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What Parents Need to Know About Texting
What Parents Need to Know About Texting There’s a generation gap in the way cell phones are used:

Parents talk and their children text. Kids talk too, of course, but more often they use their phones to send text messages or pictures. According to Nielsen research, texting on mobile phones is now more common than calling. In one 3-month period of 2008, users aged 13-17 averaged 1,742 text messages monthly compared to just 231 mobile phone calls.

Teens and pre-teens have mastered texting technique and its sometimes obscure lingo. They leave most of their parents far behind in this respect. But they are not always skilled at protecting themselves from the threats that come with this technology. Parents need to understand these risks, which are serious and can have long-lasting effects.

It’s public—and for keeps

If there’s one lesson that children need to know, it is that no text or picture is private once it’s sent. Not only can it be passed along to countless strangers, via other phones or the Internet, but you can never be sure it won’t turn up again.

“You have to understand that, once it leaves your phone, you have no control over where it’s going to go,” says Julie Bruns, a prosecuting attorney in Dayton, Ohio. (Bruns oversees cases involving “sexting,” the posting of sexual language and nude or semi-nude pictures via cell phone.) “Once it gets on the Internet, you have no control over it.”  

Psychologist Susan Bartell, author of the book Top 50 Questions Kids Ask – 3rd Through 5th Grade, says even 4th graders understand e-mail and can be shown how “any picture that you take with your phone can end up on the Internet.” At that age, Bartell adds, they can be told not to take a picture of themselves or anyone else without clothes on. They should also know not to take a picture of anybody (themselves included) doing anything that they would get in trouble for if an adult found out.

As kids get older, the message needs to be more explicit. Never, for instance, send a picture of yourself or anyone else using drugs or alcohol. They also need to be on guard with phone users around them. Bartell says they should be told, “Don’t let people take pictures of you in compromising positions. If they take a picture, tell them immediately to delete it from their phone.”  

Sexting and self-esteem

Bruns, head of the juvenile division under Montgomery County’s prosecutor, runs a diversion program to counsel young people involved in sexting. She says she sees about 20 to 30 cases of sexting in a given school year, mainly in the 12-15 age group. Typically, girls take nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves for a boyfriend, thinking that he would never pass it on to anyone else.

The issues here go beyond naivete and carelessness with technology, she says: “The level of self-esteem of girls who engage in this kind of conduct is concerning.” Bartell says parents need to talk with girls about sexting much as they should talk with them about sex. She suggests the message should be about “respecting your own body” and not giving in to pressure from boyfriends.

Setting limits

Parents can help protect their children by setting rules for when and where cell phones are to be used. Marian Merritt, an Internet safety advocate at Symantec Corp., says parents can prevent use of cell phones at night by insisting that the phones be charged overnight outside the child’s room. She also advises parents to know all the passwords on their child’s mobile device.

Cell phone service providers also can help. “Some have robust systems for limiting sites visited, and also have the ability to shut phones off during certain hours,” Merritt says. She urges parents to check with the providers first before buying third-party products that promise to monitor or control kids’ cell phone use.

Staying in touch by learning to text

No product is more crucial than what Merritt calls “the software our children carry between their ears.” To keep their children safe, parents should communicate with them early and often. Learning to communicate in the kids’ own medium can make it easier.

Learning to text and then using that technology to stay in touch with their children gives parents at least 2 benefits.

  • It keeps them in the loop about what their kids are doing and thinking.
  • It builds a bridge of trust. Merritt says children can be held back from telling their parents about bullying and other texting abuses because they fear the parents “will react against the technology.” When the parents are texting, they signal to youngsters that texting is not the problem.

Besides, she says, it’s “good for children’s self-esteem” to be able to teach their parents something.


Parents interested in learning how to text can get started with AT&T Wireless’ online primer “TXT2Connect With Kids” at

A number of Internet sites (including AT&T’s guide above) provide some help translating texting lingo. The most comprehensive list may be at See also “Top 50 Acronyms Parents Need to Know” at

Sources: Julie Bruns, assistant prosecuting attorney and head of juvenile division, Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office, Dayton Ohio; Susan Bartell, PsyD,; Marian Merritt, Norton Internet Safety Advocate, Symantec Corp. The Nielsen data on mobile phone texting can be found at

By Tom Gray
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