Just a few decades ago, parents worried about missing important calls because their teens were tying up the phone lines by chatting with friends and classmates. Now, 75 percent of all teens own cell phones, creating an entirely different set of concerns. Cell phones can be useful for teens, especially those who need to check in with parents who are still at work when school ends. Cell phones also give teens a way to call 911 or contact a parent in an emergency. However, there are also some serious issues associated with teen cell phone use. Parents should take several steps to preventing cell phone abuse.
Cell Phone Statistics
The Nielsen Company analyzed cell phone use data for the period covering April 2010 to June 2010. Analysts found that teenagers send and receive an average of 3,339 text messages per month. This represents an 8 percent increase from the same period in 2009. This means that teens send an average of six text messages per hour for every hour they are awake. How often teens use their cell phones to make calls depends on their ages. Pew Internet Research reports that only 17 percent of 12-year-olds use their cell phones to make calls. This increases to a full 60 percent of 17-year-olds who make calls with their cell phones. Teens also use their cell phones for taking and sharing pictures, playing games and music, instant messaging, accessing social media sites, and shopping.
Texting is the exchange of brief messages between two devices. This activity is especially popular with teens, especially those concerned about maintaining their privacy. Texting allows teens to send each other messages without worrying about parents or siblings listening in on another phone. Texting also makes it possible to communicate during school hours, so school administrators are now developing policies to combat cell phone use in schools. One of the most disturbing teen texting trends is the problem of “sexting.” Sexting is the exchange of explicit messages or pictures between two mobile devices. The Pew Internet Research study showed that 4 percent of teens have sent nude or partially nude images of themselves to others via text message. Fifteen percent of teens have received such a message.
There are several steps parents, grandparents, and other authority figures can take to ensure that teens are using the text message feature responsibly. Talking to teens about the dangers of sexting should be one of the first steps. Many teens do not understand the implications of sending partially nude or nude photos to other people. Explain that there is no expectation of privacy when sending these types of messages. The recipient may show the messages to other people or forward them to other cell phones. Since many cell phones also have their own browsers, it is possible for a recipient to upload explicit photos to social networking sites. Some college admissions counselors and employers now visit these sites to assess prospective students and employees, so sending this type of photo can come back to bite a teen in the future.
Supervising regular texting behavior is also important. Texting while driving is a serious issue, as it distracts teen drivers and makes them more likely to be involved in car crashes. The Pew survey indicates that 33 percent of teens have sent text messages while driving. Discourage teens from this behavior by having them sign safe driving contracts. These contracts should contain statements like “I agree to refrain from sending text messages or taking calls while driving.” If a parent becomes aware that a teen driver has violated the agreement, cell phone or driving privileges should be suspended for a specific period of time. Monitoring incoming and outgoing text messages is also an option, but parents should be aware that savvy teens are likely to delete messages from their inboxes and sent message folders, making it difficult to see what type of information is being exchanged.
Cyberbullying refers to harassing behavior that takes place between two minors via text message, instant message, or other types of digital technology. Cyberbullies may humiliate, torment, embarrass, or threaten their victims. One specific type of text message bullying is known as a “text war.” This is when someone sends the same teen thousands of text messages, resulting in a very high bill. When a parent receives the inflated bill, the teen victim may be scolded or grounded, resulting in embarrassment. In extreme cases of cyberbullying, the perpetrators send other teens death threats via text message.
One of the best ways for parents to prevent or stop cyberbullying against their children is to build trusting relationships. Many teens do not report cyberbullying to their parents for fear that they will overreact and call the perpetrator’s parents or lodge a complaint with school administrators. Other teens do not tell their parents about cyberbullying because they fear it will be dismissed as a harmless joke. If a teen reports being cyberbullied, parental support is important. Take the claim seriously and avoid minimizing the effects of this type of harassment. Document all instances of cyberbullying and use the documentation to report the harassment to local law enforcement officers. Contact the school so that an administrator or guidance counselor can be on the lookout for bullying during school hours.
New digital technology makes it possible for predators to contact teens via instant message, text message, and chat room. Predators often groom their victims by sending flattering messages, listening to their problems, and mailing gifts to their homes. This builds trust with teen victims and makes it more likely that they will set up meetings with predators. Parents play an important role in preventing contact with predators. Discuss this issue with teens before allowing them to use a text messaging service. Monitor incoming text messages to ensure that teens are not being contacted by predators. Check the photo storage file on each cell phone to ensure that predators are not sending explicit pictures. If a parent detects predator activity, it is important to contact local law enforcement officials and make a report.
More Tips for Parents
Teaching teens how to use their cell phones responsibly is the first step to protecting them. When a teen gets a new cell phone, sit down and point out all of the available features. Make sure the teen knows how to use the speed dial feature and other security features. Program emergency contact numbers into the address book so that a parent or authority figure is never more than a phone call away. Some companies design cell phones just for kids and teens. These phones require parents to enter approved telephone numbers so that users cannot receive calls or text messages from people not on the approved list.
Discuss appropriate cell phone usage with a teenager before handing over a cell phone. Explain that a cell phone is never to be used during school, homework time, or family time. Check in on teens when they are getting ready to go to sleep, as some teens would rather talk or text than get the sleep they need to be alert. Explain the consequences of going over established usage limits. If a teen sends too many text messages or makes too many calls, ask him or her to pay the extra fees. This will help teens learn how to use their phones responsibly. Direct teens to ignore calls and text messages from numbers they do not recognize. If a teen seems too attached to his or her cell phone, ask for the cell phone at the end of the school day. Teens should be able to use a landline for talking with friends or asking classmates questions about the homework. Parents should also consider blocking or limiting features such as ringtone downloads and access to directory services.
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