Kids and Smartphones

Today's kids are practically born with a smartphone in their hands. But that doesn't mean they have any bit of sense when it comes to using it smartly.

In this article, I'll discuss phones and kids from toddler to teen. The issues and problems you'll encounter spanning this childhood spectrum of age are very different, indeed.

Electronic Babysitter

Who among us hasn't handed our phone to a fussy child to quiet them down? Enjoying dinner in a nice restaurant, a long car ride, visiting with a friend or neighbor that drops by, chatting on (another) phone, or just trying to enjoy a simple, quiet bath -- all made easier when you can hand the electronic babysitter to your squealing kid.

Those little fingers can cause more damage than you think. And I don't mean from boogers, peanut butter, or dropping your phone in the toilet. Lots of parents, the mom usually, load up their phones with games and puzzles to entertain restless kids when their interruptions and need for attention is otherwise particularly inopportune.

Open Line of Credit

Would you hand your credit card to your ten year old, send them to Toys-R-Us, and tell 'em to go nuts? That's what you might be doing when you hand your phone to your kids. Most games have in-app purchases that can result in charges to your credit card if you don't take measures to prevent it such as requiring a password before any charge takes place.

Kids also like to experiment. They aren't going to just stay in the game you opened for them. They'll poke around in your email, contacts, Facebook account, and pretty much any other icon on the screen, just to see what it does. And the more the app isn't for them, the more interested they'll be.

It's really not a good idea to let your kid play with your phone. I'd recommend that next time you upgrade, keep your old phone and repurpose it for your kid. Do a factory reset to eliminate any sensitive data then set it up as a new phone and preload it with games and puzzles that you allow for your child. You don't have to keep the phone on your wireless account so there would be no additional monthly cost. Just use the wi-fi connection to install games and such when you're at home. This way, they have their own phone to play with, can't inadvertently (or deliberately) rack up app charges, and can't vandalize the grown-up data on your phone.

Don't let them keep the phone in their possession as though it were their newest toy. Keep it from them, only letting them have it in situations where you'd otherwise let them have your main, real phone. This is easier if you don't let your kid know that you've designated this phone for him or her. As far as they need to know, it's just a second phone that you need -- maybe for work or something. Turn it off when not in use and be sure to keep it charged for the next time you need it for your kids!

The End of Innocence

When that kid reaches high-school, or even late middle-school, his or her hormones are raging, and you the parental unit are at best an inconvenience, that's when the real problems start. Your teen will demand their own phone and chances are pretty good you'll fulfill that demand.

I'm not going to discuss the wisdom of providing a teen their own phone since doing so is usually a foregone conclusion these days, but I will discuss the shit storm of trouble they can get into with it. Teens today are as horny and stupid as we were at their age but the internet allows the consequences of their stupid decisions to be realized swiftly, harshly, globally, and indefinitely.

A Whole New Meaning to Phone Sex

One of the biggest concerns is sexting -- a more or less catch-all term meaning to send explicit messages or naked pictures or videos to one another. Make no mistake, lots of kids do this today. Well over half of phone-owning teens have seen, sent or received explicit messages, photos, or videos.

This is often in the context of a romantic relationship or a flirtatious act. But it's increasingly seen in other contexts such as revenge porn, bullying, or contests in school settings to see who can collect the most pictures or nudes of the most desirable students. Girls, especially, may be assigned a score based on how "hot" they are and the boys that manage to collect the most nudes of such girls are viewed favorably among their peers. It's a powerful motivation to participate in such contests.

Could this be your daughter? Think about it. That picture will live on the internet forever.

Worse, many kids see nothing wrong with it. Sending such messages and photos is part of the teen zeitgeist for many. It's part of teen culture and another way of expressing oneself. Obviously, that's a big problem.

Back in the day, a girl might give a boy a Polaroid snapshot of herself topless. It was a single print with no ready means to copy and certainly no internet to speed distribution. That boy might show his buddies the topless picture, but that was as far as it went. The consequences from these lapses in judgement, indeed if there were any, were brief and minor.

Not today. We are in a perfect storm where the consequences from these same age-old adolescent momentary lapses of judgement can be swift and epic.

One of my favorite movie quotes is from The Shawshank Redemption: "You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory." The opposite of that may well be "You know what wise men say about the internet? They say the internet never forgets." And that is so true. Once something crosses the internet, even if for just a second, travelling from one phone to another, it will live on forever -- often just a search-engine lookup away.

How is this possible? Consider that the internet generates millions of gigabytes of data every day.  Storage is so cheap, plentiful, and ubiquitous that literally every bit of content created -- every picture, video, blog, Facebook post, tweet, etc. -- is saved in multiple places. In search engines, in archives, and on any number of the billions of privately owned computers and devices all over the world. Your teen's nude body -- out there, never to vanish. And possibly revealed later on during background checks, pre-employment screening, or vetting by a potential romantic partner.

How are teens doing this? Text messages, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Instagram, and a smorgasbord of apps designed specifically for facilitating and hiding such activity from the curious and nosy -- including you, dear parent.

The Injustice System

As if the embarrassment and shame from the eventual discovery isn't bad enough, the law has its own punishment in mind. Sexting runs headlong into laws designed to prevent distribution of child porn. Most states have no specific statutes for sexting and prosecutors just consider such activity as so much child porn. A terrible legal quagmire for your kid to find themselves in.

Imagine that an underage kid can be charged with creating and distributing child porn just for photographing and sending an image of his or her naked body to their romantic counterpart -- a conviction that can mean jail time and, worst of all, land the teen on a sex-offender registry for life. That has happened many times. A ruinous, life-altering event for a moment's mostly-innocent bad judgement.

Most kids have no idea of the epic amounts of trouble they can get into. Parents must educate themselves on the laws of the state and county and teach their kids!

Death to America

It's not just sexting that's a problem. Most young people access the internet from their mobile device, out of sight of nosy parents. And though it's not nearly as common as sexting, some teens consume their hours being radicalized for terrorist causes. Either to travel to Syria or similar war-torn country or to commit terrorist acts right here at home.

Terrorist groups like ISIS are expert at social media and online marketing. Their recruiters are young, hip, understand the issues young people experience, they offer money, lend a sympathetic ear, and are endlessly patient as they slowly groom their prospect, bringing them into the fold. Your kid, supposed to be upstairs doing his/her math homework, but instead chatting the hours away via text or other messaging apps with an ISIS recruiter half a world away. This is precisely how western kids are recruited!

No Moralizing

The entire point to this article boils down to a single word:  AWARENESS

The connected life that kids lead today is absolutely foreign to anything their parents understand. It's critical that parents educate themselves on all the ways kids today use the internet with their mobile devices and what they get up to.

Google is your friend.  Use it.