that I would be okay with my parents/teachers seeing? 4. How would I feel/what would I do if someone sent this to me?
Finally, make sure your child knows the consequences of any questionable actions, be it running over the established limit for texts or sending a nude photo of himself to his girlfriend. Make sure your child is the only one using the phone and does not text and drive. You are the parent and are probably paying the phone and insurance bills. It's your right and responsibility to have this control to protect your family. Think about why you purchased the phone in the first place.
Websites like NetSmartz.com, CTIA.org and carrier sites like Verizon and AT&T provide information and tools for parents, kids and teachers. For most people cell phones are a useful part of daily life, and children need more freedom as they get older. However, with freedom, comes responsibility.