If only all new cell phone users could be like 11-year-old McLean Corry. Asked if her parents insisted she put her phone away at a certain time each night, McLean’s reply would make any parent proud. “I don’t really take it out at nighttime,” the Lakeside School fifth-grader says. “Normally I’m doing my homework at that time, so I just put it away in my backpack for the next day.”
For many kids, however, the first cell phone can bring challenges that are hard to handle and create a whole lot of frustration for their parents. Psychologist Benson Low, who calls cell phones “a necessary evil,” says parents should examine the kind of relationship they have with their child when they decide what restrictions to place on her first cell phone.
“If you have a difficult [relationship], the cell phone is going to be a place where a lot of problems alight. You’ll find yourself using the phone to solve things that only your emotional relationship can solve,” Low says.
When to go cellular
Low advises waiting to give a child a cell phone until it’s absolutely necessary. For Lowe, like other parents, that time came when picking his son up from his many activities became a logistical problem.
Seattle mom Shaun Corry says that’s what prompted the cell phone for McLean. “It’s like a lifeline really,” she says. “McLean goes to school 10 miles away, and I work. One day she got off at the wrong bus stop. She walked around for a little while and then she called me.”
Of course, what is absolutely necessary to a child and what is necessary to a parent may be two entirely different things.
McLean’s brother Patrick, 14, asked for his phone because “a lot of my friends were getting cell phones, so I wanted to be able to talk to them.”
Good basic rules
A first cell phone can be an opportunity for kids, as well as their parents, according to Jim Anderson, director of the family support and education program at Catholic Community Services in Tacoma. At this age, kids are beginning to be much more social, but their young brains have not fully developed the ability to solve problems and think about consequences. Common courtesy would be a good first lesson, he says.
“My belief is that the person in front of you has priority,” he says. Kids should learn that if they’re talking to a friend and their phone rings, they should put it on vibrate and let it go to voicemail.
Following school rules about phone use, “even though you may not like it and may not think it’s fair,” is another good lesson for the first cell phone owner, Anderson says.
Anderson adds that parents should agree with their child on “natural and logical consequences” for breaking the rules on phone use. Losing the phone for a week for getting into trouble at school makes more sense than taking it away for a year, he says.
Make sure your child understands the limitations on cell phone minutes and the cost of going over them. “In fact, it really is a wonderful opportunity for them to learn to budget time, budget minutes,” Anderson says.
You can ask your child to pay for extra minutes, or better yet, look into a plan that turns the phone off when the minutes have been used.
“It’s part of learning about life,” he says. “With a cell phone, it’s not life-threatening if they’re not able to use it.”
Setting a curfew for use of the phone is also a necessity for some kids. According to a study by Teenage Research Unlimited, almost a third of teens in a relationship call or text 10 to 30 times an hour from 10 p.m. to midnight.
“The problem with a cell phone is that you can’t wrestle it from their hands,” Anderson says. “If they won’t give it up, call the company and have it disconnected.”
Checking phone records on the phone company Web site is one way to find out whether your kid is talking or texting in the middle of the night. But Low suggests trying to build more trust with your child, rather than getting into the habit of checking phone records.
“It’s a little bit of an invasion of privacy. It’s using something mechanical to take care of something emotional,” he says. “Routinely checking is not a good idea; it turns you into a cop.”
Once a rule has been broken, Low says, parents must follow through on consequences even though it’s an inconvenience for them as well as the child. “They’re going to be mad at you; they’re going to think you’re being very cruel,” he says. “You just have to take it on the chin.”
Dealing with a child’s first cell phone can give parents an opportunity to teach responsibility before the next big step toward independence — driving a car, says Anderson.
“A cell phone offers a kid an opportunity to start understanding the rules and consequences of life in a really safe environment,” he says. “After all, you don’t get any tickets for cell phone use.”
Elaine Bowers lives in Magnolia with her husband and twin teenaged daughters.
A cell phone contract for your tween or teen
Parenting expert Jan Faull suggests that parents write up a contract on cell phone use to be signed and dated by parents and their teen. In her Oct. 27, 2007, column in The Seattle Times, she outlined one family’s contract:
August 2007-December 2007
- Cost of the cell phone: $95 (son’s 13th-birthday gift)
- Monthly cost: $65, including insurance
- Phone payments: Parents agree to pay $55 per month for son’s cell phone. Teen agrees to pay $10 of his $25-a-month allowance toward the cost of the phone.
- School/schoolwork: Son agrees to keep his cell phone off and in his backpack during school hours, complete his homework after school and show it to his parents each evening, and read 30 minutes each evening.
- Phone usage: Teen has 500 minutes per month and will monitor the minutes. Teen has unlimited text messaging but agrees to text only family and close friends and not use his phone while doing homework or after 9 p.m. Teen agrees to answer his parents’ calls immediately. Friends can use the phone only in emergencies. If his parents feel he is overusing his cell phone, his parents will ask him to turn it off.
- Consequences: If the teen does not follow the contract, the phone will be taken away for one week or longer, depending on the violation