When you bought your child a cell phone you probably thought he or she would use it to make phone calls. Wrong! The most popular use of cell phones (after checking the time) is texting. This successor to chat means sending short, often cryptic messages, to another phone.

When you bought your child a cell phone you probably thought he or she would use it to make phone calls. Wrong! The most popular use of cell phones (after checking the time) is texting. This successor to chat means sending short, often cryptic messages, to another phone.

Teens and pre-teens have taken to texting like the proverbial ducks to water. They like it because unlike a phone call, it's quick and can be done surreptitiously while they are doing something else. The code-like messages are fun (especially when they are unintelligible to adults). And micro-blogging lets kids use text messages to keep an entire network informed about the minutiae of their lives.

For all these reasons, texting has become the preferred method of communication for most 13- to 17-year-olds, according to a Disney survey done last summer. That research found a typical teen spends three hours a day texting during the school year (more during the summer) and sends almost 2,000 messages a month.

Many parents are unsure how to supervise all this activity. The good news is that unlike online chat which often happens with strangers in online "rooms," texting is usually a way of keeping up with real friends. Still, texting occurs on a mobile phone, so kids can do it anywhere at anytime and that makes parents understandably anxious.

Many phone companies are responding to this anxiety with parental controls. These controls allow parents to block text messages from certain sources (including spammers), limit phone use to specific hours, prevent cell phone purchases and even obtain a detailed log of text messages.

The features vary immensely from carrier to carrier so it's best to ask about them before signing up for service. (After the fact, you can find out what's available by going to your phone carrier's website and typing "parental controls" into the search box.) If a carrier doesn't provide adequate controls, parents can supplement with surveillance programs such as Mobile Spy (www.mobile-spy.com) and My Mobile Watch Dog (mymobilewatchdog.com) that record text messages, numbers called, and websites visited.
Valuable as these controls may be, most parents simply don't have the time or patience to do anything more than spot check the text messages their kids are sending. That's why it's so important for teens to have their own inner controls (common sense) about how text should be used. Here are some things you'll want to discuss:
Expense. Some families discover their mobile phone carrier charges for each text message only after getting a nasty phone bill. Although your child can control the number of messages he or she sends, many plans also charge for messages received. Unlimited text messaging is the obvious answer but it usually costs more. Consider having your child earn the extra money to pay for the extra service.
Safety. It may seem obvious to parents that texting and driving don't mix, but one insurance poll found that 67 percent of teens admitted to texting behind the wheel. To protect your child, sign a pact stating that neither of you will read or send messages while driving. If a message is urgent, pull over.
Courtesy. Teens like texting because they can do it anywhere, any time. But there are settings in which texting should be suspended so a young person can devote his or her entire attention to real people. Most schools now expect students to leave cell phones in their lockers because it's impossible to teach a class, much less administer a fair exam, when kids are texting under their desks. Parents may want to make similar no-texting rules about family dinners and church services.
Discretion. You can tell your child not to text with strangers, but is someone who's a friend of the guy you met at an away sports game a stranger? A better rule is don't text about sex. Following this rule makes it much less likely that a teen will be groomed or seduced by a predator. And it eliminates the risk that a message your child thought was private will be forwarded to everyone in the eighth grade.
Kindness. Because texting isn't face to face, kids may send and forward messages and photos that they later regret-or should regret. Remind your child that all communication-regardless of the medium-should be respectful and considerate. Encourage your child to follow the F2F rule-if you wouldn't say something to a person's face, don't put it in a text message.
Overuse. For some kids, texting can become obsessive, interfering with schoolwork, sleep and other essential activities. In fact, doctors now have a name-text thumb-for repetitive motion injuries caused by too much typing on tiny keyboards. Parents also should be aware that excessive texting, especially with one person, may be a sign that a teen is in a controlling or predatory relationship. The quickest way to help a teen get a grip is to "borrow" the phone during homework, at bedtime or before family outings.
Finally, don't underestimate the power of text as a way to communicate with your child. Obviously, text is ideal for quick logistical messages like, "When is practice over?" But many parents also find these mini-messages can be useful for sidestepping unnecessary adolescent drama. Try using text for reminders that might provoke argument: "Plz take out the trash;" for messages that soothe hurt feelings: "I'm sorry we argued B4 school;" or simply for friendly encouragement: "Good luck on your test!" Don't worry too much about mastering the lingo (a translation service is available at lingo2word.com). Instead, think of text as just one of many ways you can stay in touch with the teens you love.