Constant contact

. September 18, 2012.
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I resisted getting my 11-year-old daughter a cell phone.

She was always at school or a function where an adult with a phone was present. Recently, however, she got locked out of a building and was fortunate that another child – who had a phone – was with her. Two days later, she was the proud owner of a cell phone with a texting plan.

It’s partly her Christmas present. But it’s also an acknowledgement that, like it or not, cell phones provide an enhanced safety aspect, making them commonplace among school-aged children.

According to a recent study by Mediamark Research & Intelligence, cell phone ownership among children has increased by 68 percent in the past five years. The most dramatic increase has been in the 10 and 11 year old age group, but children as young as six have had a 33 percent increase in cell phone ownership over that time period.

My daughter has a lot of rules regarding the use of the phone and texting. Mom gave her texting, and Mom can take it away if the rules are not followed. Her cell phone ownership brings up the unsettling proposition that my little girl is now wired into the big, bad world out there. Along with warning her about the creep on the street, I also have to warn her about the creep on the cell phone who could be unwittingly invited into our home.

Brian Dill is the crime prevention officer with the Findlay City Police Department. A big part of his job is teaching kids how to stay safe online- a place where true identities are difficult to determine and where bullying can reach catastrophic levels. Cyber safety includes the computer but also includes seemingly more benign connections such as cell phones and iPod touches with WiFi.

While children use computers and cell phones to chat or play games, Dill says, parents need to also consider that these devices are portals for meeting people online. Facebook requires its users to be 13 years old, but many younger children have Facebook profiles with or without their parents consent. I have found several of my daughter’s friends on Facebook, and their profiles are not private. I know their names, their schools, their ages and their likes and dislikes. Dill says parents should police their children’s Facebook pages — making sure they are friended by their children, know the account passwords and write down the privacy settings on their pages.

Asking questions

Parents should also ask questions about the people emailing, texting or friending their children. Dill says predators pose as children to gain trust, but often they can also appear as an older friend who happens to like all the same things your child does and understands your child so much more than you do. “The biggest red flag is the age difference,” he says. “Why would someone in their 30s want to be friends (on Facebook) with a 14-year-old?”

And the Internet makes bullying easier and more pervasive. Instead of stopping at school, it comes home and just gets worse. “Now it happens through texting on the way home, and in chat rooms at home,” says Dill. “Everyone is so connected now. Kids can’t get it to stop.”

At my home, our computers are out in the open, where I can see the screens. Even use of the iPod touch i restricted to the living room. One of the rules surrounding my daughter’s texting privileges allows me access to review her texts. It’s not foolproof, however. I know she can delete them, and our service provider, Verizon, will not give me access to the contents of her texts without a search warrant. I can see the numbers on our bill, however, and I know the numbers of the friends and relatives she texts frequently. So that provides some safeguard.

Many resources exist online and locally to help parents navigate this new concern of online safety. Dill can be contacted at bdill@findlayohio.com or at 419-424-7282.