"Everyone has a cell phone." At least, that's what your teenager says to you during his/her constant pleas to have his/her own phone. One of the biggest questions making the rounds among parents of tweens and teens is not if, but when, to get your child a mobile device.
Teen cell phone usage continues to make headlines, from teen sexting bringing to light an old Massachusetts law which makes sexting a felony, to stories of how teens' late night usage of cell phones could lead to mental health problems. On the one hand, parents like the thought of being able to reach their kids at any time; on the other hand, cell phones bring a whole slew of issues to the parenting realm that many parents, much less children, are prepared for.
The majority of teenagers and parents report feeling safer when teenagers have their own cell phones because of GPS features, which allow parents to know where teens are, and also serve as insurance against abduction because of tracking capability. That said, if your child needs a phone for emergency, there should be restrictions in place for usage, and there should be consequences prepared for ahead of time if your child breaks one of the golden rules.
If you decide to allow your child to have his/her own cell phone, whether in middle school or high school, here are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind.
1. Remember that tweens and teens with cell phones are still children. If you decide to give a tween or a teen a cell phone, you must remember that the brain of this child isn't yet done forming. Scans show that the parts of the brain that manage impulse control and planning ahead are not finished developing in an adolescent brain, and in fact, are among the last parts of the brain to mature. So, teens may still feel like they are invincible, take risks, embrace danger and believe they are unbreakable and that nothing bad can happen. It is up to you as the parent to carefully and clearly layout the ground rules with your children if you choose to give them cell phones, so that they understand and are involved in both the rules and the consequences.
2. Specify phone usage hours. Determine the time your teen can start using his or her cell phone and when the cell phone must be shut off for the night. You can even take the phone away at night and return the phone to your child in the morning. Studies show that kids actually like having these times set by parents, because it also gives them a socially acceptable "out" from having to be tethered to their phones for their friends 24/7.
3. Communicate with your child often and openly. In a recent study, 26% of teens report being harassed or bullied via text messages or phone calls. This makes it critical for teens to feel that they can trust their parents enough to communicate if they are the victim of bullying or harassment via cell phones. Trust is based on experience, so begin by building open lines of communication by using my empathic process with your child from a very young age. That way if your child does find himself/herself in a questionable phone situation, he/she will feel comfortable coming to you with the information.
4. Know what the rules are at school. Each school has its own rules regarding cell phone usage on the premises. Some schools forbid student cell phones at all on school grounds, some allow cell phones to be kept in student lockers or backpacks, while others allow limited cell phone usage in-between classes or even during class time to aid with assignments. Talk with your child's principal, guidance counselor and teachers; read the school district guidelines; and make sure that you and your child know what the rules are for your child at school.
5. Lay out the consequences clearly and from the beginning. Make sure your child knows that if X happens, then the consequence will be Y -- and, make sure that you follow through with the consequence. Never go back on your word; that will only teach your child that there are no real consequences, and this is the age where learning about consequences can be crucial to your child's future.
6. Consider a cell phone contract between you and your child. Cell phone "contracts" are all the rage online these days, and they're not a bad idea. Basically, you take all of the cell phone usage guidelines you would like to set forth and print them out in an agreement that you and your child both sign. If you need inspiration, there are several online, including this popular contract and this printable cell phone contract that you can download and print out.
7. It is a parent's job to teach teens that becoming an adult means finding and asserting your own authority. This is a great opportunity to model for your child what it means to be an adult by showing confidence in your rules and also by gaining their trust. At the end of the day, parents must parent. When teens learn to find their own authority, they learn that people cannot pressure them. What you are modeling for your children is that strong central core so they're not vulnerable to peer group socialization. Once they have that strong core and sense of self, things like bullying and peer pressure are no longer as big of an issue, and they are more confident in using a cell phone of their own and proud of the responsibility.