What to do when your child gets a cell phone

Published: Tuesday, April 9 2013 3:10 p.m. MDT

About three out of four teenagers own cell phones, and nearly one in those four, ages 12 to 17, owns a smartphone. The question for parents has developed from what to do if a child gets a phone, to what to do when a child gets a phone.

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Jackson Brinkerhoff is allowed to use his iPhone all day — to text friends, to use as a calculator for math homework and to call his mom when he needs a ride from basketball practice. However, when it comes time for bed, the 13-year-old Highland resident turns his phone in to his parents, as does his little sister with her iPod touch, only to get it back before he leaves for school the next morning.

This is one of the most basic rules the Brinkerhoffs have set for their children when it comes to personal technology in the home, the next being that the wireless Internet connection can be turned on with a password only the parents know. Browsing is allowed selectively, with a parent nearby.

About three out of four teenagers — 77 percent — own cell phones in the U.S., and nearly one of those four teenagers, ages 12 to 17, owns a smartphone, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study in 2011. Personal phones, across all demographics, have become a way of life, not just a rite of passage as children and teenagers age. Although cellphone ownership among young teenagers has gone down in the past few years, overall ownership of cellphones continues to increase, according to the study.

The question for parents has gone from what to do if their child gets a phone, to what to do when their child gets a phone. Not only is it an issue as to what information and media are shared via cellphone, but how often and when a phone should be used when a teenager still lives under their parent's jurisdiction.

"I think that you can either embrace technology and use it to your advantage, and teach your kids to use it properly, or you cannot and have them figure it out on their own — which can be more dangerous than if you teach them," said Julie Brinkerhoff, a mother of four. Making sure her kids learn about what's in the world, while at home, is the most comfortable way she has come to embrace ever-developing technology.

Overall, Julie Brinkerhoff has found that, although there are always going to be ways for her children to consume media that may not be good for them, there are both education and trust involved in phone use for her children.

A parent's influence

Julie Brinkerhoff has found great advantages to having her son own an iPhone, mostly because it gives him a lot of what he needs in one device, and is easy for her to control.

"Even if you trust your kids, stuff is still going to get through that you don't want them to see ... they're still going to push boundaries and they're still curious," she said. "Even if you have a kid who won't, there's still so much garbage that will leak through."

Jackson Brinkerhoff said he appreciates his mother's monitoring of his phone and thinks that it's a good thing for those his age with their own phones.

"If I did something I'm not supposed to do and my mom sees it, she can tell me that I'm not supposed to do that," he said. "If she didn't monitor my phone, she would never know and I wouldn't know and I would never get a consequence."

Having a parent to check on things and make sure everything on it is appropriate and the phone is used the way it should be is important. He said most of his friends with phones also have parents who are aware of what's going on.

Carrie Krawiec, a marriage and family therapist in Troy, Mich., believes personal phone controls and rules in the family should be worked out on a case-by-case basis — each teenager and parent is different. However, some level of regulation should be involved whenever a child gets a personal phone.

"I think parents should be supervising lots of (a child's) life. So many think that their phone is their own personal realm," Krawiec said. "It can't be for a teenager. There's just so much exposure to a lot of things."

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