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Phone Safety

Norm & Kristina Nelson
(Editor's note: usually I write a mess of words and then ask Norm to clean it up and edit it for publication.  This topic is important enough to both of us that we wrote it together.)

On social media lately, I've had at least five friends ask for phone advice. Their kids are about the same age as mine, usually with the oldest entering middle school.  They're debating if it's time to get a smartphone."What do you do when you give your kid a phone?" or "What rules do you have in place?" or "What works for your family?" These are great questions. Here are a handful of things we've discovered through trial and error during recent years, and from asking our friends the same questions.

First let's talk about kids who don't have phones:
This is Amber "playing" on her pretend phone, which is actually an old Palm Pilot.  Remember those? Also notice her stash of paper, tape, markers, etc. She's my secretary girl for sure, and whenever any office supplies go missing (ie currently 3 pairs of scissors) she's usually guilty. She likes to imitate all the big people in her world.  Recently I asked her to do something and she said, "Just a minute, I'm almost done with my game." She doesn't actually play anything on her "phone," but apparently she's heard that line a hundred times.  Hence this blog post. Just to reiterate: this photo was taken of her pretending to use a phone. Her face is two inches from a screen with nothing on it. It’s a sobering reminder of the attraction these types of devices have for our kids, at the youngest ages.

Karly is in late elementary school, and she doesn't have a phone because she's too young. The school is within walking distance and we live in a safe neighborhood, so it's unnecessary.  She has a school issued iPad which is a blessing and a curse. One day she did a search which led me to realize the following:  It's time for a refresher on the facts of life (her search wasn’t anything horrible, just a good reminder for a Mom). I wrote about it a few years ago over here: The Birds and the Bees. Remember how it's an ongoing conversation?  Having "the talk" with your son or daughter begins at age 8 and it's not just one talk, it's a dozen talks at different times and in different places.  The two main books we've gone through again lately:

She needs to understand more about puberty, and she needs to understand that when (not if) she sees bad stuff online, I need to hear about it. Both of these books are great conversation openers. Usually the best time to have one-on-one conversations with Karly is at about 9:04 pm when I'm saying good night to her in her room. Everybody else is either asleep or about to be asleep, and she can finally ask questions and we talk about things that are happening to her body, things that are going on at school, etc. She'll be 11 soon, and the little girl stage is almost gone.  She's ready to be a young lady, whether or not I'm ready for her to make that leap. But I can't freeze time, and next year she'll be in middle school. We get to enjoy one more year of elementary school with my sweet daughter.

PS If your son or daughter is ten and you haven't started this conversation, it's not too late. Start where you are, and you can gauge how much information they're ready to process.

Moving on to teenage kids. A few years ago, one boy said something like this:
boy: "I wish we had a million dollars."
me:  "Why??"
boy: "Because then I could have a smart phone."
To which I replied: "Your not having a phone has NOTHING to do with money.  I'm trying to shield you from pornography for as long as I can.  In fact, I'd be surprised if you hadn't seen any pornography yet."
boy: Thoughtful look on his face.

I don't remember everything we said after that point, but I will tell you this: Giving a middle school kid a phone is risky business.

One of the best articles I've read lately is by Joy Jones, Primary general president.  She has an awesome summary for parents on some of the same stuff I'm talking about today. Her article is called Addressing Pornography: Protect, Respond, and Heal. I've included the link here.  I love her for writing this. I echo every word she says.

If your child rides a bus to school, you need to ask detailed questions:
Who do you sit with? What are y'all looking at on your phones? Who takes the most pictures?  Do you ever send them to friends? Who gets the most snaps every day? (PS I do not like Snapchat.)
This is Shad playing on his brother's phone one day when we were waiting at a museum downtown. Notice little sister trying to get everybody's attention? (That's probably a topic for another post, about how to pay attention to the people around you instead of the screen in front of your face.)  Notice how he’s on his brother’s phone in every picture – going back to how magnetic smartphones are to kids.

While I'm talking about phones and phone safety, I have to say a word about a related issue. The bullying that goes on digitally is off the charts. For example:
A few years ago on the bus, one junior high student took a picture of another friend, it was benign.  But then they added a caption like, "Look at this idiot," and sent it to a handful of friends. These were good kids, but very immature and insecure. They don't mean to be complete fools, but their age and need for boundaries almost ensures that they'll do stupid stuff. So parents must ask detailed questions every day. There's a great song called Apex Predator from the Broadway show Mean Girls, it's equally applicable to boys and girls. If you haven't heard it before, go listen to it.  And then ask your son or daughter the following: Which of those roles applies to you?  Are you ever the apex predator?  Who hitches a ride with the top kid? Your child's responses might surprise you. And they might play different roles in different friend groups.

