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Timely tips for kids’ safe, smart cellphone use

If it seems like cellphone users are getting younger every day, your eyes are not deceiving you. The number of American children using cellphones nearly doubled between 2004 and 2008, according to Now about 85% of kids under 17 and 61% of kids from 10 to 13 have a cellphone.

Cellphones have become the #1 form of communication for teenagers. And you’ve surely noticed that they text more than they talk: has reported that teens’ average monthly text rate has risen to 2,272.

Teach responsible use

These days most cellphones are sophisticated multimedia devices. So when you give your kids a phone, you may be giving them the power to create text, images and videos that can be uploaded to websites and shown to the world. You’re providing global access that’s portable, private and all but impossible to monitor. This makes owning a good cellphone (and many children have fancier models than their parents) like having a powerful computer in your pocket.

It’s parents’ job to decide when a child is ready for a cellphone and to teach its responsible use. “The best thing parents can do is educate, educate, educate,” said Dr. Regina M. Milteer, of the Academy of American Pediatrics Council on Communication and Media. “They also need to set limits.”

Here are some suggestions from Common Sense Media and other sources.

For elementary school kids

Ask yourself: Does my child really need a cellphone? Is it for safety reasons or because “everyone else  has one”? Can we really afford it?

Make sure young kids understand your rules for cellphone use. Program everyone’s numbers into their phones so they display the caller’s name. Tell them not to answer calls from numbers and people they don’t know.

For preteens

Choose the right plan for calls and texts. Phone plans are wide ranging. If you have tweens and teens, get unlimited texting or you will find yourself facing huge bills.

Explain that cellphones are expensive and extras such as ring tones, sports updates or Web access add to the cost. Be aware also that many new, sophisticated applications can be exploited by people operating in an illegal or deceptive way.

Insist that your children use a cellphone appropriately. For younger kids, it’s not a bad idea to monitor the messages they send and receive (though they will think it is). You might also check the times calls are made to make sure children are acting within your set boundaries.

Discuss cyberbullying. Tell your child to come to you if he or she ever feels bullied. If it happens over the phone, save the messages  and report the situation to your provider. Check your child’s outgoing messages from time to time, to make sure their communications are appropriate.

Tell your kids that sexual talk of any kind is not allowed. Joking  use of sexual language and sexually aggressive speech on a cellphone can be instantly forwarded to anyone out of context and children can get into all kinds of trouble.

Establish real consequences for violations of your rules–like taking away the phone for a week!

For teenagers

Don’t text or talk while driving, biking or crossing streets as a pedestrian. Traffic accidents are the #1 killer of teens.

Have a rule that your kids must pick up your calls. Some teens treat parents’ incoming calls as a nuisance. As long as you are paying the bills, you can say that they must answer when you call.

Have kids review the phone bill each month. Let them see how much they are spending. Perhaps they can help to pay the bill.

Anticipate increased minutes. By the time kids get to high school, the phone is ringing all the time.

Common sense rules for all

Establish rules for use and consequences for breaking rules. Set time and place boundaries. For example: no phones at the dinner table or in a restaurant. Turn cellphones off at bedtime, no texting under the covers, etc.

Emphasize safety. Make sure your kids–of all ages–don’t take calls from a number they don’t recognize or give their phone number  to a stranger.

Practice cellphone etiquette: No rude, abusive, humiliating or sexy texts. No prank calls. No embarrassing photos or videos.

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