Smartphones are an ever-present part of modern life and one of the hottest selling items this Christmas. While many kids are clamoring for the latest high-powered mobile toy like an iPhone 4S or a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, may parents are scratching their heads wondering just what these smartphones are all about. The AndroidPIT forums have been awash recently with questions from concerned parents, who just recently picked up a new android phone, without really knowning what they were good for. To help concerned parents better judge if a smartphone is safe for their children, we've tried to answer the most common questions parents have about smart devices.
What are smartphones?
This question has cropped up a lot in the last few weeks in the forum. If you've just stumbled along this article and aren't really sure what the difference is between a smartphone and a normal phone but were afraid to ask, don't worry! There are a lot of people who don't really know what a smartphone is and were afraid to ask. Traditional mobile phones are often called feature phones, while on the surface they may appear similar, smartphones differ in a few key ways. First and foremost smartphones can be directly connected to computers via USB cable, wifi, or Bluetooth and the internet via Wifi or mobile internet connection and operated in much the someway the a traditional computer can be. What's more smartphones have a file system like a normal computer does.
It helps to understand what smartphones are if you think of them less as phones and more as really small laptops that just happen to have a phone built in as well. This is most apparent in the functionality smartphones come equiped with. Traditional feature phones can be used to place calls, send text messages, play games, go online in a limited function and even take pictures. While smartphones come with those functions standard, they also bring the ability to expand on what the phone can do by downloading programs called applications or apps for short. Apps are programs exactly as you know them from computers and are normally purchased from stores most often referred to as markets.
Smartphones are a step up from 'traditional' cell phones and bring all of the benefits and concerns of internet ready computers to the palm of your hand.
What is Android?
As I said above, smartphones are basically just really small, really fast computers with a built in phone. You may have heard people talking about Android phones, and Window's phones, and even Bada phones and iPhones to boot. What people really are talking about is the phones operating system. Much like all computers have an operating system (be it Windows, Mac OS, or Linux), Smartphones come with their own built in operating systems or OS. The OS is how we interact with our phones and determines what type of programs or Apps we can download to the smartphone. Android is currently the most popular mobile operating system and was developed and is currently maintained by Google.
What are apps?
The programs users download to expand the what their smartphone can do are called 'apps' and are the real power behind smartphones. The most popular apps for children and young adults are games, social media and music apps. They allow people connect to their friends with apps like Facebook or Google+ or they can play addictive games like Angry Birds or World of Goo; there are even apps to help with time management and studying. Apps can be bought at online stores run by companies like Google or Amazon. All that is needed is a goggle mail account and a credit card or PayPal account. The prices for apps range from free to up to $20 in some cases and all transaction occur digitally. This is one of the first areas that parents should pay attention to. Children often have a hard time conceiving of how much something costs especially when a purchase is made electronically.
Every now and again a news story crops up about a teenager, who racked up a $1000 phone bill because they weren't paying attention to how they were using their account. A similar situation can happen, if children aren't taught how to properly use their smartphone accounts. Beyond making sure that children know about how long and who they can call or text, they should also understand how the App markets function and understand that, while many apps are free, not all of them are and that careless purchasing can quickly lead to large phone bills. The best way to avoid any nasty surprises, when it comes time to pay the phone bill is to talk to your children about responsible app use and make sure they understand that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
While most apps are simply tools, which help users better communicate and understand the world around them there are games and entertainment apps, which allow users to access violent or sexual content. There are parental control apps, which allow you to control, what your children download but before you take the step of censoring your child's phone, try talking to them and making sure you are aware how they are using their smartphone. Much like the family computer, simply making sure you are aware of how a smartphone is being used is often enough to prevent abuse.
Can Smartphones Go Online?
Yes and this is, at the sametime, one of the biggest advantages of smartphone use but also one of the most major points of concern. Just like with apps, internet access brings with it the same two major concerns: cost and exposure to inappropriate material.
First and foremost, going online can be expensive, if you don't have an unlimited data plan. With smartphones there are two ways to access the internet: via wifi, which is generally free, or via 3G/4G connections (i.e. mobile internet), which often is associated with a fee. To avoid high costs, parents should make sure that children know what the costs are, know how to access wifi connections to help keep costs down, and that they should avoid going online more then they are allowed by their mobile contract. Most plans have some type of cap, where fees are accessed after a certain data limit has been passed. This means that parents have to know the stipulations of their children's plans and make sure their kids know them as well. It's easy to loose track of how much data has been used but, thankfully, many modern smartphones come with a data monitor to help keep track of how much data has been used. If your child's phone doesn't have a data monitor, you can always download a data monitor app from the Android market.
Another concern about going online with smartphones is exposing too much information to people who might want to bully or abuse children. A smartphone presents the same risks as a modern computer in that it is very easy to give away too much personal information to people who shouldn't have access to it. These are the typical risks of social media and email compounded by the ability to post your current location or address to a series of websites or blogs with just the click of a button. Parents need to make sure that children, who use smartphones know what information it is safe to give out online and what isn't. While it is easy to simply ban a child from using the social media functions of smartphones as several parents I know have, I think a much more responsible policy would be to talk to children about the risks of giving out information online. Half of all mobile phones purchase in the US and Britain last year were smartphones so it's a fair bet that your children will come in contact with smartphones in their daily life. It's imperative that they are taught how to safely handle their private information be it on traditional computer or new smartphones.
The same can be said for age inappropriate content. With the prevalence of modern smartphones and mobile technology, children can gain access to inappropriate content no matter how hard parents try to protect them from it. The best way to avoid having your child exposed to content they shouldn't see is to openly address the issue with them. While child protection software can help, it's not present on every computer world-wide meaning your best best is teaching your child how to responsibly deal with the online world.
Are there parental control programs?
Yes, there are lots of parental control programs on the market and a quick search of the AndroidPIT data base will pull up lots of information on parental control apps. Using them you can restrict the functions your child has access too, which for some is the best option for dealing with the issue of child protection on smartphones. I personally wouldn't recommend using this as your only option. I can only speak about my own personal experience but, if there is one thing kids know how to do well, it's outsmart adults when it comes to technology. When I was in grade school, there were all kinds of child locks on our computer system and it didn't take more then a couple of days, till we had found our ways around them and were doing whatever we wanted to during brakes. Again I would stress teaching your children how to responsibly use technology instead of just restricting their access to it. By giving them the tools they need to properly handle technology you will be doing them a favor in the long run.
There are many points of concern for parents, who's children are using smartphones but most of them can be addressed by making sure you know what the phone is being used for and addressing that in an open and mature fashion with your children. Smartphone are the way technology is moving so the earlier children learn how to responsibly use them the better. All this takes is open and direction communication from the parent and the time commitment to make sure you know how your child is communicating with the world.