What Is Your Child Packing On Their Phone?

A couple of weeks ago my son, who is in his freshman year, came home with a troubled look on his face. "Can I talk to you about something?" he asked.

During our short conversation, I learned that while at school that day, two other students with whom he had a passing acquaintance with, told him they had something they wanted him to see on their cell phones. Finding a quiet corner, they flipped open their screens to reveal pictures of hard-core pornography. My son was not impressed, and bothered by what he saw.

Coincidentally, I was in the midst of preparing a keynote speech for a convention of technology teachers. This insight led me to add an additional point to my presentation about why kids want to take cell phones to school: To conceal otherwise prohibited content.

In an informal survey I have done, it seems kids are using these little devices for a growing number of devious activities. Aside from nudity on the two-inch screen, many students admit to using the discreet text-messaging capabilities for not only arranging meetings after school (which are sometimes gang related) but for passing answers during exams. One article I read said the cameras on phones (almost every cell phone has one these days) were becoming tiny digital copying machines. With a click, you can take a photo of an exam and share it with friends. Finally, the phones are popular items for thieves to target.

But when schools have tried to ban the phones, it’s not just the students that complain. Parents in cities where phones are prohibited have written letters and even staged demonstrations opposing the restrictions. The most vocal moms and dads were in the nation’s largest school system after the portable devices were being taken from students during weapons checks. Parents in New York City insisted their children needed phones in the event an emergency was to happen. They also like the freedom of being able to contact their kids in case a soccer game is rescheduled or other issues arise.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a wide discrepancy between the parents’ understanding of what the phone is for and what the child actually uses it for. Of course, the cell phone companies are the last to complain about the situation, as both young and old agree they want phones, but for different reasons.

Obviously these phones are more than simple communication devices. They are, in fact, miniature media playback units. From this perspective, I think some parents need to reconsider carte blanche attitudes toward cell phones. Even if your child is helping to pay the bill, that little device may not be doing him or her any favors, and may be interfering with other students’ ability to concentrate in school.

If your child is a regular user of a cell phone, consider some steps you can take to ensure it is being used appropriately. Begin with checking the monthly statement to see when the phone is being used, and who is being called. Unfortunately, most cell phone service providers don’t provide details about text messages, which are often a more popular form of communication with phones than are traditional voice calls. A child or teen with deft fingers can tap out cryptic messages from a phone concealed under a desk at an amazing speed.

A few providers are now offering a service that allows a parent to put dialing restrictions on the phone. This may cost a few extra dollars each month, but may save your phone-happy kid from failing math or from racking up a huge bill of overage charges.

Next, see if your child is willing to share what they actually have stored on the phone. Most phones can play music and cameras are common. See if they will share their playlist and what they have been taking pictures of. Some phones are now offering video cameras. Downloading music videos, full-length movies and even live television are services showing up across the country. Of course, there is no V-chip in a cell phone, so parents are powerless to place a "filter" on what their kids can view.

Finally, consider whether your child truly needs to have a phone at school. Emergency services depend on cell phones when a tragedy strikes. If every child had a phone, and they all connected at the same moment, it could hamper emergency rescue attempts. It might be better to find out what your school’s policy is for passing personal messages from your home or office to students.

In a sense, calling these little gadgets "phones" is a misnomer. They are fast becoming portable radio/video/music/video game devices. With Apple’s iPhone about to debut, you can bet wireless entertainment is going to become even more popular. Parents may want to take the time to consider how they will handle this new onslaught of media penetration in their children’s lives.

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