The 1 Thing You Shouldn't Rely On When Giving Your Child A Cellphone

When it comes to keeping your kids safe online, parental controls aren't your best bet. Here's what actually helps.

If you have a child who’s learned how to speak, it’s only a matter of time before they ask for their own cellphone. A smartphone, and the virtual existence it allows kids to construct and maintain, has replaced a driver’s license as the ultimate ticket to independence.

Sending a child off into the wilds of the internet is at least as frightening for parents as watching a teen take off in the family car. There is the looming fear that one slip could precipitate big consequences — potentially lifelong ones.

Forbidding teens from having a phone is usually impractical by the time they reach high school. You’ll want to be able to reach them consistently, and, without a phone, they’ll be cut off from a whole mode of communication with their peers.

Instead, parents face the challenging — and never-ending — task of teaching their kids how to use their phones safely and in a manner consistent with their family’s values. There is no way you can prevent children from ever finding anything inappropriate or unsettling online, nor is it possible for you to monitor their every move. You’ll want to teach them both the rules of the road and what to do in case of emergency.

To do so, you should rely less on monitoring what your child is doing and more on mentoring them in the safe use of technology, according to Devorah Heitner, author of “Growing Up In Public: Coming Of Age In A Digital World.” Heitner spoke with numerous experts, educators and teens themselves to understand what life is like for kids who’ve grown up as digital natives.

HuffPost recently spoke to her about what parents can do to keep kids safe online — and some of her suggestions may surprise you.

Don’t ban phones or social media.

When you look at recent statistics — particularly those involving girls — it’s natural that your instinct is to keep your child away from the source of danger. A Common Sense Media survey released this year found that 58% of girls ages 11-15 who use Instagram reported that they had been contacted by a stranger on the platform in a way that made them “uncomfortable.” About as many (57%) reported the same issue on Snapchat. There is also the correlation (revealed in research conducted by Meta, the company that owns both Facebook and Instagram) between social media use and depression, eating disorders and suicidal ideation.

But, absent a serious mental health condition, Heitner doesn’t believe it’s necessary to forbid your teen from using social media or specific apps. And once your child enters high school, it’s probably not feasible for them to live a phone-free life (although a few teens have decided they’d like to try). They’ll be using their phone for school-related purposes as well as social ones.

She also points out that most kids don’t experience the internet for the first time when they’re handed their own phone. Most have lots of practice using their parents’ devices or their own tablets to play games and send messages.

We can imagine this trajectory as a sort of “graded pool” in which gradually “you’re going deeper and deeper,” Heitner said, rather than suddenly throwing kids into the deep end by handing them a smartphone.

Since all kids mature at their own pace, you know best when your child is ready to take the next step, or if perhaps they need an intermediary step like a watch or “dumb” flip phone they can only use to make calls and send text messages.

Don’t rely on parental controls to keep kids safe from online dangers.

When you do take the step of getting your child their own phone, don’t be lulled into a sense of complacency by the available parental controls. To extend the pool metaphor, imagine these as a set of arm floaties you might use with a toddler who doesn’t yet know how to swim. Yes, they will most likely keep your child afloat — but that doesn’t mean you can take your eyes off your child while they’re in the water.

In a Common Sense Media guide to parental controls, writer Caroline Knorr lists some of the digital guardrails you can set in place for your kids: turning on Google SafeSearch, blocking specific websites and using third-party services such as Bark, Circle, TeenSafe or WebWatcher.

But Knorr notes that these services have some major limitations. Your child will have to provide you with the information and passwords to all of their social media accounts in order for them to be monitored, and it’s common for kids to have multiple accounts, some of which they keep hidden from parents, for this very purpose. She also explains that a monitoring service will alert you if your child uses specific words, such as “drugs” — but we all know that teens use code words to talk about anything their parents have forbidden.

“Any kind of monitoring can undermine the trust that you are trying to build with your teen — that foundation that leads them to come to you when there is a problem.”

Even if you were committed to staying on top of every new bit of slang and updating your monitoring apps, there’s no way you could catch every instance of your teen messaging about something potentially dangerous.

Unlike when they’re little and in the pool, you can’t literally keep your eyes on them at all times online — or in real life, for that matter.

“Your best defense is really the relationship that you have with your kids, that they will come to you” when they stumble upon inappropriate content or when a problem arises, Heitner explained.

Don’t monitor your kids without informing them.

Heitner is similarly cautious when it comes to geo-tracking apps like Life360 that allow parents to see where their children are — or, at least, where their phones are — at all times. Following a little blue dot on a screen is yet another way that parents calm their fears about harm coming to their child.

But location tracking has its limitations — and some pretty significant downsides. As Heitner points out in her book, seeing a blue dot at the library doesn’t tell you whether your kid is inside the study room or out back vaping.

She says she would “not over-invest in it as a way to feel safe,” and that geo-tracking “can increase anxiety and misunderstanding rather than decrease [it].”

More importantly, any kind of monitoring can undermine the trust that you are trying to build with your teen — that foundation that leads them to come to you when there is a problem.

“Kids really resent” parents monitoring everything they say (emails, texts, etc.), Heitner said, adding that it “doesn’t give you what you think it is going to yield in terms of understanding what’s going on with your kids.”

If you are using any monitoring services for location or content, you should let your teen know about these upfront.

“Some parental controls can be installed without your kids knowing, but Common Sense Media doesn’t recommend it (unless you have a really serious issue with your kid and you need to monitor discreetly),” writes Knorr. “At some point, you’ll need to discuss what you find. And that’s a lot easier to do if your kid already knows you’re monitoring them.”

Do engage in an ongoing dialogue about social media use and how to navigate tricky situations.

So, what does it look like to help your kids use technology well rather than catch them misusing it?

Try sitting down with them and having them take you on a tour of their phone. You might begin by having them show you how to play their favorite game.

What apps do they use most? Do they post or just look? What kinds of posts do they like to see, and why? Are they in any group texts? What’s useful about these?

This gives you an opportunity to talk about how they might react in specific situations. “What are you going to do if everyone’s like, ‘Let’s restart this group text, but leave out Devorah?’” Heitner offered as one example. Another would be saying something critical of someone’s body size or ethnicity.

It’s important to walk your child through some of these potential scenarios before they even begin using their phone.

“You want to answer some of these questions before you’re even in it,” Heitner said. Talk to your child about what they can do if another child crosses a line or shares a video or photo of someone without their consent.

When the phone is new, you can walk them through downloading the apps they want to use and adjusting the settings — for example, setting up private accounts so that people they aren’t friends with can’t find them. “Say your kid wants to do an app like Snapchat, [say,] ‘Let’s look at the safety stuff together. Let’s turn off your location ... let’s really look at this and talk about why some of these things exist and how they can make you feel.’”

Likewise, you’ll want to make a plan to protect your child’s own mental health when it comes to using digital media. Heitner suggested questions such as, “How do you help yourself feel better if you feel left out? What do you do if a group text is driving you crazy?”

Share how you take care of yourself by stepping away from social media when you feel it’s impacting your well-being, and model doing so. Lay the groundwork for your child to feel comfortable coming to you when something does happen that upsets them, whether it’s a social slight or an urgent concern involving a peer.

In “Growing Up In Public,” Heitner writes: “Not using the technology available to us to track our children requires a leap of faith, a belief that we’ve armed our kids with enough tools to start facing the world on their own, in preparation of adulthood.”

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