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Parenting: Cell Phone Sanity for Children

Dr. Dave’s Complete Family Guide for Mobile Use

Her parents didn’t think through the ramifications of their little girl becoming so tech savvy so young. Her mom and dad embrace technology. Most parents do. Much like those parents who push their kids to read before starting school, they encouraged their little princess to explore the online world through the family’s mobile devices and home computer before she started kindergarten. To them, fostering online and mobile understanding and dexterity was like a badge of progressive parenting – and good for their daughter’s future. This may be your story.

She’s now 13 and has her own phone. Should she? In her mind, she’s entitled to it. It’s become her primary world – an extension of who she is. She freaks if a parent dares to take it away and has virtual panic attacks if hers gets misplaced. Her phone is beside her wherever she goes – to bed and to the bathroom both.

To the average techno tweener (10-14 year old), every ping, buzz and vibration has its own meaning with a drive that rivals their hormones. Much like a Pavlovian dog, our little gal responds instantly, drooling with an insatiable need to stay in touch. She could send up to 200 texts a day, has 450 friends on Facebook on average but only makes under 10 phone calls daily. Less than 35% of her conversations with friends are face to face. She listens to her music on You Tube. She has her own blog site with 87 followers and a Pinterest board of many racy photos of herself – both unknown to her parents. She’s uploaded some funny but sketchy videos on You Tube and has gotten over 700 hits. Oh ya. She ran into porn long ago at age 9 but then they were just naked pictures of people doing silly things called “sex”. Now, it’s just part of her regular online diet.

Let’s face it – She isn’t just governed by the cell phone world, she’s addicted to it. Where is all this headed? Progressive parenting? I’m not sure. Have you thought through the ramifications?

Fast forward.

How will this shape her future? What will this technological addiction do to her most important relationships down the road? Her purity? Her innocence? Her reputation? Her marriage? Her parenting? What are the implications?

I’ll admit that I am a marriage and family educator not a sociological prognosticator. And I am not techno Scrooge either. Cell phones are amazing tools. I enjoy the latest version. Still, my educated observation and a strong gut feeling tell me it might be time for wise parents – especially those progressive ones – to think through this cell phone thing for their family. I’m just saying. Remember – balance is a good thing – we are told to “avoid all extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:18).

Here are MY TOP 15 TECHNO TIPS for parents wanting to get ahead of the communication curve with your children. They may not make you the most popular parent but you will be a prudent, God-honoring one. Accept that you won’t always be both. This is a starting point toward cell phone sanity for your family. Be sure to talk these through with you spouse soon.

1. GET PERSPECTIVE: Decide what is more dangerous – a car or a phone? Which privilege requires more responsibility and maturity? Why is there an age limit on getting a driver’s license? You say, “aren’t some kids more mature than others” implying your child, of course. Society has agreed that age 16 is when they can start driving alone (remember they start out by using your car). So, what is a good age for them to start using a phone alone (and why not start them out using your phone, too)? My vote for the timing of a teen using his or her own cell phone parallels the timing of getting a driver’s license.

2. INSTILL AS PRIVILEGE: Try not to allow your child to develop an attitude of entitlement even if they start getting used to using a phone quite early. Help them realize that it is not their phone and part time possession of it doesn’t mean they deserve it always. A cell phone is not a “right”, it is a privilege – one they can lose. Reinforce that verbally often.

3. TEACH WELL: Before your children have regular use of any internet accessible device, whether yours or their own, it is imperative that you have coached clearly on the proper use and warn of the dangers of Internet use. Unlike TV and radio, the Internet has no governmentally controlled standards or limitations on use and content. Realize the power of what you put into their hands and how destructive it can be. Talk openly about good boundaries and practices.

4. LEAD WITH OTHER DEVICES: Let other electronic devices lead the way. Don’t start with a cell phone. Consider iPods, iPads, tablets, notebooks and home computers as a training field with the limiting access of Wi-Fi, the watchful eyes of parents and the monitoring of activities and time engaged. This will be a good way to see how maturely they handle these devices, follow your rules and make solid decisions.

5. INSTALL FILTERS: Exercise caution in using your phone as a mobile baby-sitter or simply as a play toy for older children without the necessary filters and safeguards in place. Kids get so digitally capable so early that they are likely to discover many sites you don’t want them to – some by accident and some by intent. Agree as a family on the social accountability of not being allowed to use any mobile devices behind closed doors.

6. AVOID ADDICTION: The average teen is currently engaged 7.5 hours per day with all their electronic media. Texting is now the primary preoccupation winning over phone calls, emails and Facebook. Because of the immediacy of the messaging interplay it feels imperative to respond instantly. This becomes so addicting and constantly distracting to other activities. This form of instant access, constant interruption and engaging stimulation leads to a moderate ongoing anxiety to be in touch and stay in touch.

7. MONITOR ACCELERATED PRIVACY: Because of the phone’s mobility, all conversations whether by voice, video or text can be done in isolation beyond the scrutinizing ears of caring parents. Back in the day, the house phone was in a central location well in earshot of everyone. Parents could at least hear one-side of the dialogue and monitor conversations and even ask questions. You used to know their friends and who was calling them. Encourage them to use the home phone when at home or at least make their calls and messages from shared space in the house. Agree to have access to their messages and Facebook sites.

