In some cities, right before the late-night news airs, an old-fashioned public service announcement flashes on the television screen: "It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?"
The updated version might be: "Do you know who — and what — your child is texting?"
It's true that kids got into trouble long before they were tethered to their smart phones. Yet the way many children and teens now use technology puts them at a different level of risk.
Playground bullies have always existed. But today, they don’t push weaker kids into the lockers where an adult might see it and stop it. Now it’s become cyberbullying, which often takes the form of lies and hurtful messages sent through text messaging or on Facebook updates. Parents, teachers or even older siblings are often unaware that anything is going on.
Another unique result of modern technology is "sexting" — using text messaging to send sexually explicit messages and photographs.
Most teens don’t realize that sexting might be considered child pornography when it involves those under age 18. In some states, even consenting teens caught sending photographs can be charged as sex offenders.
In many cases, parents don’t realize that their children are sending sexual messages and photos at all.
Related: Police: Parents should steal kids' Facebook passwords
Another concern that parents and teens may not think about is sexual predators who use phones to communicate with potential victims.
Thanks to the availability of social media and other Internet platforms of communication, today’s youth are more open to communicating with strangers and may not think twice about giving out their phone numbers to someone who “friended” them on Facebook.
Turning the tables
Even when parents are aware of the potential dangers — or just want to keep track of their child’s phone or online activities (with smart phones, the two are intertwined) — they often aren’t sure how to go about it.
Back when the primary source of communication with the outside world was a landline phone or the family computer, parents could monitor use simply by putting the phone or PC in a central location. But kids who have smart phones can connect from anywhere without their parents’ knowledge.
Experts say the best way to keep track of kids' activities is to essentially fight fire with fire — which means using technology to keep track of the way the kids use technology.
Parental controls and monitoring software for computers have been around for more than a decade, but now companies are developing software that will monitor kids' cell phone use.
Some of the available software works like spyware, collecting information without the user’s knowledge. The phone owner may never know the software was installed.
Other monitoring software requires open communication between parents and teens. Not only does the teen know the application is on the phone, but if he or she tries to uninstall it, the phone alerts the parent.
“This type of technology can give parents total control over the phone,” said Bob Lotter, CEO of eAgency, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based company that sells the phone-monitoring application My Mobile Watchdog. “It can take the phone offline, block websites or turn off the camera.”
Lotter said his company works closely with the major wireless carriers to make sure his monitoring applications work with the different smart phone platforms. Currently, My Mobile Watchdog is available for Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and older Windows Mobile phones.
How it works
When such applications are installed, every text message, phone call and Web page is forwarded to the child's parents. Parents can then decide which phone numbers should be approved and which should be monitored or blocked.
Even on trusted numbers, parents have the option to review records and can track behavior that appears suspicious.
This type of technology might be considered too much of an intrusion into a teenager’s personal life, but Lotter believes that most young cell phone users, especially middle-school-age children, would benefit from the additional involvement.
“It’s not always a question of a child doing something wrong,” Lotter said, “but rather a matter of the child not being mature enough to make the right decision.”
A twelve-year-old, for example, may know that text messages from a stranger are wrong and want them to stop, but might be afraid to tell his parents for fear the phone will be taken away and he punished.
It's not just parents who can benefit from tracking technology. Law enforcement has found it a helpful tool in arresting sex offenders and drug dealers.
In the past, said Detective Richard Wistocki of the Naperville, Ill., police department, if he were trying to nab a sex predator by monitoring text messages, he’d have to take photo images of every message and transcribe them into a report.
With technology like My Mobile Watchdog, the conversations are already recorded. In two years of using the technology, Wistocki said he was able to successfully arrest and convict five predators because the evidence was tangible.
“They had no argument,” Wistocki said.
Wistocki, who also gives talks on the importance of parents knowing what their children are doing with their phones behind closed doors, said he hears a common theme whenever a teenager has been caught sexting or committing inappropriate behavior online.
“They all say, ‘I never thought my kid would do that,’ ” he said.
To that, Wistocki's standard response is, “Parents, you are responsible for your kids, and that also means their online life.”