When my son entered third grade (yes, third grade) some of his friends started using cell phones. I’ll never forget driving through the pick-up line one spring afternoon and seeing a third-grade girl in Ryan’s class whip out an iPhone and make a call.
I was still at the point in my life where I swore that my children would get their first cell phones when they began driving. I mean, why else would anyone need a phone?
By the time my son was in fifth grade, nearly all students had cell phones. My husband and I still stuck to our guns. We couldn’t imagine why our 11-year-old would need a phone. I mean, where would he be that an adult with a phone wouldn’t be nearby? We knew all his friends and their parents. We stayed at his athletic practices. It just wasn’t necessary.
But I knew by the time he hit middle school, he would be one of the only students to not have one. And, I also knew there would be times when he truly would be on his own or with people with whom I wasn’t as familiar with. So by the end of fifth grade, I caved in and managed to convince my husband to let him have a phone.
We didn’t buy him a new one. We gave him a double hand me down iPhone. That way, he could play the games he wanted, text and have a phone. We also activated the parental controls offered by our phone provider.
But before we gave him a phone, we decided to do a few things that I want to share with you. We are not even a full year into having a teen with a phone, so these aren’t perfect and we don’t do them perfectly all the time, but they are a start.
1. Set up boundaries for the phone before getting one
I was lucky enough to read a great blog by a parent who created a Cell Phone Contract with her teen son. It was so good I used it and adapted it for my son.
Some of the highlights are that the phone belongs to the parent and the child gets to borrow it; the parent always knows the password and can take the phone and look at it at any time; the phone is turned in at the end of the day and does not go to bed with the child; the phone must be used for good and not evil; and many more boundaries.
I have said before and I will say again how important boundaries are for teens. They say they don’t want them, but they need them. Setting boundaries for your child shows them that you care enough about them to set limits on what is OK and what is not OK.
2. Teach your child how to use the phone
Now, I don’t mean the physical use. They probably already know better than you do. I mean how to use the phone responsibly. Think of it this way: driver’s licenses aren’t issued until a person can prove they know how to drive and obey traffic laws. Someone has to teach a person to drive. You can’t just toss them the keys and wish them luck.
The same goes for responsible use of technology. My husband and I gave our son a phone in May and used the summer to teach him how and how not to use it. The cell phone contract we created helped us immensely. But, we can’t expect a pre-teen or teen to magically know the right and wrong things to do with a phone the first time they get one. Monitor your child’s use. Look at the Internet history. Have all the passwords to all the apps. And talk to your child about it a lot.
3. Don’t be afraid to take the phone away
I sure hate to be the bad guy and take the phone away. But, I have to teach my son how to responsibly use his phone, and if the rules of the contract are broken, or if the phone is used inappropriately, we have to take it away.
Following through on the promise of taking the phone away is 99 percent of the battle. If you say you are going to do something and then don’t do it, your child will learn that there really aren’t consequences for his/her actions and will easily break the rules again. When you follow through on a consequence, you are keeping a promise and setting a boundary for your child.
One of the basic boundaries in our house is if we could be having a conversation then we don’t use the phone. This means no phone at the dining table, in the car on the way to and from school, if we have family members or other guests over to our house or any other time we are conversing. This has also been good for me and my husband. Sometimes we have to remind each other to put our phones away and follow the same rules that we have our son follow.
4. Stay up on current trends, apps and issues in technology that might affect your child
The app store is a crazy place full of tempting treats targeting your teen. One way to monitor this is to be the keeper of the password to the account. This means your child would have to ask you before they download anything. If your teen has earned some trust, you might let them have a password (with clear guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not) and then closely monitor the use of the phone.
There are all kinds of scary apps that your teen might have access to, including Kik, Ask.fm, SnapChat and Whisper. Read more about them here. Another type of app that is of concern is an app that can hide what apps are really on a child’s phone. There are other ways children can hide apps, so be sure to read about them and know what your child may be doing.
5. Model good cell phone etiquette
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people use their phones obnoxiously. This might mean they are more engaged in texting on their phone than in your conversation; they are on their phones (games, texting, talking, etc.) at a restaurant instead of having a conversation with the people sitting at their table; they are talking loudly on their phones in a public place; or they have a loud ring tone in an otherwise quiet setting. It seems like these are all unspoken cell phone rules that many people choose not to follow.
Just as you teach your young child to say please and thank you, or you teach your child to open a door for a stranger, it is imperative that you teach your child the appropriate use of a cell phone.
When we use poor manners, our children follow suit. So the next time you are in a waiting room, don’t answer your phone or step out of the room to take the call. The next time you are at a restaurant, put your phone away. If you must use it, excuse yourself before doing so. The next time you are talking to your child about something important, ignore the vibration of a new text message coming through. Our children are always watching what we do and using it as a litmus test of what is OK and not OK for them to do.
The bottom line when it comes to cell phones is it is up to each family on what rules and guidelines they would like to set. If one family thinks their children should wait until they are 13 to get a phone, great! If another gives their child a phone when they are in fourth grade, awesome. If another family chooses to make their child pay for their own cell phone and monthly fees, more power to them.
Many teens will argue that not having a cell makes them socially unacceptable. And the more I witness myself, the more I believe this has become true. Many conversations, many relationships and many social trends are all centered around texting and cell phones. While this doesn’t necessarily make it right, it is the state of the society in which our teens live.
So, are cell phones sinister or a social necessity? It depends on whom you talk to. I don’t really think they have to be either, if they are managed and monitored well by the adults of the teens with the phones. There isn’t any right or wrong answers to teen cell-phone use. The trick is being involved and talking about it with other parents. After all, we are all in this together.
Michelle Sutherlin is a NewsOK contributor and a middle school counselor in Norman, OK, who works with students ages 11-15 daily. She is also a mom to two boys, Ryan (12) and Will (9). She and her husband have been married for 16 years. For more articles about parents and middle school, check out her blog.
We're looking for
Are you passionate about a topic, an expert, a writer, a photographer, a story teller or maybe an artist looking for an audience? Do you want to make a difference?
We can help connect you to the topics, sources, coaching and community to help you publish in major media outlets like NewsOK and The Oklahoman. You provide trusted content, and Contributor Connect will help you get traffic.