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Monitor kids’ cellphones; don’t rely on trust, expert says

We’ve heard from a lot of different experts about how to teach kids to appropriately use social media and avoid cyberbullying and sexting.

Many have told us to be parents and take the phone away or pointed out that kids younger than 13 aren’t even legally allowed to be on social media sites.

The reality is, our kids, even those younger than 13, have cellphones, are using apps, are on social media sites like Instagram and Twitter and are playing video games that connect them to people they don’t know a world away.

As a parent, it’s hard to keep up with all the different apps and sites, passwords and privacy settings. And, we also forget, that it’s something as simple as texting that can do the most harm.

Bob Lotter, a national expert on child safety in mobile technology and creator of My Mobile Watchdog monitoring software, regularly works with law enforcement to catch predators who use technology to lure children. He’s also helped schools navigate what to do when there is a cyberbullying problem.

For him, it’s not enough to educate children about good cyber etiquette; parents also have to monitor what their children are doing.

“They have a lack of maturity to make good decisions,” he says about kids, even after their parents have gone through safety rules.

And parents can’t be expected to know what to do with each application their kids are using. Instead, he encourages parents to add monitoring software to their children’s phones.

“Education alone isn’t putting a dent in this problem,” he says.

Here are some of the things that software should allow parents to do:

  • Control what applications kids can run.
  • Set which hours they are allowed to text or receive phone calls.
  • Monitor texts and phone calls.
  • Manage contacts to make sure they are from a real person their children know.
  • Block inappropriate websites.
  • Monitor photos taken and received.
  • Shut the camera off.
  • Set up the phone to only be able to call parents or a specific approved contact at certain hours and do nothing else.
  • Allow parents to block and unblock apps. (Think: grades are down, no Instagram for you; grades are up, you get to Instagram again or you get to Instagram only in a parent’s presence.)
  • Has anti-hacking measures that don’t allow children to remove the software.
  • Creates a report that is admissible in court.

My Mobile Watchdog is just one of the apps available to parents, Lotter says. He doesn’t care which app parents use as long as they are using something.

The younger a child is, the more parents need to lock down the phone and monitor the way it is being used, he says. The most vulnerable ages for kids to be targets is 13 and 14.

We’ve focused a lot on cyberbullying in recent years, but sexting (sending and sharing naked or suggestive photos) is actually dwarfing cyberbullying, Lotter says. He estimates that one out of every four or five kids has experienced it. We’ve all heard the scenario of the ex-boyfriend sharing photos, but there are also schemes in which complete strangers pretend to be someone kids know. At first they are flirty and harmless, until kids give them the image they want. Then they threaten to distribute the photo if they don’t pay up. Kids also have been caught photographing or recording other kids in locker rooms and bathrooms. They then send those images around school as revenge.

Once the photo or video is out, “it’s never going to disappear,” Lotter says.

Kids also get in trouble for passing along photos they received and can be charged with distributing child pornography even if they didn’t take the photo. And if a parent shows it to another parent or a teacher or principal, they’ve just distributed child pornography. The only groups parents can share such an image with are law enforcement and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he says. Lotter advises parents to delete the image off the phone and then use a monitoring software’s database to take the information to the police.

Lotter also recommends parents have their children sign a contract about the appropriate usage of the phone, ideally before giving their children a phone. It will make rules about phone use more black and white and prevent an endless argument about the phone. When the contract is broken, it’s time to take that phone away.

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