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Ask the Advocate: Your child’s first smartphone

By Francey Hakes

Q: I’ve recently gotten my middle-school-aged daughter her first smartphone.  I feel better because now she’ll be able to reach me anytime she needs me, but I’m also a little concerned because I’ve been reading a lot about the dangers of social media and texting.  What tips can you suggest to help us make this first phone a positive experience for both of us?

A: Good question.  A smartphone can be an investment in safety and personal communication.  After all, many schools no longer have payphones or other ways for parents to be informed band practice was suddenly cancelled and their student is left without a ride home.  But there are also dangers to think about.

In this inaugural Ask the Advocate column, I am going to give parents some useful tips to help protect children who are now fully immersed in this tech-driven world.  At the end, you will have your full KISS certification!  This means you will know all about Kids Internet and Safe Surfing.

The most important tip I can offer to all parents is to establish firm rules for the use of your child’s new smart phone.  The Digital Age is full of information and opportunities, but there are hidden dangers that can be addressed by following some basic guidelines.  Privacy is a critical concept to impart to your child, and one that seems ever more difficult to emphasize in today’s world of reality TV, where the “stars” seem to benefit from outrageous, and often salacious, conduct.  That is certainly not the example we need to set for the kids just coming online.  So, what is privacy as it relates to kids and the digital world?

You and your child should have a very honest discussion about not giving out personal information over the Internet or via text or email  Be very mindful that your idea of personal and your child’s are likely very different.  So, you need to be clear that sharing their last name, school, location, address, or any other identifying information puts them at risk.

And certainly, sharing photos or videos with anyone they don’t already know “offline” is always a bad idea.  “Sexting,” or sending sexually explicit photos/videos via text or email is a growing problem among teens.  Many are being pressured to send such photos or distribute them among friends once they are created.  It is very important that your child understand that there are long term, even legal, consequences for such behavior.  Some prosecutors’ offices around the country have brought formal charges against the creator and distributor of such images, even when they are both teens.  Additionally, such images, once they are sent into cyberspace, are impossible to wipe from the Internet.  It is common for them to reach pedophiles and be traded among them.  These consequences should be explained to your child.  It is a difficult topic, but one that must be broached to keep your child, and their privacy, safe.

Skype, Facetime and other video chat programs can be great for keeping your child in touch with aunts, uncles, grandparents and you. You should make it clear to your child that those are the only people, along with their offline friends, that she should use their videocam capabilities to contact.

Your child’s definition of “friends” might also be different from yours.  To your child, a friend is anyone she “knows” on Facebook, or while gaming.  You must talk to your child about sharing any information with those she knows only online, and that sharing such information is a risk to be avoided.  She should also know that opening emails or texts from people she doesn’t know, or knows only online, brings the risk of computer viruses and other potential dangers.  Stories of an email or text attachment allowing a predator secret access to a child’s webcam abound.  While the odds may be against it happening to your child, why take the chance?

You should also inform your child that people she “meets” and information she comes upon on the Internet are not necessarily reliable.  It is hard to strike a balance between frightening your child and ensuring she knows how to surf safely, but such a balance is important to strike.  An informed child is a better protected child, one who is less likely to be victimized.

The most common victimization of children in the cyber world is through bullying from peers.  It is critical to teach your child the consequences of bullying (called “cyberbullying” when technology is used), to both prevent them from bullying and from being bullied.   Empathy is something that can be taught, and understanding that it is wrong to hurt someone’s feelings is the first step to stopping cyberbullying.  Finally, your child should feel confident they can report to you anything that concerns them while surfing or using their smartphone.  Many teens fail to report being solicited by strangers or receiving inappropriate material for fear they will be blamed, or worse, that their smartphones will be taken away.  The most important lesson to teach your newly digital child is that reporting concerns won’t result in her punishment.  Those lines of communication are the safety lines that will protect your child online and off.

Finally, be aware that almost all social media sites, like Facebook, have a minimum age policy, which is usually 13.  This is done because federal law will not allow online businesses to collect information about a person under 13 online without parental consent.  There’s a maturity factor to think about as well; many children under the age of 13 may not be ready to communicate via social media because they don’t understand its potential pitfalls.  So it’s a good idea to have your daughter demonstrate responsible use of her new smartphone and reach the age requirement before allowing her to use social media.

Francey Hakes is a child protection advocate who served as the first-ever National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction from 2010 to 2012. She was a prosecutor for more than 15 years, serving first as an Assistant District Attorney specializing in crimes against children, then as an Assistant U.S. Attorney specializing in technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation. She has been lead counsel on dozens of trials relating to child homicide and other crimes against children.  She received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science, with a Global Policy Studies Certificate, from the University of Georgia.  Hakes also holds a Juris Doctor from Ohio Northern University.  She is now CEO of her own consulting firm, providing advice, counsel, and expert witness services to firms, law enforcement, governments, industry, and others on national security and the protection of children.  You can follow her on Twitter @FranceyHakes.

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