10 Strategies to Help Kids Use Smartphones Wisely and Prevent Cyberbullying

Help your young person understand that this gift of a smartphone is qualitatively different than presents of the past. A smartphone is not a toy; it is a tool.
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She's been asking for one since she was 8 years old. He's been borrowing yours every day. Both kids have so many after school sports that they really could benefit from having a phone to call you when their practices are over. You've hemmed and you've hawed, but finally you've given in and bought your child a smartphone. Now, the challenge begins: How do you ensure that he or she uses it wisely? Here are 10 guidelines to promote respectful, responsible use of your child's new gadget:

1. Have Rules

Only a few short years ago, all your kids ever asked for were playthings -- Legos, Barbies or just about anything to do with Disney. Help your young person understand that this gift of a smartphone is qualitatively different than presents of the past. A smartphone is not a toy; it is a tool. While parents may hope and pray that it is a tool used for safety (i.e. so that parents can easily get in touch with their child at any point in the day), most kids use their phones primarily for socializing (read: to call, text, Instagram, Kik, Facebook and otherwise connect with their peers at any point in the day.)

Either way, I exaggerate not when I encourage you to spend as much time and care teaching your child how to ethically use a smartphone as you would instructing him in how to wield a power tool. Am I comparing a smartphone to a chainsaw? Well, sort of. Surely, both can do a lot of damage when used incorrectly. So, the first rule for safe smartphone use is to make clear the fact that unlike the creative freedom that came with yesteryear's gifts of Play-Doh and Crayola sets, there are firm rules for smartphone use (see below for a few key ones) and that accessing their smartphone will be contingent upon following these rules. Period.

2. Set Limits on Usage

In terms of rules, a good place to start is with setting reasonable guidelines on usage. At first, you might think it's great that your young person is making such good use of their expensive new gift -- until you realize that she has not had a face-to-face conversation with a peer in weeks. Much less a decent night's sleep. Compulsive technology use develops very quickly for many young people whose developing brains seem especially susceptible to the lure of compulsive status updates, continuous checks for incoming texts and constant over-sharing. Setting limits on usage from the start can help prevent technology from becoming all-consuming for kids. Consider the specifics that are right for your family, in terms of:

  • Who your child is allowed to call?

  • How many minutes does her calling plan allow her to use each month?
  • Is your child permitted to text? How many texts are included in your payment plan?
  • What apps is she allowed to download and use?
  • Are there apps that are strictly off limits?
  • At what time each night must the smartphone be put to bed? (Hint: nestled in a charger, far away from the child?)
  • Can the child bring the smartphone to school? Use it when hanging out with friends?
  • Who pays the monthly cell phone bill?
  • What are the consequences for violating the agreed upon guidelines?
  • 3. Pay Attention to Netiquette

    The social media apps available via smartphone can be a playground for unfettered harshness. With a few simple clicks, kids guiltlessly post cruel messages and taunts that they would never dare say to a peer's face. Parents should set very specific rules about the ethical use of social media sites and be clear that posting mean comments, spreading gossip, forwarding embarrassing photos or taking part in any type of unkind behavior via technology is unacceptable. It is also important to talk to kids about how to treat others while texting. For example, teach kids to ask themselves:

    • Would I say the words I am texting to a person's face?

  • What would my parents think if they read this text?
  • Could this photo I am sending cause hurt or embarrassment to me, my friends, my family, or anyone else?
  • Can my text be taken out of context and used to hurt me or someone else?
  • Smartphones can provide a direct route to cyberbullying and relational aggression among young people, so being clear that apps, texts and phone calls are not to be used as tools of gossip, exclusion, or embarrassment, is essential.

    4. Stress Quality Over Quantity

    The advent of social media sites and apps that enumerate your child's "friends" and "followers" has created a culture in which personal value is measured more by the quantity of people in a social network than by the quality of relationships that your child has with any of them. Remind your son or daughter that real friendship is not measured by a number of friends on a list, a quantity of texts received in an hour or even the simultaneous number of conversations he can have while online. Popularity is about being well-liked in person, rather than avidly followed online.

