Remember the land line phone? There was usually one phone for the whole family. No one was allowed to use it for hours on end and it sat in the main room or the kitchen. These limits allowed family members more time to focus on other interests beyond their social life. Now nearly every teen has their own direct line, often without limits. Never before has the teen world been so free of household boundaries dictating when they could interact with one another.
The cell phone has created a new era of parenting challenges. While a phone is a very practical item to give your child, because you will presumably be able to contact them anytime, it also has the potential to consume your teen’s attention. Add in a lack of impulse control and an inability to manage time or prioritize responsibilities and giving a teen a cell phone to call their own can lead to a perfect storm.
A cell phone can also seem essential to their personal identity. The downside of this is that, for some teens, their phone can become an obsession. In fact, the addiction can be so intense that teens will say, “Take anything but my cell phone! Ground me for a year!” or “ I will die without it!” As a result, teens are rarely without their phones.
Since teens are inherently very social and naturally want to be in contact with the world outside, the beeps signaling incoming texts from friends can be irresistible. They can now know everything that is going on in their friends’ social lives at all times. In the teen world, this is a great advantage, because to be out of the loop is to not exist. (I actually had a teen say that to me once.)
Adding to the challenge of limiting your teen’s phone use, entire chapters of dramas can play out between groups of kids in one night of back and forth texting. If your child can’t participate via text, they feel left out of these exchanges. It’s like missing a dance or a party. Remember how devastating that would have been? Well, now there is something social happening every night, and they want to be there.
Clearly, if they are not helped with time management, a cell phone can take over their focus. For many teens, their homework suffers, their ability to be present in the home suffers, and they begin to feel more responsible to their friend world than their family world. It turns out that the land line might have been beneficial in that it forced teens to have some down time from engaging with one another.
With some work, however, your teen can learn to have a different relationship with their cell phone. They will need some assistance, though. To change their perception that a cell phone is one of their fingers or has somehow become an inalienable right, there are some key steps you can take to manage perception and the impact of its use on your family life and their school life.
Here are a few essential ground rules:
1. State that having a cell phone is a privilege, much like the use of the family car. Thus, it isn’t theirs and they can lose it as a privilege at anytime if household rules are broken, grades begin to drop, or it overtakes their ability to be present with family.
2. Set hours of use. Let your teen know that there will be times when they will need to hand in the cell phone. I highly recommend that the cell phone be handed into you or a docking station outside their room during home work. They will tell you that it’s off or they are not using it, but a friend’s urgent text will be too hard to resist over a math problem.
3. Ask them to hand the phone in before they go to bed. Do not allow your teen to have their phone in their room with them at night. Many teens report texting late into the night to a friend or boyfriend in crisis instead of sleeping. A docking station in the main room is helpful. Handing in your phone, as well, will allow you to serve as a model of household boundaries.
3. Establish phone etiquette. Assign family times during which the phone will be considered intrusive. State those times clearly and reserve the right to add additional times. A classic example of creating phone-free family time is establishing a rule that forbids cell phones from the dinner table.
4. Follow your own rules. If you set rules for your teen but then do not model them yourself you will have a much harder time getting compliance. For example, if you ask that your teen not talk on the phone to friends while in the car but then you pick up your own phone to chat with a friend, your teen will see this as a double standard and resent it. Or if you ask for no phones at the dinner table but then use yours, you can count on a battle.
If you decide to give your child a cell phone, know that you are also taking on the task of training and managing its use. Good Luck!