The First Cell Phone: Rules for Responsibility
"I can't believe my daughter is old enough for a cell phone already. I'm scared. How do I keep her safe? Am I worrying too much?" -- Nadine
I remember getting my son, now 19, his first cell phone. I was terrified. Yes, it’s an instrument of connection. But it’s also a symbol of separation, a reminder that your child is now spending enough time at a distance from you – and other supervising adults -- to need it. Worse, it’s a harbinger of the dangers lurking in the outside world that threaten to pop up in your child’s face at any time, without you there to stop them.
By the time my daughter, now 15, was ready for her first mobile, I had even more to worry about because I'd heard it all from other parents. I imagined my sweet, innocent girl:
1. Racking up hundreds of dollars in charges for $3.50 ring tones and school-wide texts.
2. Covertly texting at 1am under her pillow.
3. With her grades slipping, because she was interrupting schoolwork to answer texts.
4. Being pestered by advertisements after giving out her phone number widely – or posting it on Facebook.
5. Writing a thoughtlessly inconsiderate text about a schoolmate that was forwarded to the whole school.
6. Writing, receiving or forwarding a joking sexual text that was forwarded to the whole school.
7. Letting an exuberant, partially clad photo get snapped by a chum at a sleepover, which – you guessed it -- would be forwarded to the whole school – and the principal!
8. Being stalked by a schoolmate with creepy or mean texts.
9. Being stalked by an adult after texting her location widely.
10. Texting while driving – and running the risk of dying or killing someone else.
I might not have worried enough. Research shows that virtually all kids who are allowed to keep their cell phone in their room overnight will answer a late-night text, and most of them have spent at least some late nights sending texts. Only 11 percent of parents suspect their teens have ever sent, received or forwarded a sexual text, while 41% of teens admit they’ve done so. Only 4 percent of parents believe their teens have ever texted while driving, while 45% of teens admit that they routinely text while driving!
The problem isn’t with kids today. In fact, I’m betting my generation was more irresponsible than my kids and their friends in our driving, drinking, sexuality and drug use. No, the problem is that cell phones are an instrument of connection, and tweens and teens are driven to connect. Just like when I got grounded for tying up the house phone for hours while my parents tried to call home, teen brain development makes them prone to self-centered and short-sighted behavior. Unfortunately, the risks seem higher today.
But I want my children to have a cell phone to stay in touch with me – that’s the upside of connection. My kids text me often, and I love the way it helps us feel connected, even though we talk in person all the time. 58% of teens say being able to text their parents makes them feel closer. What’s more, kids no longer regard cell phones as a privilege, or even a right, but a communication appendage, as necessary to modern life as their ears.
Luckily, communication and supervision can dramatically
risks. How? I think it’s critical that families talk at the
about news stories that involve cell phones, from sexting to
deaths. My kids fill me in frequently about their friends,
the dramas at
school, their worries about various peers. I’ve
known to launch into parent-child roleplays about the topic
of the day, pretending to be a friend asking, for instance,
“Hey, send me that photo you took at the
sleepover!” to help my child consider various responses. Roleplays may be
hokey, but they plant
the seeds so kids are more likely to act responsibly in the
heat of the
Cell Phone Rules
And when that first cell phone comes with written rules and responsibilities in the form of a signed contract, young people learn how to handle them responsibly. If you ask your kids what they think the rules should be, and negotiate until you’re happy, they will “own” those rules. Over the years, my teens have developed these rules for themselves:
1. Never write or forward a photo, or anything in a text, that you wouldn’t want forwarded to everyone in your school, your principal and your parents.
2. Set up your charging station in the living room so your phone is not in your room at night.
3. Have a life. Don’t feel obligated to respond to texts right away and don’t text until homework is done, during dinner, or after 9pm.
4. Never post your cell phone number on Facebook, or broadcast it beyond your friends (because it leaves you open to stalking.)
5. Never broadcast your location except in a direct text to friends (because it leaves you open to stalking.)
6. Don't spend your baby-sitting money all in one place. You don’t need web-surfing or ringtones. Get unlimited texts so you don’t have to worry about budgeting.
7. Don’t wear your cell phone on your body and don’t use it if you can use a landline. Cell phones are always looking for a signal, and that means they're sending out waves that you don't want going through your body. Cancer? Maybe.
8. L8R – Later! If you’re driving, turn off your cell phone and put it in a bag where you can’t reach it in the back seat. (Make sure you have directions before you start out.) Cars kill people.
9. PoS- Parent Over Shoulder! When kids first get phones, parents need to check their messages occasionally without warning. Erased messages should be checked on the bill. This gets kids in the habit of being responsible, of not taking that “risk.”
10. Nothing replaces FtF. If a “friend” sends you a mean message, take a deep breath and turn off your phone. Talk to them the next day, Face to Face, about it. Never say anything in person that you wouldn’t say Face to Face.
AFAIK (As far as I know) my kids follow their own rules. The research shows that when kids have problems with technology of any kind, it’s because they’re having problems, and those problems will show up in the rest of their life. My teens have proven themselves to be responsible, considerate people, and I trust them to show up that way in every facet of their lives. Of course, I make sure they know I’m there waiting if they need to talk, LOL.