How to Tactfully Monitor Your Child's Phone Usage

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Ahhh Generation Z (aka: Post-Millennials or, my personal favorite, the iGeneration), a group of kids who have no freaking idea what life was like before the Internet, or smartphones for that matter. To this group, 'apple' was never simply a fruit, but was always the coveted half-bitten symbol adorning the millions of devices you couldn't wait to get your hands on, whether you were 6 or 65.

Most Gen Z'ers spend more time on their personal devices than actually watching TV, a far cry from their parents and grandparents... surprising? It wasn't to me. Needless to say, I am raising a Gen Z'er, and if you think the discussion of 'when do I get to have my own phone' hasn't come up yet with a 6-year-old... think again. I partially blame Apple and their brilliant marketing ploys, and I partially blame other parents who buy their 6 year olds iPhones, causing panic amongst "less-fortunate" friends. But whatever the reason, getting your child a smartphone has become somewhat of a rite of passage. It's like the teeny-bopper version of getting their license. And in essence, it is a license, granting them keys to the largest library of information known to man, all at the touch of their fingertips (with some parental oversight, nudge nudge). 

I know I am not alone in trying to navigate this digital world, and I too, struggle with determining the right age to get my son his first phone (definitely not yet is all I've come up with so far), and once doing so, how do I ensure he stays safe? The world of sexting, cyberbullying, social media suicides, etc. is TERRIFYING, and as much as I would love to shield my boys from it all, realistically, I know that isn't going to happen. So, how then, does a parent jump into this all and not feel completely overwhelmed? Here are some pointers:

What is the right age for your child to get a smartphone

Recent studies show that anywhere between ages 7 and 10 are when children ARE getting smartphones; now, whether or not that is best has yet to be determined as we have not yet seen the long term effects of phone usage that early on in life - basically, we are all one-big-walking science experiment at this point. Ready to be totally terrified? A study conducted of 70,000 children found that sexting began, on average, in fifth grade, and pornography consumption began at, gulp, age 8. That is a second grader, just to put it into perspective (these statistics from a study done by Jesse Weinberg, author of: The Boogeyman Exists; And He's In Your Child's Back Pocket.)

Now before you go running to lock your child up in a closet (without their smartphone), realize that teaching a child how to fish is better than never teaching him at all, thus forcing him to learn from his weird neighbor down the street (I may have slaughtered that saying, but stay with me). Keeping your child sheltered and overly protected will likely do more harm than good. Realize that most of your child's friends will probably have smartphones (as I recently found out when my son told me about Bloody Mary... annoyed eye roll), and that they are bound to see certain images and videos, and to be exposed to less-than-pleasant scenarios at some point. 

No group rules here: judge your child's readiness for a smartphone by their own maturity level, responsibility level, and whether or not they are a little sh*t and, quite frankly, whether or not they deserve a smartphone. You, Mom (or Dad), as payer of the smartphone bill, get to set the ground rules that a phone is a PRIVILEGE, not a right, and can be taken away at any time. Kids are master manipulators, so don't you forget this.  

Be smarter than the apps

First of all, your kid may not remember to brush his teeth every morning, but do not be fooled. Kids are all mini-geniuses in their own right, and if you think that you can outsmart them technologically because you are older, you have some catching up to do. How about this: an app that appears to be a calculator, but when the right pattern of keys is entered, a secret photo album unlocks. Didn't see that coming, did you? Read about these other sneaky apps that will have you saying ay-yi-yi.

All parents, regardless of how tech savvy you think you are, should invest in some sort of cell phone monitoring software. As parent, it IS your right to check-in on what is happening with your child. Setting ground rules up front will help your child feel less like you are spying on them and more like you are trusting them to be responsible, but at the end of the day, you are responsible for helping to keep your child safe. 

Have a zero BS policy 

If dear Johnny is being a little puke or little Susy is being an overly dramatic everything-is-so-embarrassing drama queen, realize that kids are kids, and this is what they do. But if your kiddo is starting to act suspicious, withdrawn, or has an overly possessive hold over his/her smartphone, there may be cause for concern. Again, it is important to remember that having a smartphone is a privilege, not a right. Enforce a very strict zero tolerance policy for activity related to downloading images/apps/videos of subject matter that is strictly off limits, and have a zero tolerance policy for your child going behind your back to try to dismantle parental settings/controls. Just as the Lord giveth, the Lord can taketh away... the Lord being you, in this case. 

Practical monitoring tips

This infographic perfectly sums up how to tactfully monitor your child's smartphone usage and the route for doing so. 

Infographic courtesy of Scott Reddler

Infographic courtesy of Scott Reddler

Your child's first smartphone doesn't have to be bad or scary time. In fact, it can be downright convenient for most parents. There are thousands of age-appropriate apps to help your child with everything from homework, to learning Chinese, to helping write a resume. Proper usage and monitoring is critical though, and when done correctly, will yield an entire household of happy campers.

Happy texting, calling, snapping, streaming, to you.

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