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On Teens and Cells

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We tried to hold off getting individual phones for our kids until they were older.

We’re not curmudgeons; I promise. I’d grown up in a home with a phone used exclusively by my siblings and myself. I spent many a lazy afternoon curled up on the bonus room floor chatting with friends. Of course, back then the worst trouble we could get into with a phone was having the object of our crank calls figure us out.

Today, the whole phone issue is more complicated. It involves choosing a phone and the bells and whistles that will accompany it, finding the right plan, safety issues, ethical issues, and self-control. We’d wanted to postpone all that as long as we could.

Then our 13-year-old daughter saved enough money to buy her own phone and punctuated her argument by pointing out that she is old enough to plan her own activities now, but that doing so for her generation requires the ability to text. (It does. This was the first thing we learned once she got her phone and her social life took off exponentially.)

Here are some suggestions for any family navigating this challenging transition.

Let kids practice

In order to prepare all the children for getting their own phones someday, something we knew was coming, we bought a no-frills cell phone that they could share. Its main purpose was for emergencies and parental contact when we were separated.

I suggest this as a first step for any parent. The phone was simple, and our plan allowed us to program numbers for calling and texting. We programmed in a few emergency contacts. During the year that they had this phone prior to my eldest daughter’s request for her own, each of the kids demonstrated a different relationship that informed our decisions about their own phones. My eldest showed us she could handle owning a phone and was not likely to abuse the privilege nor lose the phone. (My other two continue to use said phone in preparation for their future cell phones.)

Consider each child individually

Some will be ready to handle the responsibilities of a phone much earlier than others (like one of my other children, who lost the phone six times, and was lucky that kind adults called us and returned it each time). When we made the decision to help our eldest purchase her own phone, we were very clear with our other kids that it was her level of responsibility and not her age that earned her this privilege.

Start small

You can always add features as your child demonstrates further responsibility and maturity in use of the phone. My daughter purchased a simple phone, a small step up from the one she had been sharing with her siblings. It texts, makes calls, and has a camera. We thought about getting one that data could eventually be added to, but the reality is that by that time, she will likely be ready for an upgrade anyway. That’s how quickly phones change.

Initially, she programmed in about 10 friends and some family members. She texted each of them, letting them know that she had a new phone. We agreed that the first weekend she could have fun exploring her phone and, as long as she used it appropriately, she would have no restrictions. Sunday evening, she announced that she had sent/received some 350 texts in two days and acknowledged that her exploratory period was over.

Decide on some rules—for everyone

At that point, we sat down together and came up with a list of rules for her phone. We used the ubiquitous list by Janell Burley Hofmann as a jumping-off point, but we all agreed that we wanted to tailor it to our own needs and values. A sticking point for our daughter was that she hoped the phone rules would go both ways (as you can see below). While it is a huge responsibility for a child to have her own phone, we parents have to consider some of our own habits as well. I do suggest that you write your own list with your child and that you use that as an opportunity to hone your own cell/smart phone habits.

Alter the rules if necessary

As our daughter has gotten used to her phone and the privileges it affords, we have had to alter some of the rules. I highly recommend remaining open to that possibility. You will learn as you go.

We added specific hours of texting use (based upon our educational schedule) because my daughter was texting to combat boredom. Our concern was that, at 13, she was still learning the subtle art of communication. Based upon our regular perusal of her texts (with her beside us for clarification and to help her learn how to use the phone responsibly), we noticed that the majority of her texts were greetings and single words or acronyms (“Hey,” “LOL,” etc.). While these are fine within the context of a conversation or in response to a request, there were no conversations texted. At the same time, it was clear from our discussions that she and her friends viewed these as meaningful interactions.

So, here is where I might be a curmudgeon, then: I want my kids to know the difference between conversational intimacy and a few simple texts that take 10 seconds to read. I want them to learn how to interpret a person’s tone and, in person, body language. These are skills that cannot be relayed in simple, single-worded texts. They take years of practice, and such practice is not going to happen via texts. So we made a decision to make phone calls a first line of action for catching up or battling boredom and texts an option saved for quick questions, plans, and simple greetings. As she matures in her communication skills, I suspect her text communication will also mature and she will enjoy more text time.

Watch for “celliness”

We also learned that it is very easy for young teens to get caught up in what I playfully call “celliness” or “cell silliness.” I understand this from my history of crank calling. The problem with texting, though, is that it can be easier to say things via a text that you would never say via voice. It is also easy to get caught up in group celliness.

In the case of my daughter, she let a friend use her phone to text another friend (not a mutual friend). The friend texted things my daughter most likely would not have said in real life and that, upon further reflection, embarrassed my daughter. By the time my daughter caught herself and realized she was not being true to her own values, she felt terrible about the texts, and the recipient was overwhelmed. She had to do some reparation and, together, we added a new rule: “nobody but you texts on your phone.”

