Smartphones for the kids? Deciding the right time is a challenge for parents

By KIMBERLY HOUGHTON
Sunday News Correspondent
February 09. 2018 7:09PM

Whether it is to keep in touch with their kids on the go, provide them with a mini-computer for school work or offer them instant entertainment, parents are having to make important decisions on when their children should have their first smartphone. (Kimberly Houghton/Sunday News Correspondent)
Experts: Set up parental controls, make groundrules clear
Experts agree that establishing ground rules and setting up parental controls are important safeguards for children with smartphones.

Parental controls vary by phone model and carrier, but they allow parents to place restrictions on what their kids can do with their phones. Beyond those technical controls, though, it's important for a child to establish and maintain parents' trust that they'll use their phones appropriately.

TeenSafe.com, a subscription service that provides smartphone monitoring capabilities, suggests creating a "contract" between parent and phone-toting youngster covering the following points:

RESPONSIBILITIES:
. Always answer texts or calls from parents
. Keep the cellphone in good working condition
. Keep the phone charged at all times
. Show parents any harassing phone calls or texts
. Show parents calls or texts from unknown people

BEHAVIOR:
. Do not send mean texts to other people
. Do not send or receive call or texts after 9 p.m.
. Do not take or post embarrassing photos of yourself or others
. Do not argue about needing more cell phone minutes

CONSEQUENCES (The cellphone will be taken away as a consequence for any of the following):
. Homework that is not completed and/or turned in
. Chores left unfinished
. Using the cellphone at school
. Ignoring people in order to be on my phone, especially in public places
. Losing or breaking the phone (in this case, the phone would not be replaced)

For teens of driving age, an obvious addition is agreeing not to use the phone while driving.

According to Sandra Norton of the Center for Life Management in Derry, more than 80 percent of children 12 and older have a smartphone. She said many children are becoming obsessed with their cell phones. (Kimberly Houghton/Sunday News Correspondent)

Parents everywhere are facing increasing pressure to purchase cellphones for their children - a device that can be ever useful or completely disruptive for today's kids.

Whether it is to keep in touch with their kids on the go, provide them with a mini-computer for school work or offer them instant entertainment, parents are having to make important decisions on when their children should have their first smartphone.

It's become a common conundrum for parents, and one that can become quite divisive. Everyone has an opinion on the matter, and those opinions are sure to conflict, experts and parents say.

"There was definitely a little bit of social pressure to get him a phone," Jessica Erb of Henniker said of her 15-year-old son.

Erb decided to buy her son a cellphone when he was in eighth grade, a decision that she does not regret. She said he rarely uses his iPad or laptop computer since his smartphone is easily available.

And of course, along with the cellphone comes popular social media sites like SnapChat, Instagram and others.

"Boys and girls use technology differently. He doesn't get bothered by the drama as much," said Erb. "I am finding that it is educating him on the development of his peers."

As a mother, Erb said, she appreciates the GPS feature on his phone that can help her know where he is at all times. For her son, she said the best feature is remote access to all of his grades on Powerschool.

"It is absolutely a personal decision," said Russell McKee of Strafford, adding each child has their own sets of needs and desires associated with cellphones.

McKee and his wife are currently debating when to buy a phone for their 10-year-old son, who is now in fourth grade.

"By fifth grade we will seriously consider it," said McKee, adding he intends to buy an updated iPhone.

McKee agreed that the location feature on cell phones is a huge draw for busy families with children who are coming and going from sports practices or after-school activities.

"I will know exactly when he is up to no good," joked McKee.

Maintaining control

Numerous studies have been conducted in recent years addressing the pros and cons of providing youth with cellphones. Expert opinions vary on the topic about as much as parents differ on the appropriate time.

While a child's age is a relevant factor, Sandra Norton of the Center for Life Management in Derry says it is more important that the cellphone use be monitored, and that parental controls are in place.

In today's society, young people communicate largely through cellphones, and Norton acknowledges that many parents feel their child will be left out if they don't have a smartphone.

In addition, she said many households no longer have landline phones, meaning cellphones are often the only way for a child to call a parent or call for emergency help.

And while smart technology comes with many academic benefits and safety features, it also comes with potential problems for young people, said Norton, clinical director of the children's department at CLM.

"Over 80 percent of children 12 and older have a smartphone," she said, and many children become obsessed with them.

She said children will often be scrolling on their phones in the middle of the night, dealing with negative comments on social media sites or watching inappropriate content they are not emotionally or developmentally ready to view.

"And there is an increase in anxiety with smartphone use," said Norton, explaining children expect immediate responses on their phones, which can sometimes result in negative behavior.

Her advice to parents with cellphones: put limitations on phone usage, monitor it frequently and be sure to have parental controls in place.

James DuMond of Jaffrey says he purchased his son his first cellphone - a flip-phone - when he was 12.

"He pressured us into it," admits DuMond.

Now, his son is in college, but he's still on the family's phone plan, having graduated to an iPhone. "He now has a better phone than I do," said DuMond, who admits the technology is nearly essential in this day and age.

For him, there is a sense of reassurance knowing that his son has access to a phone at all times to reach out for help, if necessary. As long as parents are smart about it by blocking certain content and keeping tabs on the usage, DuMond says the cellphones can be a godsend rather than a curse.

khoughton@newstote.com


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