    5. Don't Ignore the Friend in Front of You

    Next time you go out to dinner, note the number of people sitting down together for a meal NOT talking to each other. These days, it happens everywhere you go -- people gathering in a group only to ignore their companions in favor of the person(s) on the other side of their gadget. Am I just getting old or is it bewildering? Just last week, an 11-year-old sixth grade student lamented to me that she was invited to sleepover at a friend's house, but all the friend did throughout the night was text with girls not invited over. It made the guest feel rejected, unwanted,and disregarded.

    In this day and age where building up friend lists has become so integral to self-esteem, it's tempting for kids to try to prove their coolness by having their smartphone out in front of their friends -- a way of prominently showing how "in demand" they are. For your new smartphone user, give him the gift of learning how to truly be present with the friend in their presence -- to put away their gadget and engage the person they are with.

    6. Maintain Privacy

    Show your child how to set up the privacy features offered by social networking apps. Make sure that these settings protect your child from allowing strangers access to their profiles. Talk with him or her in clear, frank terms about the real dangers of online predators and the serious need to avoid them.

    Since danger online occurs more commonly at the hands of friends than of enemies, it is also critical to teach your child how to "block" comments and contacts by peers who have a history of engaging in cruel online behavior.

    7. Privacy Does Not Include Family Members

    Set clear guidelines for smartphone usage that includes your right to see your child's phone, browsing history and social media pages on a daily basis. While all parents want to trust their children, social media sites are not the place to start. These apps provide such tempting avenues for kids to engage in risky behavior that it is critical for parents to consistently monitor their usage. Let your kids know upfront that you will be reading posts, reviewing photos and scrutinizing friend lists. This oversight underscores the importance of safe and ethical social media usage.

    8. Teach About Permanency

    Be sure that your child is aware that what happens in cyberspace stays in cyberspace -- forever! Though your daughter may think she is posting a suggestive photo for a boyfriend or sending a gossipy message to a best friend, it is up to you to teach her that her note can be cut, pasted and forwarded to an infinite number of people. Make a firm smartphone rule that your child should never post a photo or message that she wouldn't want to have "everyone" view.

    On that note, consider setting a rule that your child go "photo free" altogether. The network news is chock-full of stories about kids who have gotten themselves into friendship-destroying, reputation-shattering, future career jeopardizing, family-humiliating situations because of photos they have posted online or via text. If your child is just starting out with his new smartphone, why not prohibit him from posting pictures altogether? At minimum, make sure that the photos they share are not suggestive, sexual, or otherwise risky.

    9. Encourage Kids to Take it Slow

    In our world of instant messaging and constant contact, young people are often tempted to say whatever comes to mind in any given moment. Teach your child the benefits of slowing things down and waiting before they post whatever thought, comeback or reaction is on their mind. Especially if they are feeling an intense emotion like anger or sadness, encourage your child to wait until they have had a chance to think things through and cool their heads before they post a message that can't be taken back.

    10. Know the Lingo

    Are you familiar with these text-friendly acronyms?

    • LOL

  • JK
  • BRB
  • ATM
  • MOS
  • AITR
  • Texting has a language all of its own. Laugh out Loud (LOL), Just Kidding (JK) and Be Right Back (BRB) are common enough, but while most parents take for granted that ATM stands for an Automatic Teller Machine, kids can tell you that it is more likely to refer to their being "at the mall." What's more, kids have dozens of coded signals to indicate to one another that "my mother is standing over my shoulder" (MOS) or that adults are in the room (AITR). The more parents educate themselves about the lingo their kids are using, the better able they are to monitor smartphone use and abuse.

    Signe Whitson is a school counselor, national educator on Bullying Prevention, and author of four books, including 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. For more information on smartphone use and guidelines for preventing cyberbullying, please visit www.signewhitson.com (link is external) and check out the half and full day workshops she offers for students, parents, and professionals.

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