You're not worrying too much.
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 4 percent of parents believe their teens have ever texted while driving, while 45% of teens admit that they routinely text while driving.
- Only 11 percent of parents suspect their teens have ever sent, received or forwarded a sexual text or photo, while 41% of teens admit they’ve done so. Studies show that the pressure to send "sexy" photos via phone (sexting) begins in the fifth grade, on average. Shockingly, the average age of first pornography exposure is around age 8.*
- Half of all kids say they are addicted to their cell phones and worry that they use them too much. Their parents agree, and 36 percent of parents say they have daily arguments with their children about their phones.**
Our own experience tells us that it takes a fair amount of self discipline to manage the responsibility of a mobile phone. Most kids are not ready for that responsibility before middle school, if then. In fact, since the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid-20s, middle schoolers are famous for not having as much impulse control as we'd like. Middle schoolers have a hard enough time managing the temptations of social media, sexting, and addictive games on computers. Handing them a phone that they can use constantly, without your supervision, is like handing a child an addictive substance and then not monitoring them.
So it's natural to worry when your child is ready for her first cell phone, even if you think he or she is generally responsible. Yes, this device is an instrument of connection, and it will allow you and your child to be more connected when you're apart. 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 reminder of the dangers lurking in the outside world that could menace your child, without you there to stop them.
The problem isn’t with kids today. In fact, the research shows that teens today are more responsible than my generation was in driving, drinking, sexuality and drug use. No, the problem is that smart phones pose new risks.
Luckily, communication and supervision can dramatically lessen the risks. How?
1. Don't give your child a phone too early.
If your child is with a trusted adult, he shouldn't need a cell phone. It's when kids start to walk to school by themselves, or otherwise are without supervision, that they need a cell phone for safety reasons. The younger your child is when she gets the cell phone, the more you're asking of her, because it will just be harder for her to act responsibly with it. Can you trust that she'll follow your rules about which apps to download, for instance? How often does he lose things? Some parents give their younger child devices that are more limited than a smart phone, that can't be used to go online, or to call anyone not authorized by the parent.
2. Agree to rules, before that first cell phone.
Most parents think a "contract" with their child is unnecessary and silly. But a written agreement is a great way for your child to step into this new responsibility without you "over-parenting." When that first cell phone comes with written rules and responsibilities in the form of a signed agreement, young people are more likely to 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. For a starting place, check out the suggested rules at the end of this article.
3. Use parental controls.
There are parental control apps available for all phones, and iphones have built-in parental controls that can be enabled.
You know how when a building goes up, there's a framework around it? Once the building is complete, the scaffolding is unnecessary. Your job is to give your child support --like scaffolding -- as he learns each new skill.
So don't just buy a cell phone, give a lecture, and hope for the best. Instead, see this as a year-long project. In the beginning, plan to talk with your child every single night about his mobile use that day. Review with him what calls and texts came in and out, what apps he used. Ask how it felt to him to use his phone. Did it change anything in his life to have those calls and texts come in? Were there any challenges as he considered how to respond? When you see a mean text from one friend about another one, you'll have the perfect opportunity to ask him about social dynamics, listen to the dilemmas he's facing, and coach him about how to handle these challenges. Even once your kids have had a phone for awhile, I recommend that parents reserve the right to spot check their messages and texts occasionally without warning. Erased messages should be checked on the bill. This gets kids in the habit of being responsible, because their phone use doesn't feel so "invisible."
5. Talk, and listen.
At the dinner table, comment on news stories that involve cell phones, from sexting to dangerous apps to driving deaths. Ask questions about what your child thinks, and listen more. You might find, for instance that your teen thinks sending nude selfies via Snapchat is fine because the photo will self-destruct. But does your child realize that the receiver can take a screenshot? And does your child know that having a photo of a naked underage person on his cell phone is illegal, no matter how old he is?
6. Role Play.
When a young person is faced with a new situation, how will he know what to do? Roleplays may be hokey, but they give your child a chance to think through the situation and his options. By planting those seeds, your child has more resources to act responsibly in the heat of the moment. I’ve often launched into parent-child roleplays about the topic of the day to help my child consider various responses, for instance pretending to be a friend asking “Hey, send me that photo you took at the sleepover!”
7. Porn-Proof your child.
All kids will eventually see porn; it is just a question of when. But smart phones give children access to porn, so before you give your child a cell phone, you need to educate him about porn. Porn is almost always dehumanizing, because it depicts sex without warmth, intimacy or love. Most porn today also includes verbal and/or physical aggression toward women. If you need help talking with your child about this difficult issue, check out the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures by Kristen Jenson, which you can read with children as young as seven.
8. Know your child.
The research shows that when kids have problems with technology of any kind, it’s because they’re having problems that go beyond technology, and those problems will show up in the rest of their life. So if your child is mostly responsible, considerate and happy, he or she will probably be responsible with technology, too.
*Study of 70,000 kids by Jesse Weinberger, author of The Boogey Man Exists and He's In Your Child's Back Pocket
**Study by Common Sense Media, cited in New York Times 7-21-16.
Cyber Smarts: Keeping Your Child Safe Online