8. USER PAYS: Don’t make getting a phone easy. It needs to cost them something. Most parents I talk to wisely go with the “user pays” approach. Kids should at least pay part of the costs or work it off with consistent and extra chores. Keep in mind that just because a child might be able to pay for their phone and plan doesn’t imply that are allowed to get one. Affording it is only one factor: age and maturity must be weighed into the decision.

9. CENTRALIZE CHARGING DEPOT: You should create a common place to serve as the family’s charging station. The best one is on a parent’s dresser. Cell phones, iPods, and computers need to have a curfew. Turning in devices should coincide with 30 minutes before their agreed bedtime, so they don’t play at night, text friends or go to questionable sites and thus can get a better sleep. The “lock-down” policy for charging nightly needs to be part of family understanding.

10. OBSERVE NO PHONE ZONE: Your family needs to be free to enjoy family time – especially at meals. Make a variety of other times and locations off limits for phone use – when driving, in conversations with people, at church, during family outings, at school or whatever else you want to hold sacred. Realize that there is correlation between higher text frequency and lower grades. Require their full cooperation with in-school restrictions. Make sure the rules apply at least in spirit to the parents as well. Lead by example.

11. CHOOSE BEST RESTRICTIONS: Determine what you will allow versus limit with regard to your children’s electronic world. To do your homework upfront is hard but prevents a lot of headache later. You will need to discuss, agree on and write out your conclusions on the following areas of concern regarding cell phone sanity. Think in details and graduated:

  • Duration Restriction – How much time can they spend with technology each day?
  • Time Restriction – What is the tech curfew each day? What time for what ages?
  • Priority Restriction – What besides school and chores take precedence over tech time?
  • Privacy Restriction – Where are they allowed to be online? How public should they be?
  • Device Restriction – At what age can they own each different device? What limits with it?
  • Access Restriction – When do they start using a phone part-time? When on their own?
  • Internet Restriction – When are they allowed regular access to the online world?
  • Activity Restriction – What limits are there on gaming, Facebook, blogs, You Tube, etc?
  • Site Restriction – How will you limit involvement on questionable websites? What filters?
  • Contact Restriction – What about online friends? Are there limits? Will you have access?
  • Photo Restriction – When/how can they upload photos in texts, Facebook or You Tube?
  • Information Restriction – What are your rules about giving out personal contact data?
  • Sexting Restriction – What are your warnings on texting negative or abusive material?
  • Porn Restriction – How will you coach and restrict them on their access to porn sites?
  • Meal Restriction – Beyond meal times, what other times is the phone off or silent?
  • Bedtime Restriction – What is the time to turn off and in all electronic devices in?
  • Morning Restriction – Why not require them ready for school before devices turn on?
  • Financial Restriction – Is it user pay? Subsidized? What about running up a bill?
  • Minute Restriction – What are the limits on phone call minutes? When will it change?
  • Text restriction – What are the limits on number of text messages? When will it change?
  • Data restriction – What are the limits on megabytes on the Internet? When will it change?
  • Compliance Restriction – What are the consequences of them not following family rules?

12. CREATE A GRADUATED PLAN: Realize the importance of getting a clear and well-articulated plan for the integration of cell phone use into your children’s lives well before the pre-teen years and then beyond. This pre-determined course of action needs to be ready before they ask for a phone the first time. In your family cell phone plan, work toward progressive accessibility, regulated usage and shared ownership. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Start with a iPod, notebook, iPad or Tablet to see how well they handle these.
  • Start with a borrowed family-owned cell phone and then a co-owned one before they get one of their own. It’s a “My phone, Our phone and then to Your phone” sequence.
  • Limit its use. Start with weekend use at first or require they shut it off each night until only after schoolwork and chores are done each day.
  • At what age do they get have their own phone? Why? What will be your criterion?
  • Determine how they pay for phone use. Is it user pay or do they assume you’ll pay? Can they earn it? The best type of phone package are those that when minutes and data limits are reached, the phone shuts off. Don’t let them run up bills. Don’t bail them out.
  • Start with a monthly or “pay as you go” phone package. Don’t tie them into a family plan though cheaper or a long-term plan. It pressures you to give them too much access and time too early.
  • When do they get access to Internet? What will your criterion be? Start with a “dumb phone” with no Internet access.
  • Be sure to use a Wi-Fi password for your home and change it when needed to control access. Also, program it to go turn off at night to protect your family while you sleep.

13. SIGN CONTRACTS: Develop and implement the use of a phone contract. They should be signed quarterly or whenever there is a change of access or privileges. The clearer the better. Frequent review is important so the responsibilities of the signed contract be evaluated and corresponding new expectations delineated. Download a copy of the one best suited for the age of your child and to modify and personalize it for your family’s use.

14. REQUIRE COMPLIANCE – Parents have the veto power in all things electronic. Have a pass code for all your devices that the kids don’t know so they can’t get on it when you aren’t aware. Following through on the contract, allowing monitoring and supervision of use at first is required. They also must answer all parent’s calls and texts ASAP. They need to use the phone to maintain connection with you for safety, whereabouts and change of plans.

15. BLAME YOU: When facing peer pressure, allow your kids to use you as “Psycho Parents” with their friends as an explanation for why they have less access, usage or ownership to any electronic devices. Care little about what your kid’s friends think of you but hold the line on what you think is right for your family.

It is my prayer that this article will be like “smelling salts” to some of you to wake you out of your media coma. Teach your children to use the technology in our world wisely. I would love to hear what has worked well for you. I talk to parents all the time about these concerns and your best ideas will be passed on.

Also see: Mobile Device Contract

© Dr. Dave Currie – May 2013