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What to do when your child gets a cell phone

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 6:12 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. (Shutterstock) 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. (Shutterstock)

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."

However, Krawiec said it shouldn't just be about the negatives of a teen's usage of a phone, but the things they are doing right with it.

"Parents should be able to monitor when things are going well, as well as see the negatives. ... What are the good things that parents would be proud of?" she said. "It's not just about catching them, it's about having trust and seeing the positive."

When parents are monitoring their children's phone usage they can deal with both the good and the bad as they come, Krawiec said. If parents are aware, they will be able to catch the smaller things teens shouldn't be doing with their phones, and prevent problems that may come with no supervision, all while fostering the good habits teenagers are creating.

"Things are much easier to deal with when small. And then when you are catching them doing good things you can teach the difference," she said. "Small encouragements are powerful, as well as consequences."

When it comes to texting and driving for Debra Hulse, a 17-year-old from Prosser Wash., it's been more effective for her parents to advise against it instead of having others tell her not to do it.

"Having my parents tell me not to do it, it's kind of more personal," Hulse said. "If I do it, I'm disappointing my parents. I think that's why it's important to me."

The same concept goes for 14-year-old Kylie Black, specifically for the type of media content she uses her iPhone to view.

"For me it's just kind of common sense. You know not to look at (certain things), and if I did, I would feel guilty if I disobeyed my parents," said the Orem teen.

Black's parents are aware of what she does with her phone, and she has many friends whose parents have controls on their phones. Black has also developed her own ways to keep from being too distracted by her phone when she has things to do.

"If I know that I have homework then I'll just put it in a whole different room, or if I'm sleeping then I'll just put it under my bed so that I can't see or hear it," Black said.

Parenting with phones

One reason many families have issues with cellphone usage is the fact that parents are raising children who have something they never had when they were young — personal technology devices and access to the World Wide Web any time, anywhere, said Joani Geltman, a clinical social worker and parenting expert in Boston.

"Adults, parents have given kids all of these tools — iPhones, iPads, iPods — without thinking it through," Geltman said. "They haven't thought, 'What do I need to watch out for?' ... The kids have issues like wasting time on their technology or social issues because of using the technology in inappropriate ways, then parents find out and have to move backwards."

The biggest parent-teen issue Geltman has encountered when phones have started making appearances in a family is how exhausted teenagers become, and how confused parents are about it. Parents often don't anticipate children will use their phones after they've gone to bed, but it does happen, and healthy sleeping patterns begin to crumble, she said.

"Distraction is another huge issue. Teens' and childrens' brains already have enough tasks to do — they have to do the normal, everyday things that kids have to do and now they have all of these other opportunities," she said. "If you have a choice between calculus homework or other options that are out there, which would you rather do? It's providing too much temptation ... and for some reason adults think that (teens) have the control to turn that stuff off."

Once parents see the necessity of setting rules beforehand to avoid frustrating teens with new regulations, phones in the family can become more about the positives and possibilities.

"The quality of good parenting is involvement," Krawiec said. There are endless ways to use modern mobile technology as an aid with family time and involvement in each other's lives.

"The phone could be used for a shared shopping list as a family, or even just playing games when not (physically) together," she said. "To be able to communicate with another parent — whether they are outside of the home or traveling — it's cool for even just playing a game or sending a picture of an assignment."

Mandy Morgan is an intern for the Deseret News, reporting on issues surrounding both family and values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying journalism and political science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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