Teens and mobile phones

Every child wants one. It’s cool to have one. They’re certainly – undeniably – convenient. But, as parents, there are so many reasons we are cautious about our children having one.

How can parents deal with their teenager’s (or tween’s) desires for mobile telephones? Should children have them at all, and if so, when? And what rules should apply to possession and use of the phone?

Do our tweens/teens need a phone?

I was one of those dads who resisted the ever-growing pressure to give my eldest daughter a telephone. We kept our children close by. We knew where they were going, who they were with, and when they would be home. We lived in a ‘safe’ neighbourhood. There was no need for a phone and the extra expenses and risks that go along with one.

One Saturday morning, my 12-year-old called me. She was scared. After spending some time with her friends (who lived about 800 metres from our home), she was walking home and realised she was being followed by two men in a white ute. After walking up a random driveway, she rang me from her mum’s phone (which we had given her to borrow, ‘just in case’). I raced out the door, and retrieved her, and saw no sign of those who had followed her. But it was enough.

My answer to the question, ‘Do they need a phone’, is a clear ‘Yes’. Of course, no one ‘needs’ a phone, but the convenience, security, and peace of mind they offer is valuable.

But… how they get that phone is a little more complicated.

When do tweens/teens need a phone?

The timing of when our children need a phone is complicated, and there is no simple answer. It really depends. Why do they require a phone? How will it be used? When? Why? And with whom?

Remember, you are about to enter a negotiation that will not cease until your child takes on full responsibility for her own phone, and this may be some years away. Be prepared to set limits you feel are appropriate.

Once the ‘need’ for the phone is established, the following points should be discussed with your child, perhaps over a period of a few days:

  • Who will be responsible for the costs associated with the phone? Will it be entirely the parents’ responsibility? Or your child’s? Or will you split the costs so that you cover the calls to ‘approved’ numbers and your child pays for all other calls? What about text messaging?
  • What happens if the phone is lost? Who will replace the phone? Often, parents come to value the safety and convenience that come with their children having phones.
  • What kind of phone is necessary? Will a phone with connectivity be appropriate, or is an older, plainer phone more suitable, even though it’s totally uncool?
  • Are you and your child aware of the risks associated with having a phone that can take photos, or that can receive video or picture messaging? At the appropriate age (probably around 13-14 years) she needs to be made aware of the dangers of sexting, and the pressure that can be placed on her by peers.
  • What will you and your child do about phone use if appropriate limits are disregarded? For example, if your child runs up excessive bills that she cannot pay, who will then be responsible? And what will happen with the use of the phone?
  • Many teens find their parent’s calls to them to be intrusive. How will you negotiate with your child to ensure when you need to call her, she will answer rather than ignore you or simply text you back to tell you she’s busy?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Each family and circumstance is different. The following three examples of how some families have dealt with the telephone issue may be useful.

  • One family purchased a ‘family’ phone to be used by whichever child was going to be in a situation where a phone would be useful. If more than one phone was needed, a parent’s phone was used for the brief time that it was required. This ensured that phones were only used at times that it was absolutely necessary.
  • Another family provided their children with phones and agreed to cover previously agreed upon costs. Once costs went above the predetermined amount, the child was responsible for the costs. Failure to cover those costs meant the phone was withheld until bills were paid.
  • One mother allowed her children to use a basic phone (no Internet) that she provided them, but from 4pm until 7am, the phone was not available for their use if they were at home. This ensured they could keep their bills under control, and stay focused on assignments and other school work or activities.

There are dozens of alternative ways of dealing with the ‘phone issue’ with your kids. They will want one, and at some point it will become more useful for them to have one than for them to not have one. But once they have one, use of their phone will become one of the more nuanced and complicated issues that you will deal with. It will require ongoing consideration, discussion, and flexibility as circumstances change and your child increases in independence.

This article was written for Kidspot by Justin Coulson, Ph. D. Justin is a relationships and parenting expert, author and father of five children. Find him at happyfamilies.com.au.

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