The First Mobile Phone: Rules for Responsibility

The First Mobile Phone: Rules for Responsibility

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week with the theme of ‘loneliness’ and whilst there might not seem to be a connection.   One of the biggest causes of loneliness is the use of digital devices.    Whilst we may believe we are more connected via social media sites we are more and more disconnected from social interaction which is essential for good mental health.

A number of your children will already have mobile phones and many of you maybe thinking about getting your child a phone as they move up through the school, become more independent and get ready for high school  

There is no better time to put boundaries in place around digital device usage than now.   If you leave it too late there will be no going back.

Research shows that virtually all kids who are allowed to keep their cell phone in their room overnight will answer a late-night text, and most of them have spent at least some late nights sending texts.

Only 11 percent of parents suspect their teens have ever sent, received or forwarded a sexual text or photo, while 41% of teens admit they’ve done so. Studies show that on average the pressure to send “sexy” photos via phone (sexting) begins in the last year of primary school. The average age of first pornography exposure is around age 8.

Half of all kids say they are addicted to their cell phones and worry that they use them too much. Their parents agree, and 36 percent of parents say they have daily arguments with their children about their phones.

Our own experience tells us that it takes a fair amount of self discipline to manage the responsibility of a mobile phone. Most kids are not ready for that responsibility before secondary school, if then. In fact, since the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid-20s, teenagers are famous for not having as much impulse control as we’d like.  They have a have a hard enough time managing the temptations of social media, sexting, and addictive games on computers. Handing them a phone that they can use constantly, without your supervision, is like handing a child an addictive substance and then not monitoring them.

So it’s natural to worry when your child is ready for her first cell phone, even if you think he or she is generally responsible. Yes, this device is an instrument of connection, and it will allow you and your child to be more connected when you’re apart. But it’s also a symbol of separation, a reminder that your child is now spending enough time at a distance from you – and other supervising adults — to need it. Worse, it’s a reminder of the dangers lurking in the outside world that could menace your child, without you there to stop them.

The problem isn’t with kids today. In fact, the research shows that teens today are more responsible than my generation was in driving, drinking, sexuality and drug use. No, the problem is that smart phones pose new risks.

Luckily, communication and supervision can dramatically lessen the risks. How?

1. Don’t give your child a phone too early.

If your child is with a trusted adult, they shouldn’t need a cell phone. It’s when children start to walk to school by themselves, or otherwise are without supervision, that they need a cell phone for safety reasons. The younger your child is when they gets the cell phone, the more you’re asking of them, because it will just be harder for them to act responsibly with it. Can you trust that they will follow your rules about which apps to download, for instance?  How often do they lose things? Some parents give their younger child devices that are more limited than a smart phone, that can’t be used to go online, or to call anyone not authorized by the parent. 

2. Agree to rules, before that first cell phone.

Most parents think a “contract” with their child is unnecessary and silly. But a written agreement is a great way for your child to step into this new responsibility without you “over-parenting.” When that first cell phone comes with written rules and responsibilities in the form of a signed agreement, young people are more likely to learn how to handle them responsibly. If you ask your kids what they think the rules should be, and negotiate until you’re happy, they will “own” those rules. For a starting place, check out the suggested rules at the end of this article.

3. Use parental controls.

There are parental control apps available for all phones, and iphones have built-in parental controls that can be enabled. 

4. Scaffold.

You know how when a building goes up, there’s a framework around it? Once the building is complete, the scaffolding is unnecessary. Your job is to give your child support –like scaffolding — as they learn each new skill.

So don’t just buy a cell phone, give a lecture, and hope for the best. Instead, see this as a year-long project. In the beginning, plan to talk with your child every single night about their mobile use that day. Review with them what calls and texts came in and out, what apps they used. Ask how it felt to them to use their phone. Did it change anything in their life to have those calls and texts come in? Were there any challenges as they considered how to respond? When you see a mean text from one friend about another one, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to ask them about social dynamics, listen to the dilemmas they are facing, and coach them about how to handle these challenges. Even once your kids have had a phone for a while, I recommend that parents reserve the right to spot check their messages and texts occasionally without warning. Erased messages should be checked on the bill. This gets kids in the habit of being responsible, because their phone use doesn’t feel so “invisible.”

5. Talk, and listen.

At the dinner table, comment on news stories that involve cell phones, from sexting to dangerous apps to driving deaths. Ask questions about what your child thinks, and listen more. You might find, for instance that your teen thinks sending nude selfies via Snapchat is fine because the photo will self-destruct. But does your child realize that the receiver can take a screenshot? And does your child know that having a photo of a naked underage person on his cell phone is illegal, no matter how old he is?

