I recently heard that a kid, close to my heart, was getting a smart phone for his 11th birthday and I have to admit I was horrified.

According to these international stats “Cell phones are kids’ new must-have accessory”

  • Cell phones are the #1 form of communication for teens (Pew, 2010).
  • More kids have cell phones than ever before, including 31% of 8- to 10-year-olds, 69% of 11- to 14-year-olds and 85% of 15- to 18-year-olds (Kaiser, 2010).
  • Teens text more than they talk — averaging 3,146 text messages a month, compared with 203 calls (Neilsen, 2010).
  • 1 in 3 teens use their phones to browse the Web (Harris Interactive, 2009).

Even with these facts, my gut feeling is that 11 is still just too young. I realize that there are situations where it’s convenient for kids to have phones – most importantly if there’s an emergency, but also to let parents know if tennis practice is running late, or that they’re safe and hanging out with friend X. The problem that I have with kids of this age having access to cell phones is the responsibility that we put on them by doing so, and does the convenience of these children having a cell phone positively outweigh the risks that they are exposed to.

“When you hand kids phones today, you’re giving them powerful communications and production tools. They can create text, images, and videos that can be widely distributed and uploaded to Web sites. They can broadcast their status and their location. They can download just about everything in the world. If you think your children’s technological savvy is greater than their ability to use it wisely, pay attention to the gap. Times may have changed, but parenting hasn’t. We’re still the parents. And it’s our job to say “no, not yet.”  Source:  http://www.commonsensemedia.org.

It’s a tough reality that has difficult questions which have to be asked and addressed. Cell phones are here to stay, information is accessible every where we look and let’s face it – life is very, very different from when we were 11 to what 11 year olds are faced with today. But lets not forget that they are still kids and lets keep them kids for as long as we can!

My fear is that even if these cell phones are provided for a specific use – emergencies or for gaming for example, well – all it takes is one dodgy ‘free download’ of a game for your child to be exposed to an environment that is extremely unsuitable for a child. Once a child has been exposed to let’s use the extreme example of porn in the internet (and let’s face it, we’ve all stumbled on it when searching for something completely unrelated!), there’s just no taking it back. Kids are also naturally curious and don’t realize the impact of being exposed to this adult world can have on them.

I think it’s also important to ask what the phone is being used for – if it is for emergency contact or to phone a handful of people when necessary then are you limiting the airtime per month? If it’s going to be used as a gaming platform then certainly limit airtime and make it known that the phone is meant as a gaming platform and nothing else. Whatever the reason, make sure you are comfortable enough with the handset so that you can monitor the activity on the phone on a regular basis.

I asked @Vodacom whether it was possible to protect kids in this space and their response was that it ‘is possible 2 implement protective measures 2 protect children from being exposed to illegal & inappropriate content’ – and provided this link to further information on their Adult Content Management page. (It’s a free service).

Speaking of Adult Content Management – did you know that Facebook has an age limit of 13 years? According to research that a colleague of ours recently did in South Africa ( “Generation Y in South Africa – A Short Study) 50% of the Gen Y that were interviewed (average age of 18) use facebook as a search engine – makes you think! What you use Facebook for and what your 13 year old use it for could be two completely different scenarios.

Which leads me onto the next question – perhaps the answer isn’t just whether your kids are ready for the responsibility and awareness that being exposed to the internet brings, but also, perhaps more importantly how are you teaching your children to interact in this space. What responsibility are you, the parent, taking on? Yes, at times it seems that technology is part of these kids DNA and it’s hard to believe you can teach them new stuff but just as you would teach your children how to interact on a social level, not to speak to strangers, etc, you should also be teaching kids the same principles in the online space.

How you ask? With a lot of effort is my answer! It’s going to be tough – you’re going to have to learn fast and you’re going to have to learn a lot! You’ll have to move out of your comfort zone – I dare you – install and use MXit on your cell phone, get onto Twitter, interact with your kids on Facebook,  go and download a game onto your cell phone, see how it’s all done. See what your kids are exposed to and how you deal with it all.

Connect with your kids here, teach them, get comfortable in their space. Beat them at their own games, and perhaps with more knowledge and information-sharing between families the technology and content that is out there won’t be so scary for all of us.

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