I've accepted that there are things I can't control outside of my house. But there are a handful of things we've realized that make life better at home, so we have a few simple rules in our house.

#1 No phones upstairs.  This includes any gadget with a screen. No iPads, no nothing upstairs.  This means that all homework is happening in common areas downstairs. From the kitchen I can see and hear most of what's going on.

Part of the "no phones upstairs" rule includes the following: no phones in bedrooms or bathrooms. Mom and Dad are exempt from this rule (Dad’s job includes responsibility for a 24-hour emergency dispatch center), but the kids know it and obey it.

#2 All phones sleep in the kitchen. The chargers are all plugged in around my kitchen office area.
When I say goodnight to the kids at 9pm, it means all digital homework is done.  If there's any studying or reading left that they can do without their phone or iPad, that's fine.  They can read all night if they want, but they're usually tired so they sleep.

We've had friends who granted too much freedom too soon, and then they realized their teenager was up all night exchanging texts and not sleeping. I talked about insomnia over here, but one of the best ways to preserve the body's natural circadian rhythms includes observing this rule:  no phones or bright screens in front of your face from 10pm-6am.

#3 The family computer is in a common area.  Our kids have a separate account on our computer, but we make sure everyone can see the screen when anyone is using it.

#4  Our phone rules apply to friends. When friends come over, we tell them the first rule about no phones upstairs, and they're fine with it. This is one additional layer that protects kids from a lot of trouble, and we usually also limit time with friends in bedrooms behind closed doors, just to be extra safe.

#5 Going back to Norm’s days working for software companies, he learned early on that there is a big difference between what parents can do to protect their kids depending on the type of device they’re using.  In short, Apple and Android have very different approaches and options for parental controls.  Norm and Cade have an Android because the open-source platform allows for more flexibility (more details below under Accountable2You).  I've used an iPhone because it’s easier for me, but our general recommendation is to use Android as much as possible for your kids.  The apps mentioned below work much better to protect your kids.

Another way to look at is if Apple’s definition of parental controls matches your definition, then you’re set.  But if you want something more or different than what Apple offers in their operating system, you’re generally out of luck.  For that reason, since Norm is the techy one in our house, we will use Android phones for our kids.  The school district provides iPads and we, unfortunately, have to trust their filters and blockers.  Norm has familiarized himself with iOS options for parental controls and enables those with the kids, but it’s still largely out of our control.  That’s less than optimal, but we don’t have much choice in Texas public schools.

Okay, so you've decided your son or daughter is ready for a phone. What's the next step?

Our older son got his first smartphone at age 15. Yes! You heard me right. We made him wait until his 15th birthday to get his smartphone.  Lucky for him, that was in the fall of his freshman year. However, technology changes so quickly that you can't make a hard fast rule that will apply to everybody. Norm did a bunch of research and found sample teenager device contracts online. He took the two he liked best, then edited and created one contract that works for our family. Mom, Dad and son each signed the teenager device contract. One detail that works for us: the phone is his but since we pay the monthly service fee, we reserve the right to turn it off, disable any app at any time, etc. Having the contract is nice, but we also have to be consistent in holding Cade to it.  Luckily Cade is great and we haven’t had any conflicts over it, but we’re sure that will change as we run 3 more kids through our system.

We like the following three things for filters, accountability software, and monitoring screen time usage.

a. Net Nanny is a great filter for the home computer. (We've actually let this one lapse recently, but when we've had it, I'm the admin.) There's a monthly fee, and yes it's worth it. They send emails with good information on current issues. I love Net Nanny.

b. Accountability software is different from a filter.  It gives me a daily report of what websites have been used on any of our devices.  If somebody accesses objectionable content, it sends a text right away.  It's kinda creepy and awesome at the same time. I was doing a search for something the other day (looking at data about pornography usage), and it sent a text to Norm.  He looked up and asked me what I was looking at on the computer. Good, I'm glad it works!  We like Accountable2You.