6. Role Play.

When a young person is faced with a new situation, how will they know what to do? Role plays may feel silly but they give your child a chance to think through the situation and their options. By planting those seeds, your child has more resources to act responsibly in the heat of the moment. I’ve often launched into parent-child roleplays about the topic of the day to help my child consider various responses, for instance pretending to be a friend asking “Hey, send me that photo you took at the sleepover!” 

7. Porn-Proof your child.

All kids will eventually see porn; it is just a question of when. But smart phones give children access to porn, so before you give your child a cell phone, you need to educate him about porn. Porn is almost always dehumanizing, because it depicts sex without warmth, intimacy or love. Most porn today also includes verbal and/or physical aggression toward women. If you need help talking with your child about this difficult issue, check out the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures by Kristen Jenson, which you can read with children as young as seven. 

8. Know your child.

The research shows that when kids have problems with technology of any kind, it’s because they’re having problems that go beyond technology, and those problems will show up in the rest of their life. So if your child is mostly responsible, considerate and happy, he or she will probably be responsible with technology, too.

Cell Phone Rules

1. Remember that everything you send can become public.

Never write a message or forward a photo or text, that you wouldn’t want forwarded to everyone in your school, plus your head teacher and your parents.

2. Always ask before you forward a text or photo.

Be respectful. How would you feel if someone forwarded an unflattering photo of you?

3. Always ask before you take a photo or video.

And even once someone has given you permission to take a photo, ask before you post it.

4. If someone asks you to send a sexy photo…

…remember that even with Snapchat (which “evaporates” the photo), the picture can be copied and forwarded to others. Anyone could see it — every kid in the school, your teachers, your parents. It happens all the time to great kids. Just don’t send it. And talk to your parents about it.

5. If you receive a sexy photo…

… immediately delete it from your phone, tell your parents, and block the number so you can’t receive more. Possession or distribution of sexual pictures of people who are under-age is illegal. If the person who sent it to you asks why, just say “It’s illegal. Let’s talk instead.”

6. Never post your cell phone number

…on Facebook, or broadcast it beyond your friends (because it leaves you open to stalking.)

7. Never broadcast your location

…except in a direct text to specific friends (because it leaves you open to stalking.) Don’t use location apps that post your location.

8. Never respond to numbers you don’t recognize.

9. If you receive an unsolicited text, that’s spam.

Don’t click on it. Instead, tell your parents so they can report the problem and have the caller blocked.

10. Don’t download apps without your parents’ permission. 

11. Don’t spend your baby-sitting money all in one place.

You don’t need more ringtones. Get unlimited texts so you don’t have to worry about budgeting.

12. Don’t wear your cell phone on your body

…and don’t use it if you can use a landline. Cell phones are always looking for a signal, and that means they’re sending out waves that you don’t want going through your body. Cancer? Maybe. We don’t know enough yet. So why not just be cautious?

13. Leave your phone at a charging station in the living room overnight

…so your phone is not in your room at night. It’s too tempting to respond to, and sleeping near it is bad for your brain.

14. No cell phones at the dining room table.

15. No cell phones out of your backpack while you’re in class. 

And of course turn the sound off.

16. Have a life.

Don’t feel obligated to respond to texts right away and don’t text until homework is done, during dinner, or after 9pm.

17. Nothing replaces FtF.

If a “friend” sends you a mean message, take a deep breath and turn off your phone.Talk to them the next day, Face to Face, about it. Never say anything via text that you wouldn’t say Face to Face.

18. Monitor your phone usage to prevent addiction.

Our brains get a little rush of dopamine every time we interact with our phones, so every text you send or receive, every post or update, feels good. Why is that a problem? Because it can distract us from other things that are important but maybe not so immediately rewarding, like connecting with our families, doing our homework, and just thinking about life. Research shows that people who use social media more often become more unhappy, because it causes them to constantly compare their lives to others, and to worry about whether they are being left out of things their friend group is experiencing.

To prevent addiction, make sure you block out time every day — like while you have dinner and do homework — when your phone is off. Also limit the number of times you check social media accounts. If you feel like that’s too hard, talk to your parents about it and ask for their help. There are programs that prevent your phone from being used at times you designate.

If you need further support please contact me the Therapeutic Lead in your school.