Your child has a cell phone… Now what?

You’ve decided to let your child have a cell phone. He/she has shown you he/she can be responsible and trusted with it. Do you just hand it over? Nope. You need to establish open communication and set some ground rules.

When you give your child a cell phone, you should not leave any topic unaddressed or question unanswered. Talk to your spouse and decide together what the specific details will be. I suggest creating a contract between you and your child. It would be even better to let your child create the contract after discussing the specifics with him/her. Either way, once it’s created, go over it together and have everyone sign it, making sure all parties understand the terms they are agreeing to. This way, when an issue arises (and it certainly will) you will be ready. Here is a sample contract from CTIA, the Wireless Association, although you should really create your own after discussing the following terms. 

Consider the costs.

  • Who will pay for the phone?

Some parents choose to pay for their child’s phone. Others ask their child to earn the money himself/herself. In our family, we might decide our child needs to earn half of the cost. Making your kid save for a phone can teach your child responsibility! How many hours of babysitting or mowing lawns would it take? Surely a child will take good care of it if it’s costing so much hard work to earn it.

  • Who will pay the monthly service fee?

All carriers have a monthly fee. Even if you add a line to your family account, it will cost something to keep it activated. Maybe you agree to pay for it if your child follows the rules. Or maybe you ask that he/she pays each month. If he/she doesn’t pay, will he/she lose it? This is a great life skill to teach your child.

  • How much data will be included in your child’s cellular service plan? What happens if he/she goes over? Who will pay the overage fees?

Teach your child about data usage. Maybe she goes over the first couple of months. That’s OK. She will learn how it works in the long run. This is a skill even some adults need help with.

  • What happens if the phone breaks (e.g., a cracked screen or water damage)? Who will pay?
  • What happens if it gets LOST? Who will pay?
  • Can your child purchase additional apps and games? What are the rules on buying more? Will they be earned? Who will pay?

Cell phones are expensive. Setting these rules will save you headaches when the bill comes and teach your child responsibility along the way.

Establish phone rules.

The first rule is simple: You (the parent) will have access to your child’s phone at all times. You must have access to monitor what he/she is doing on the phone daily. This is not negotiable.

  • Where will the phone’s “home” be?

Decide where the phone will be kept. During the school day, I suggest a pocket in your child’s backpack. This way there is less chance of it getting lost. A place for everything, and everything in its place, right? In the evening, I suggest charging the phone somewhere outside of the child’s bedroom, such as the kitchen. When a child keeps it by his/her bed it can be tempting to use it too late into the night. He/she can also be woken up during the night by a text or alert, or even wake up and decide to use it. Kids need their sleep! They are still developing. Keeping it in the kitchen is a safe plan.

(Side note: If your child’s phone has settings that allow you to set specific times when the phone can be used, it may be OK to allow your child to have it in his/her room. More on parental controls and software later.)

  • What is the phone curfew?

I suggest setting times when your child can use his/her phone. Parents have shared stories of their kids using their phones late into the night. This is not a good idea. There are many links to attention disorders and using cell phones right before bed. Most importantly, our young kids need good, uninterrupted sleep to learn and perform well in school the next day. They also need to learn phone etiquette. Teach them it’s not OK to call or text friends after a certain hour. As adults, we know what times are appropriate, but our kids need to be taught. Perhaps calls between the hours of 7:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. or something similar is reasonable during the week. A couple of hours later is OK on the weekends.

  • Who is allowed to use the phone?

With the exception of a friend occasionally borrowing it to call their mom, I will only allow my child to use her phone. There are too many reasons why I will not allow another child to use it. Possible damage and inappropriate use of it are just not worth it. I heard a story about a middle school student who shared his phone with friends during lunchtime one day and showed other boys nude photos on it. Young boys introduced to pornography…in middle school! It made me so sad for the children. I’m sure these boys’ parents and others would agree with me on this. Just as I don’t want my children looking on a friend’s phone, they wouldn’t want their child looking at my child’s.

(Side note: Sometimes when you are on the fence trying to decide if you should allow your child to have a phone, you should consider whether you’d prefer him/her having his/her own or looking at a friend’s at school. If your child has his own, you will have more control over what he does on it. He will know what the rules are and hopefully stick to them. My thought on that is that I’d prefer to give my daughter her own and not have her possibly see something inappropriate on a friend’s. I trust her to do what’s best, not her friend.)

  • What apps will you allow them to use?