Accountable2You works differently for Android than iOS, because iOS is a closed platform.  This restricts third party apps having the access in iOS that they do in Android.  For more details, go here and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Accountability software also allows parents to set behavior expectations with teens and then allow them to choose to live up to it or not.  While filters are valuable and have their place, they also remove your teen’s agency.  Some day your teen won’t live at home and while we want to protect them, if they’ve never had the choice but to be good, you can’t fully trust that they will avoid bad content when they’re on their own.  Our goal is to build agency, responsibility and discipline, not remove it entirely.

c. Screentime is an app we like for my older son's android phone.  Screentime allows us to set schedules for when he can and can’t use his phone, monitor time spent on certain apps, block any apps we don’t like, set max screen time for playing games per day, allow more screen time as certain tasks or chores are completed, etc.  One of our favorite features is that it can automatically block new apps, which is valuable in today’s day and age.  Screentime says it works on iOS as well, but like Accountable2You it may not be as functional.  They also offer GPS tracking and web filtering, but so far we’ve used them for the app and schedule management.

These three tools, along with being deliberate about which OS you use for your children, the teenager device contract and vigilant parental supervision, form the comprehensive tool set that allows us to feel that we’re being responsible parents and setting our kids up for success.  We know we can’t be perfect and that our kids are still going to see stuff we would prefer they didn’t.  There’s no way to 100% prevent that, so our goal instead is to prevent unhealthy habits from forming, becoming a huge time and energy drain for our kids and even preventing addictions from forming. 

The last piece of the puzzle is the most important – relationships.  It is so, so important for you to form relationships of trust with your kids.  No piece of technology will be as important as your kids feeling that they can trust you enough to tell you they saw something they shouldn’t.  If they feel that they’re only going to be punished or shamed, they will hide it from you.  Please, please, don’t let technology replace your role as a parent.  In our home, Kristina is the one who the kids will turn to when they need to talk.  I’m so grateful she has that relationship with them and that they have trusted her.

Finally here are a few phone tips for moms, things that my friends have shown me or pointed out:

When you set up your phone, you can go into the settings area and disable adult content. It's probably different for each phone, and I'm not the best person to ask for how to do it. But it's a necessary step if you ever let your children hold your phone, send a text for you while you're driving, etc.

Let's say you have a toddler and you want to let them use an app on your phone for a few minutes.  On an iPhone, you can turn on "Guided Access" by doing a triple click on the home button. This locks the app in place, and makes it impossible to use the browser, take a photo, send a wonky text,  etc. It's pretty useful. Then when you're done, triple click again, enter the code and your phone is back to normal.

One privacy precaution I've learned: whenever you leave the house, turn off the wifi and the bluetooth.  Hackers love it when people leave these on all the time.

So to sum things up. Phones are a blessing and a curse.  Our kids need to learn to use technology well, while they're in our home, but we set limits to keep them safe.  The main things we're trying to protect from are addiction: addiction to pornography, and addiction to time consuming games. (We're trying to prevent bullying too, but that's impossible.  We can only teach our kids to be kind, and then hope that kindness is returned.)  Our kids' brains are a priceless asset, and they don't realize all the traps and pitfalls associated with gadget usage. Sadly, too much freedom too soon is a setup for disaster. Be wise, be careful, do your research. We hope some of these ideas are helpful.

Post Script
August 2021
S waited until his 15th birthday to get his first phone. It was in the spring of his freshman year at Marcus, and he took a lot of crap (even from teachers) from people who couldn't believe he didn't have one. The best workaround was using the iPad for email. For example, there were many times I picked him up after band practice or at M9 and he would email me his exact location. Though inconvenient, it worked. He now has an Android which he wishes was an Apple, but hey, at least he finally got a phone. Accountable2You lets me know about the hundreds and hundreds of messages going back and forth.  Even more effective is the random, "Hey, please hand me your phone," where I just read through a bunch of stuff that went on that day. 

Also good news about LISD, they used to allow Twitter on the kids' devices but blocked it fall semester either last year or the year before. 

K has now entered middle school full time, no more virtual plus like last year. She wants a phone in the worst way, because she's certain she's left out of the group text strings from kids at church or school. My biggest problem with moving our "must be15 years old to get a phone" rule is the MUTINY that would ensue from the big brothers if we bend the rules for the next kid in the line. (We will almost certainly change this rule over the next few years.)

As of this current edit, A will not be a phone owner for many, many years. 


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