Check in frequently

I suggest parents have regular (daily even) discussions with cell phone-using teens about how they are using their phones. While this might seem tedious, they are learning proper phone etiquette and responsibilities each time they pick it up. Had I thought to do this from the beginning, my daughter might have been better prepared  before handing her cell phone over to a friend besought by celliness.

Take it step-by-step.
My final suggestion is that you enter the cell phone/texting world with your child in increments. Let them make mistakes (like the ones mentioned above) when the stakes are relatively small. That my daughter’s phone cannot text pictures might possibly have prevented her group celliness from going any further than it did. Now, having learned through the more tame mistake of letting her friend send those embarrassing texts, she will likely be more careful in the future. Likewise, by figuring out that just texting alone requires self-regulation so that it does not get out of hand, she will take this knowledge with her when she upgrades her phone and its services.

It may be tempting to start your child on an all-inclusive smart phone. There are certainly kids who can handle that responsibility better than others. We have found, though, that by taking a step-by-step approach, we are learning together how to manage our daughter’s relationship with her cell phone. And by getting her a phone in the first place, we are offering her the freedom to communicate with her friends, plan her activities, and travel more widely from her safety zone.

Our Cell Phone Rules

  • I will not text during meals, unless my parents text me (at which point I will excuse myself from the table, answer the text quickly, and return to the table). During mealtimes at home, I will turn the phone off and leave it in the electronics station. My parents will do the same.
  • I will turn off my phone and leave it to charge in the electronics station at 8:30 p.m. each night (or 1/2 hour before bedtime, whichever comes first) and will not turn it back on until 8:00 each morning.
  • My parents will always know the password and may look at my phone at their discretion. I will look on with them so as to understand any concerns they might have.
  • I will always answer the phone if it is from my parents. If it would be rude to answer the phone for my parents, I will text them quickly to explain why I am unavailable. My parents, knowing my schedule, will avoid calling or texting at any time when it might be rude—unless absolutely necessary.
  • I will be polite in all my calls and texts.
  • I will use standard English in my texts when texting adults so as not to get used to text-speak.
  • If I am not sure how to handle a difficult situation with my phone, I will ask my parents. I will be truthful about any mistakes I make with the phone. My parents will work through the situation with me without judgment.
  • I will only check my phone in classes or activities if my parents are not with me. I will only answer a text in class if my parents label the text “IMPORTANT.” My parents will avoid texting during a class unless important. (Note: Since we homeschool, classes do not have the same phone rules as in school.)
  • I will not use the phone to lie, fool, or deceive another human being. I will not involve myself in conversations that are hurtful to others. I will be a good friend first and stay away from drama.
  • I will not text, e-mail, or say anything through this device I would not say in person.
  • I will not text, e-mail, or say anything to someone that I would not say out loud with their parents and my parents in the room. 
  • I will not forward ANY texts unless I am specifically asked by the sender of the original text to do so.
  • I will never text/e-mail a photo of myself or anyone else that I would not want the world, including my parents, grandparents, little siblings, colleges, and future employers or clients to see (this applies once I have a phone with data).
  • I will use the camera wisely and judiciously.
  • I will silence the phone or put it on vibrate if appropriate during social situations or performances. My parents will avoid calling/texting me during those times unless necessary.
  • Until deemed unnecessary, I will check text and call usage weekly.
  • Until deemed unnecessary, I will check with my parents before adding a new person to the address book and calling and/or texting a new person. 
  • I will not have deep, angry, or emotional conversations via text. I will remember that my texts can be forwarded to anyone, so I will not say anything I want kept private.
  • I will remember that everyone around me can hear me when I am on the phone. I will not talk on the phone/text while interacting with people (including people I do not know).
  • I will not let other people text on my phone. If someone needs to text a parent, I will text for them.
  • The phone will stay home on family or friend outings, unless I am separated from my parents. If I am separated from my parents for an outing, the phone is only for communication with my parents. That way I can focus on my friends, family, and the outing.
  • I will be responsible with my phone. If I lose it or break it, I will pay to replace it. If it is stolen, my parents will pay.
  • I will remember that a person who steals my phone could hurt me. If someone tries to take my phone, I will throw it at them and then run (preferably while making a scene).

Texting hours:

8:00-9:00 a.m.
3:00-6:00 p.m. IF ALL WORK IS COMPLETE

8:00-10:00 a.m.
3:00-9:00 p.m.

Paula M. Fitzgibbons shelved her career as a Lutheran Pastor to focus on her children, two of whom joined her family through adoption from Haiti and a third who arrived by birth 11 months later. She is an educator, writer, and comedian to the teens when absolutely necessary. You can read more about her many passions, including adoption, parenting, education, and social justice at Mommy Means It!, as well as on Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.


Updated on 10.01.13