A single generation ago, it would have seemed extreme to buy your teen or tween a cell phone. Not anymore. Smartphones have so fundamentally impacted modern communication that today mobiles are all but a necessity: pay phones are a thing of the past and landlines are on the way out too. As of last year, 52% of US households have cut the cord to their landline. In 2010, that number was 26%, meaning the percentage of cell-only homes has doubled in less than 10 years.
As a result, a boy whose soccer practice is running late can no longer use a pay phone to check in with his parents, and a girl who wants to sleep over at a friend’s house could likely find there’s no landline from which to call her parents to ask permission. A cell is the most practical way for a kid to stay in touch.
That said, just because cell phones are becoming a normalized part of teen and tween life, it doesn’t mean that a parent’s job of deciding when to take the cellphone plunge is made any easier.
IS YOUR CHILD READY FOR A SMARTPHONE?
In the parental conundrum of when to get your kid a phone, everything feeds back to the question of whether or not your child is emotionally and psychologically ready for one. A parent can set all the ground rules and expectations in the world, but if the child isn’t developmentally primed for the responsibility, the whole thing will inevitably crumble.
Gauging a kid’s “readiness” can be a daunting task. But the only reason it feels daunting is because “readiness” as a concept is far too vague to be of any use. Focusing your internal line of questioning will help you reach a conclusion that’s helpful to both you and your child.
- Do they respect the limits you set for them? Will they do so with limits on texts, talk minutes, and downloads?
- Do you trust them not to use the phone as a distraction during class or on the road?
- Have they proven that they can be responsible for not losing or damaging valuable items?
- How independent are they?
- Do you generally trust them to use good judgment?
Answering these questions will not only help give you clarity on whether or not your child is ready for a phone, but it will also illuminate any aspects of their growth that need extra attention.
Say you’re leaning towards thinking your child can handle the responsibility of a phone, but he has a habit of losing things. That alone doesn’t need to be a deal-breaker. Instead, it can be an opportunity to offer up some parental wisdom on organization and to encourage him to develop an independent sense of responsibility.
HAVE THEY BEEN THROUGH A CYBER CIVICS LESSON?
Giving your child a smartphone can be unnerving. After all, you’re essentially handing them a little portal into the big wide world: the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. It’s important to arm them with the knowledge and instincts they need to navigate their new environment with grace.
At the end of the day, it’s a parent’s job to protect their kids. No matter how mature a teen or tween might appear, they cannot be expected to predict the repercussions of their online behavior without some help.
Cyber Civics programs are gaining recognition across the country, especially popular in nontraditional institutions like Waldorf and charter schools. The program is a set of lessons compiled to teach middle schoolers about digital literacy.
The best synopsis of the program comes from teacher Diana Graber:
“Cyber Civics prepares kids for their digital lives by teaching them how to protect their online privacy, manage their digital reputation, prevent and/or respond appropriately to cyberbullying, avoid plagiarism and copyright infringement, recognize phishing, construct a healthy ‘digital diet,’ critically evaluate online information.”
Sounds like a good program for adults, too.
ARE YOUR PHONE EXPECTATIONS CLEAR?
Parenting insights can come from absolutely anywhere, and when it comes to teens and cell phone use, even a mobile cellphone carrier can be a source of inspiration. How? You’d never sign an agreement with a new carrier without understanding exactly how many minutes, texts, and data you’re paying for. In the same way, your child should know very clearly your expectations for their phone use. Many parents take this notion quite literally by drafting smartphone contracts that clearly establish rules and repercussions for cell phone use.
Even if a contract isn’t quite your style, the simple act of sitting down with your child and discussing the ground rules is important to getting things off on the right foot.
Every generation has different assumptions about proper phone etiquette, so the key is to be crystal clear about what you need. Before handing over the phone to your teen, make sure that all of the necessary apps are installed and features like voicemail are set up. Next, leave no gray area around what you expect. Let your teen know that if you leave a voicemail, the expectation is for them to return your call as soon as possible. Finally, if they don’t stay within the boundaries you establish, you have to be ready to enforce the punishments.
ARE YOUR CONSEQUENCES REALISTIC?
A parent can set all the rules in the world, but if they’re not enforceable, or if the side-effects of the punishment are more severe than the original problem, no one is going to be satisfied.
A common knee-jerk reaction to cell phone misuse is to take a phone away from a teen. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Remove the root of the problem and the problem will go away. But parents and online security experts alike are finding out that tactic really doesn’t work. Many kids rely upon their smartphones for features like alarms and school notifications; taking those away will negatively impact a teen’s school and work life. And in truth, there will always be another avenue for them to get online. It’s better to restrict certain privileges and keep their online behavior in your sphere of awareness than to drive them away.
Many kids begin showing signs of being ready for a smartphone in the middle school years. As soon as you start noticing these signs in your own child, it’s time to begin thinking about the parameters you will set, the lessons you will impart, and the steps you will take to keep them safe and happy. By opening up this internal dialogue, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to set the stage for how your child learns to interact with technology, and how they take their first steps into independent adulthood.