I suggest starting with zero social apps on the phone. The ability to call, text, take photos, play music, and play a few games will be enough. Teach your child to use these appropriately and responsibly first. Some parents only allow their kids to download one social app at a time based on their age and their maturity level. I agree with this. For example, you might allow Instagram, a simple photo app first. As they show you they are responsible with their posts and comments on friends’ posts, you can slowly ease your way into Facebook and Twitter, which have more risks in my opinion.

There are many social media platforms out there. Do your research to decide if it’s right for your child to use. I personally am unfamiliar with Snapchat and other newer apps, so I wouldn’t allow my daughter to use them until I understood how they work.

  • What are your rules for social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat?

Your kids should only be friends with people they know in real life. Period. And, they need to be friends with you, their parent. I’ve heard of situations where kids want to keep their online profiles private from their parents and will not be “friends” with them on Facebook. Are you kidding me? This is not OK! You are the parent! You need to be able to monitor their activity at all times. How else will you keep them safe? How will you know if they are following the rules you set? Make it clear that you will have access to their phone at all times. They will have no privacy from you. Period.

Keep in mind there are sexual predators hiding behind false photos and names just waiting to find vulnerable children. Don’t let your child fall prey to that. Explain that things shared and posted on social media are permanent. Anything posted on social media cannot be erased. What they choose to share is a reflection of who they are. Teach them about cyberbullying. Using their phone (or any other device) to be mean and hurtful should not be tolerated. If they would not say or do something in front of a person, they should not text it or share on social media.

Also keep in mind that cell phones have geolocation capabilities. While this is convenient and helpful to you when trying to figure out where your child is, it can be dangerous for a stranger to know that information. Be sure geolocation is turned off on these apps.

Teach your child cell phone safety.

As the parent it is your job to teach your children how to use their phone safely. When you discuss the issues above, tell your child these rules are in place to keep him/her safe. If he/she follows the rules, he/she will not need to worry about doing something “wrong” on the phone. However, even if he/she follows the rules, there may come a day when something happens that is beyond your child’s control.

  • What happens when something strange or inappropriate happens? 

Sometimes I get inappropriate texts or emails on my phone. Be aware that this might happen to your child, too. Have you taught her what she should do when that happens? If a strange text, link, or nude photo pops up, tell her she must always tell you about it. Assure her she won’t get in trouble. Explain that you just want to know everything she does on the phone for her safety. This situation is another reason why open communication with your kids is so important. If they are exposed to pornography or some other issue you can have the privilege to address it.

Monitor their phone use.

When your child has a cell phone your job is to monitor, monitor, monitor! You cannot just give him/her the phone, explain the rules, and be done with it. You have to monitor your child’s use daily. Check who he/she is texting. Look at the photos he/she has taken. Ask him/her what games he/she has played. If your kids are older, take some time each day to look over their profiles to see who they are interacting with on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Make sure they are posting and commenting appropriately. In our family, we can discuss what they’ve done on their phone that day just as we talk about their day at school. It won’t be a big deal to them, but it will give me peace of mind in knowing they are using it appropriately.

Cell phones have great parental controls these days. You can monitor or restrict some activities by setting these controls directly on the phone. Cell phone monitoring software is also available to install on your child’s phone to allow for even more control. The software allows you to set limits and alerts on web usage and time restrictions among other settings. While this software doesn’t replace your need to teach your child safe cell phone habits, it can give you some peace of mind. If monitoring software is something you may be interested in, check out Mobile Spy, PhoneSheriff, and Mobistealth. These three were rated the highest.

Set a good example.

The best way to teach your child safe cell phone habits is to practice these yourself. Your kids are always watching you. They will imitate what you do. Seeing you on your phone may be one of the reasons your toddler wants to play with one. Kids want to be like Mommy and Daddy. Use this to your advantage. Model the behavior you want them to imitate.

If you don’t want your child to have his cell phone at the dinner table that starts with you and your spouse. If your teenager is of driving age, don’t text while you drive either. Show them that you try to keep your phone in the same place, wherever that might be for you. Sure, there are some rules that don’t apply to parents, but set a good example for the most part.

My oldest is 10 years old, and thankfully, she understands why we will not allow her to have a cell phone at this time. She simply does not need one. Anything she wants to do can be done on one of our phones or our family iPad. I’m happy to postpone this as long as possible and don’t envy those moms and dads out there who are already dealing with this. The important thing to remember is to keep communication open with your children when using cell phones. Cell phones can be great when you teach your child safety habits, set age appropriate rules, and monitor their use. Although it will be time consuming and involve you a lot in the early years, it will pay off when your child is a young adult with good habits.

If you have walked this road of cell phones with kids and have any tips for others, please share in the comments!

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