Bigger Kids

Children and cellphones: Rules that work

What parents need to teach their cellphone-weilding tweens.

By Emma Waverman
Children and cellphones: Rules that work

Photo: Nick David/Getty Images

My 10-year-old’s phone is his prized possession. He texts with his cousins and grandparents, he plays games on it, and he keeps in contact with me. But I do wonder: should i know his password? Should I be reading his texts? Is there a right way to do this?

Giving your kids cellphones can be a mixed blessing. Yes, your children are easier to reach, but it’s also brand new territory for parents. We’re all searching for a universal set of guidelines that will alleviate our concerns about everything from the siren call of the internet to skyrocketing data and texting bills. Smart phones are the tools many of us – parents and tweens alike – now use to navigate our social lives.

Unchartered territory Kathy Buckworth, Toronto mother of four and the author of I Am So the Boss of You, says parents are scrambling. “We can’t say ‘when I was a kid, this is what my parents did.’ It’s the Wild West out there, and we are making it up as we go along.”

One mother’s 18-point iPhone contract to her son became an online viral sensation earlier this year because it did exactly that – she outlined a clear set of rules for an area of modern child rearing where there seems to be a lack of consensus. The contract dictated when and where her 13-year-old was allowed to use the phone, required him to always pick up or text back when his parents were trying to contact him, and said that his parents were to know his password.

Buckworth thinks the contract went overboard. “Guidelines are good, but if you don’t trust your kids to have a phone, then don’t give them a phone,” she says.

How to set rules Before you replicate that contract for your child, experts suggest parents ask themselves what they want to accomplish and avoid. Alex Russell, a clinical psychologist in Toronto specializing in kids and teens, says that fears of extra charges, cyberbullying and too much screen time are valid, but parents shouldn’t overprotect their kids with inflexible rules. “Sure, you want to prevent them from making catastrophic errors, but [dealing] natural consequences is how they learn. If they aren’t ready for the responsibility, then maybe that’s a sign to wait.” A strict contract, he says, establishes a bad dynamic, in which a child is more worried about what their parents think than being a responsible phone user. “It can lead to them lying and finding ways to evade Mom and Dad’s rules,” he says.

But this doesn’t mean there are no rules at all. Set guidelines as part of an ongoing conversation with your child, even if the rules are different from other families’ rules, or different for each sibling. You may want to set a monetary or total text limit, and require kids to pay for any overages on the monthly plan.

In the Buckworth family, there are expectations about behaviour, and cellphones are no different. “The phone rules fall into the same house rules about expenses, etiquette and bedtime,” says Buckworth.


Don't snoop When my 10- and 13-year-old sons leave their phones lying around, I am extremely tempted to read their texts, but Russell says i should resist the impulse. “You wouldn’t spy on their face-to-face conversations with friends,” he points out. “And you wouldn’t want your spouse or kids snooping on your phone. There are other ways to ask about their lives.”

Model the behaviour you want to see The most important thing is for parents to model good cellphone behaviour, too. These days, we grown-ups can have just as hard a time putting down the phone as our kids do, whether we’re checking Facebook or Twitter, Instagramming, or multi-tasking work emails during dinner.

Buckworth admits she doesn’t always set the right tone with her own phone use, either. “We’re working through our own set of rules while trying to establish theirs.” Parents should see this as an opportunity to teach kids how to use a device with which they’re going to have a lifelong relationship.

Is your child using their cellphone too often? Check out this video on how to limit screen time.

This article was originally published on May 31, 2013

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