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How Parents Can Protect Their Kids' Cellphones

Does your back-to-school shopping list include a new or upgraded cellphone or tablet for your child? 

If so, you're not alone. A Pew Internet study from earlier this year found that 87 percent of teens aged 14 to 17 have a cellphone, while 57 percent of 12- and 13-year-olds also carry their own phones.

With new phones and a new school, this is the perfect time for parents to discuss mobile-device security. Perhaps the most important tip is also the most simple: Don’t lose it!

"In terms of the most common security issues, teens — or anyone, for that matter — can easily lose or have their mobile device stolen," said Marian Merritt, the Los Angeles-based Internet Safety Advocate for anti-virus company Norton Symantec and editor of Norton's Family Resource website. "Today, we don't just use our phones for making calls; our smartphones are a central hub for nearly every online activity we do, from social networking to banking and more.

"A lost mobile device could put their personal information in the wrong hands, including access to their emails, social-networking accounts and financial details."

For that reason, parents should make sure everyone's phone is password-protected and is armed with software that will allow a remote wipe if it's lost.

Watch out for your friends

Using a cellphone password also ensures that classmates aren't able to access the information stored on the phone, Merritt pointed out.

"We've heard numerous stories of friends posting on someone else's social network page, viewing and sharing private photos and videos, even sending texts and emails out in the name of the victim," Merritt said. "Something as simple as a password to lock the device when not in use can prevent a lot of heartache."

Teenagers and preteens also view electronic privacy differently from adults, and they tend to share too much. Any discussion of mobile security should include telling teens the risks of posting pictures of themselves or allowing friends to tag them in photos on social media sites

Of course, just because you tell a child they shouldn’t do something, it doesn’t mean they won't do it anyway. So parents should exert their right to monitor their children's activities on cellphones, laptops and tablets, experts say.

"Parents should have administrator rights on their teenagers' computers, and give them [the teens] limited rights," said Ward Clapham, vice president of recovery services at Absolute Software, a endpoint security firm based in Austin, Texas. "Also, they should remind their teenagers to never share personal details like phone numbers and home addresses online.

"Finally, they should stress to their children that mobile phones shouldn't be used to engage in intimate conversations with others. Either voicemail or text messages could be saved and shown to/played for other people."

While it might be fun for your teen to be the "mayor" of a favorite hangout on sites like Foursquare, checking in at locations is something that should be discouraged, according to Sarah Blahnik, San Francisco-based social-media manager for German anti-virus software maker Avira.

"This is a direct way for a stranger or unwanted "friend" to know exactly where a kid is at a given time," Blahnik said. "However, do have kids 'check in' with you — since most kids and teens have cellphones these days, there's no reason for them to be out of touch or 'forget' to update you on any change in their plans."

Mind the malware

Physical security isn't the only concern parents and their children should discuss. Young people need to be clued in to the risks of visiting malicious websites or downloading apps loaded with malware.

"Mobile malware is a threat on the rise," said Merritt. "While not overly common, the type we're seeing most often involves premium SMS messaging services, which can result in large cellular bills for the teen's parents.

"Often malware on the mobile device isn't as readily discovered, not until a month or more of extra charges have been incurred."

Teens are often eager to be first to use a new app and can be tempted to download malicious content, even from the official app store for their device’s platform, Merritt added.

"Some misleading apps can be installed, which might include services you wouldn't approve of," she said, "such as programs helping you flirt with strangers nearby, post photos to sharing sites that include geo-tagging information, or spy apps that record conversations or forward photos without the user's knowledge."

Be sure to monitor which apps your child installs, even if the app is free. Be sure to check the reviews for an unfamiliar app in the online app store. And always use security software, even on mobile devices, to alert you to dangerous downloads and links.

Many parents think that a cellphone brings their teenager or preteen a sense of safety — after all, help will be always a phone call away.

But there are definite risks involved in owning a mobile device, and the "smarter" it is, the more risks it presents.

Having "the phone talk" might make young eyes roll, but it is essential for staying safe and secure.