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. 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.
Wait at least until 8th grade. (One very helpful resource: Wait Until 8th.)
The earlier your child has a phone, the more it shapes their developing brain. Experts universally caution parents to delay the first smart phone as long as possible.
The younger your child is when she gets the cell phone, the more you're asking of her, because it will be harder for her to act responsibly with it. Can you trust that she'll follow your rules about which apps to download, or what information to share? How often does he lose things?
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. 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.
But long before your child gets their first phone, you need to be educating them about being a responsible digital citizen. Have conversations (not lectures) about best practices to stay safe online, online bullying, how online phishing works, and the reality that anything that goes online stays up forever.
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.
Obviously, you have more negotiating power before you ever give your child their first phone, but you can re-open the discussion at any time. Start by downloading this suggested Cell Phone Agreement. It's a Word template, so you can read it over and make any changes that you think are important.
Then meet with your child about it. Listen to their perspective and empathize, but hold fast to your values. Reassure your child that the rules can change over time as your child demonstrates responsibility.
3. Use parental controls.
There are parental control apps available for all phones, and iphones have built-in parental controls that can be enabled. Use them. Here's one article evaluating the best parental controls; there are many more good articles online.
4. Supervise and train.
Don't just buy a cell phone, give a lecture, and hope for the best. Instead, remember that this as a year-long project! In the beginning, plan to talk with your child every single night about their 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 your child feel jealous or left out looking at other people's lives online? Use this as an opportunity to listen to your child and connect, and to help you child understand that online posts never show the full picture of someone else's life.
- Did it change anything in his life to have those calls and texts come in?
- Were there any challenges as he considered how or when 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 she know what to do? Role plays may be hokey, but they give your child a chance to think through the situation and her 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 role plays 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. (Click here for more on educating your child about Porn.)
8. Remember that you're the role model.
If we don't talk about the addiction that our phones create in us, we leave our children to suffer that addiction without any help. You know those times when you're scrolling mindlessly or otherwise using your phone in unhealthy ways? Tell your child that you noticed yourself doing it, and that you are therefore taking the constructive action of putting your phone out of sight and taking care of your own needs. No phone usage while driving, at the dinner table, or after bedtime. Park your phone with your child's at the charging station instead of leaving it by your bed. (Having a cell phone near your head while you sleep is bad for your brain and disrupts your sleep. Alarm clocks are cheap.)
9. 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 the good news is that if your child is mostly responsible, considerate and happy, and you have a close, communicative relationship, they will probably be responsible with technology, too -- just as long as you've set up appropriate guardrails, supervision and learning opportunities!
*"Average age of first pornography exposure is around age 8" - nStudy of 70,000 kids by Jesse Weinberger, author of The Boogey Man Exists and He's In Your Child's Back Pocket
**"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." - Study by Common Sense Media, cited in New York Times.
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