The Joy of Text: A Parents' Guide
When you bought your child a cell phone, you probably thought he would use it to make phone calls. Wrong! The most popular use of cell phones (after checking the time) is texting. This successor to chat means sending short, often cryptic messages, to another phone.
Teens and pre-teens like texting because, unlike a phone call, it’s quick and can be done surreptitiously while you are doing something else. The code-like messages are fun (especially when they are unintelligible to adults). And micro-blogging sites like Twitter let kids use text messages to keep an entire network informed about the minutiae of their lives.
For all these reasons, texting has become the preferred method of communication for most 13-17 year olds, according to recent surveys (see sidebar). Research has found that a typical teen spends more than three hours a day texting during the school year and sends almost 3,000 messages a month. One third of teens send more than 100 text messages daily.
Many parents are unsure about how to supervise all this activity. The good news is that, unlike chat, which often happens in online “rooms” with strangers, texting is usually a way of keeping up with real life friends. Still, texting occurs on a mobile phone, so kids can do it anywhere at anytime and that makes parents understandably anxious.
Many phone companies are responding to this anxiety with parental controls. Among other things, these controls allow parents to block text messages from certain sources (including spammers), limit phone use to specific hours, prevent purchases and even obtain a detailed log of text messages.
The features vary hugely from carrier to carrier so it’s best to ask before signing up for service. (You can find out what’s available by going to a phone carrier’s website and typing “parental controls” into the search box.)
If a carrier doesn’t provide adequate controls, parents can supplement them with surveillance programs such My Mobile Watch Dog. This service records text messages as well as numbers called and websites visited.
Valuable as these controls may be, most parents simply don’t have the time or patience to do anything more than spot check the text messages their kids are sending. That’s why it’s so important for teens to develop good common sense habits for using text. Here are some things you’ll want to discuss:
Expense. Some families discover their carrier charges for each text message only after getting a nasty phone bill. Although your child can control the number of messages she sends, many plans also charge for messages received. Unlimited text messaging is the obvious answer, but it usually costs more. Consider having your child earn the extra money to pay for the extra service.
Safety. It may seem obvious that texting and driving don’t mix, but one insurance poll found that 67 percent of teens admitted to texting behind the wheel. (See sidebar.) To protect your child, sign a pact stating that neither of you will read or send messages while driving. If a message is urgent, pull over.
Courtesy. Teens like texting because they can do it anywhere, anytime. But there are settings in which texting should be suspended so a young person can devote his entire attention to real people. Most schools now expect students to leave cell phones in their lockers because it’s impossible to teach a class, much less administer a fair exam, when kids are texting under their desks. Parents may want to make similar no-texting rules about family dinners and church services.
Discretion. You can tell your child not to text with strangers, but is someone who’s a friend of the guy you met at an away football game a stranger? A better rule is don’t text about sex. Following this rule makes it much less likely that a teen will be groomed or seduced by a predator. And it eliminates the risk that a message your child thought was private will be forwarded to everyone in the 8th grade.
Kindness. Because texting isn’t face-to-face, kids may send and forward messages and photos that they later regret. Remind your child that all communication, regardless of the medium, should be respectful and considerate. Encourage your child to follow the F2F (face-to-face) rule: If you wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, don’t put it in a text message.
Overuse. For some kids, texting can become obsessive, interfering with schoolwork, sleep and other essential activities. Parents should also be aware that excessive texting, especially with one person, may be a sign that a teen is in a controlling or predatory relationship. The quickest way to help a teen get a grip is to “borrow” the phone during homework, at bedtime or before family outings.
Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer specializing in family technology.