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Five things to do before giving your teenager a smartphone

by Brad Spirrison

For many parents, it is not a matter of if your teenager gets a smartphone but when. According to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly 25 percent of children between the ages of 14 and 17 already have one. And ownership levels across all demographics are only going up.

Of course, there are many reasons to be skittish about giving your teenager a smartphone. Concerns can range from having strangers know where your kids are “checking-in” at any given time, to driving distractions, to voice, text and data fees from your cellular provider that are off the hook.

But if your kid just has to have a smartphone (and you’re willing to oblige), it will help to establish a few key ground rules first. Here are the five things to do before handing over a smartphone to your teenager.

Insist that you (rather than complete strangers) can keep tabs on their location

It is easy for teenagers to share where they are at any given time via Facebook or “check-in” services like foursquare. While it is reasonable for friends and family to know if your kid is at a  concert or local hangout, do you really want this information shared with strangers? While Facebook (in theory) lets users restrict who sees a status or location update, apps like foursquare and others are often co-mingled with Twitter, where virtually everyone can follow any other user’s feed or whereabouts. The safest thing to do is put the kabosh on them checking-in to any place publicly. Short of that, insist that no location is shared beyond a tight network of friends and family that you can monitor at any time.

There is good news about location-sharing services, however. You can use them to track where your kids are regardless of whether they check-in to a place or not. All four major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile) have services that let you track where kids and family members are at all times (assuming they are with their devices). Monthly subscriptions for these services range between $5 and $10, and users can try them out for at least a couple weeks at no charge. There are also a wide variety of third-party apps available to perform similar services. The best one is called Glympse, and can be downloaded at no cost to iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys and Microsoft Windows-based smartphones.

Eliminate the ability to text while driving

Even though it is against the law in many places around the country, teenagers (as is the case with many of the rest of us) regularly text and speak on their phones while behind the wheel. The dangers here are indisputable and car crashes are the number one cause of death among teens. As it is difficult to legislate or explain away the inherent risks of texting while driving, parents should make it technologically difficult or impossible to do so.

Here again, most major carriers have subscription-based services that use the GPS technology found within smartphones to eliminate the ability to text once they are in motion at certain speeds. Consumer Reports recommends two different independent services that either prohibit texting or curb the desire to do so behind the wheel. For $6.99 per month, tXtBlocker reliably eliminates texting capabilities for most smartphones while in motion. Another creative option is DriveSafe.ly, a free service that reads text messages and emails aloud as they are received.

Go with a second line over a prepaid phone

While many parents choose prepaid phones with cheaper plans for their children, it is more prudent to pay more for a second line which offers considerably more parental controls. Not only do second lines provide the location-tracking and text-curbing services described above, but they also set limits on how often they can talk and text in a given month. The Pew study indicates that the median teen user sends out 60 text message per day! So having a plan with limits (or free unlimited options) could help some parents avoid whopper bills. As well, most plans that limit voice minutes let users make exceptions for 911 emergency calls as well as specific numbers where calls are authorized by the owner of the plan.

Have them use Wi-Fi whenever possible for video, games and apps

Most cell phone carriers no longer provide unlimited data, and the top plans for 5GB of data run about $50 per month. You can go with a cheaper plan or avoid expensive over-usage fees by insisting that your teenage kids use wireless Internet whenever possible for data-intensive activities. This is a no-brainer when they’re at home as you are likely already paying for an Internet connection to tap into. So, before they download apps and video clips or begin a marathon session of a multiplayer game, have them make sure the settings are adjusted on their smartphones and confirm they are connected to the home network. Finding Wi-Fi networks is also possible when they are out and about. There are also useful apps available for iPhones and Android devices that will point you to businesses and locations in your area that offer free Wi-Fi.

Stay positive

While there are dangers and costs to confront if and when your teen starts using a smartphone, don’t forget that these state-of-the-art devices also offer a myriad of educational benefits. There are apps that will help them prepare for the SATs and other standardized tests and view three-dimensional renderings of molecules. These are just a few examples. Of course, if you are helping them pay the bill on their shiny new device, the least they can do in return is increase their household chore obligations. Have them download Chore Pad or Laundry Pal and see why smartphone ownership for your teen may actually be worth it.