Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kids and Cell Phones -- Taking the Plunge

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and get your child a cell phone. Studies show the average age for a child to get their first phone is around 12 but there is  a good amount of variability in that number. Regardless of the age of your child, the success of this venture depends largely on you, as a parent. You need to set your child up for success. Here is how:

Establish Rules of Use
The first thing you need to do is define a Rules of Use Agreement with your child. This Agreement is the set of rules that governs what your child is and is not allowed to do with their phone. The rules should be specific and actionable. Avoid anything subjective or open to interpretation. I recommend a written document so that there is no confusion. A good activity might be to sit down with your child and come up with the agreement together. Capturing their attention for that long might seem impossible but if they know that getting a phone is contingent upon it, you’ll get some of their time and attention. Your agreement should include:

What: You need to define what they are allowed to do with their phone—phone calls, texting/messaging, email, video chat, internet access, Youtube, Facebook, twitter,  sending/posting photos, sending/posting videos,  apps, ringtones, etc. For those of you who only use your phone for phone calls, be aware that texting is the main form of communication for kids. Have an “allowed activities” list and be explicit about what they can do. Since things change so quickly, you’ll want to make sure that anything not specifically on the list is considered “not allowed”.

Who: For those phone activities that involve other people, you need to indicate with whom they are allowed to communicate. Again, be specific.

When: Unless you want round-the-clock phone usage, you will want to include rules about when they can use their phone. For example, no phone usage after bedtime and before morning. Teens will use their phone to communicate at school, so consider a rule for no phone usage during classes.

How Much/Why: Include any restrictions regarding how much they use their phone or for what reason they can use their phone. For example, are they allowed social use of their phone, for emergencies only, for parental check-ins, etc. If you are restricting why or how much they use their phone, be specific about the allowable situations or allowable limits. It may shock you to see how many texts your child will send and receive. Kids don’t use texting like email where you may send one message and get a reply. Kids use texting in lieu of talking. One texting “conversation” will include many, many text messages back and forth. If your child is old enough to text and you are allowing them to text their friends, make sure you are reasonable in your expectations about how many texts they will be sending.

Monitoring: Your job, as a parent, is to enforce the rules of the plan. Your kids should be aware that you will be monitoring their phone usage and how you will be monitoring it. Wireless carriers offer a variety of free and paid services for parents to monitor as well as restrict phone usage. A number of third party services offering monitoring and parental controls are also available. I recommend that you be open with your child about exactly how you will monitor their phone use.  Consider how much privacy your child deserves, especially if you are considering third party monitoring services that often give parents full access to texts and emails. Don’t secretly spy on your child. If you will be reading their texts, make sure they know about it. Again, for older kids, consider how much privacy they deserve. Also, make sure that you actually do the monitoring. Kids will figure out pretty quickly if you’re not. It is their responsibility to use the phone appropriately. It is your responsibility to make sure this is happening.

Conditions for Continued Use of Phone: Spell out the conditions they need to meet in order to maintain all of their phone privileges. Do they need to maintain grades at school? Do they need to pay for all or part of their phone plan? At a minimum, they need to follow the rules of use. As a parent, you are the enforcer. Be strict and consistent with consequences if your child does not follow the rules. They need to know that you mean business.

Discuss Potential Downfalls
Your kids can get themselves into a lot of trouble with a cell phone. Even with a well-defined Rules of Use Agreement, kids can make mistakes. I recommend that you sit down with your child and discuss a set of very specific scenarios that illustrate some of the potential pitfalls of a cell phone. Use realistic examples (ripped from the headlines if you happen to have a scandal handy). Kids need to understand that anything they send or post from their phone is permanent and will stay with them. Include scenarios that cover the phone services they will be allowed to use—texting, sexting, Facebook. Have a two-way conversation rather than a lecture. Ask them what think will happen, what other people will think, would their friends be mad, would any college accept someone with that type of picture posted, etc.
Choose an Appropriate Phone and Plan
Phone. Make good choices when you choose a phone and plan for your child. Make sure they match how your child will use the phone. Most providers have phones with limited functionality that are well suited to a younger child who is using the phone for emergencies and parent-check in’s. Don’t tempt your child with a smart phone if they’re not allowed to use most of the features. Most phones have parental controls that allow you to lock out features. Take advantage of this to eliminate temptation (and choose a password your child won’t be able to guess).

Plan. Choose a plan that matches how your child will use the phone. If your child will be texting, do yourself a favor and get an unlimited texting plan.

Revisit and Revise
Once your child has their phone, revisit and revise your Rules of Use Agreement often. Your child will demonstrate their responsibility or lack of responsibility. Your own comfort level with your child using a phone will change. As circumstances change, you will need to update the agreement. As the parent, you are driving this process. Take it seriously and your child will too.

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