In the age of 'sexting', parents weigh options to block inappropriate content

December 14, 2009 Volume 8 Issue 4
  • More than one-half of parents set limits on the time that children can use cell phones.
  • Only one-third of parents block images on their children's cell phones.

As cell phone use has become more common among children, parents have expressed growing concerns about the content and quantity of material transmitted via the devices. One major concern is ‘sexting,’ in which sexually explicit material is shared via text messages, photos, or videos transmitted between cell phones.

In a recent poll, the CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked parents of teens and pre-teens about their children’s use of cell phones and the way parents limit children’s cell phone use.

Kids’ Cell Phone Use and Parental Limits

Cell phone use is common among US children: parents in this poll reported that 27% of preteens age 9-12 and 75% of teens age 13-17 have their own cell phones.

Among children using cell phones, parents report that 87% are texting, and 23% access the Internet through their phones. 41% of parents are either “very” concerned or “somewhat” concerned with the amount of time their children spend text messaging.

A strategy used by 55% of parents to guard against inappropriate cell phone activity is limiting the time that cell phones can be used. Time limits are used substantially more often by parents of preteens than by parents of teens (Figure 1).

A less common strategy, used by 33% of parents, involves blocking the transmission of images on children’s cell phones. Image blocking is also used more often by parents of preteens than by parents of teens (Figure 1).

Implications

In many ways, cell phones can give parents and kids a sense of security, providing a mechanism for frequent check-ins and a way to call for help in true emergency. But that sense of security may be offset by increasing reports of “sexting” and the serious consequences that can result from ill-advised sharing of sexual content, either in images or text messages.

Findings from this Poll indicate that, while many parents have placed limits related to time spent using cell phones, far fewer parents have instituted a mechanism for blocking images. Perhaps parents fail to appreciate the potential risks of sexting, or they are unaware of how to block images. For parents not already doing so, most national cell phone companies will block image content for a monthly fee (usually $5-$10). As parents and relatives consider purchasing  cell phones as holiday gifts for kids, it may be wise to consider adding image blocking safeguards to calling plans. In addition, parents should establish rules and expectations with their teens and preteens, in order to guard against sexting.

Data Source

This report presents findings from a nationally representative household survey conducted exclusively by Knowledge Networks, Inc, for C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital via a method used in many published studies. The survey was administered in May 2009 to a randomly selected, stratified group of parents aged 18 and older (n=1,471) with children from the Knowledge Networks standing panel that closely resembles the U.S. population. The sample was subsequently weighted to reflect population figures from the Census Bureau. The survey completion rate was 56% among parent panel members contacted to participate. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 to 6 percentage points, depending on the question. For subgroups, the margin of error is higher.

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health
Director: Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP
Associate Director: Sarah J. Clark, MPH
Manager & Editor: Dianne C. Singer, MPH
Data Analyst: Amy T. Butchart, MPH

This Report includes research findings from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, which do not represent the opinions of the investigators or the opinions of the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan reserves all rights over this material.

[FOR PARENTS WITH CHILD ≥ 9 YEARS ]

1. Does your [insert age of child]-year old have any of the following?

  • Own cell phone: yes/no

2. How often does your [insert age of child]–year old use the Internet in the following locations?

  Everyday or almost everyday 1-3 times per week 1-3 times per month Never
Through their cell phone        

3. How concerned with are you with the amount of time your [insert age of child] -year old spends doing the following?

  Very concerned Somewhat concerned Not concerned My child does not do this
Text messaging        

4. Do you and/or your spouse do any of the following with respect to your [insert age of child]-year old’s use of the Internet and cell phone?

  • Block use of image messages on their cell phone: yes/no
  • Set limits on when they can use their cell phone: yes/no

Parents were also asked demographic questions on child age and gender, and on their race/ ethnicity.

All information is the sole property of the University of Michigan CS Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.  It can only be used if there is an acknowledgment that "The information came from, is copyrighted by and is owned by and belongs to the Regents of the University of Michigan and their C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health. It cannot be republished or used in any format without prior written permission from the University."

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health
Director: Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP
Associate Director: Sarah J. Clark, MPH
Manager & Editor: Dianne C. Singer, MPH
Data Analyst: Amy T. Butchart, MPH

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Parental strategies to limit children's cell phone use