Healthy Cellphone Boundaries

Teen girl reading message on her cell phone
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When I was growing up, my generation negotiated with our parents about the keys to the car, curfew, a telephone in our bedrooms and dating rules. Today's parents have to add technology. Although they may appear to be standard fare, cellphones are not an inalienable teen right. They are a communication tool that can make family contact easier but not without risks. Weigh the pros and cons of a cellphone before purchasing one for your child. Then establish clear boundaries up front.

Cell phones allow opportunities for teens to have private conversations with anyone at any time, without accountability or adult oversight. Because of this, conversations and text messaging can easily become inappropriate. In addition to conversation concerns, most cellphones are equipped with features, such as a camera, where teens can store digital pictures. Inappropriate pictures of classmates, captured in a school locker room and sent to other friends, is not an innocent prank. They may be considered pornographic. Most teens do not realize that sending and receiving pornographic pictures is a crime. Depending on the age of the subject and the offender, charges related to cellphone photos can range from misdemeanors to felonies.

In the Naples Daily News, investigator Scott Rapisarda warns parents to consider how a teen's phone is registered. If it's in the parent's name and it contains sexually explicit photos, the parent has to answer to the law as an adult, possibly with child pornography on his phone. Rapisarda suggests that parents check cellphone use and stored data to protect their teens and themselves.

Having a cellphone is a privilege that must be earned through maturity and responsibility, especially for young teens. Consider alternatives to buying a phone for individual use. For example, your daughter could borrow your cellphone for emergencies or to contact you when she is away from home. Like a family car, you could also have a family cellphone that is available to all family members. This eliminates extra costs and provides accountability. If you allow your teen to have a cellphone, consider the following boundaries:

Limitations of equipment and plans

If you have concerns about your teen's ability to make wise choices with camera, video and Internet options, find a phone without those features. And even if the phone is equipped to contact someone halfway around the world, you can choose a plan that excludes international calls.

The power of the dollar

Perhaps the easiest way to set boundaries with cellphones is through money. A cellphone can cost between $50 and $400, and most plans that include a decent number of minutes and text messages can range from $40 to $100 per month. You may opt for a family cellphone plan in which you have one bill but your teen pays for his portion. Or if you allow your teen to have an individual plan, remember that consequences teach lessons. I've heard stories about teens who went over their cellphone limits and discovered on their first bill that they owed the phone company several hundred dollars. By requiring a teen to pay for a cellphone and his use of it, you encourage maturity and create accountability.

Manners of technology

As I write this article, I'm sitting in a restaurant where I see at least three adults wearing wireless headsets while having lunch with another person. Adults and teens alike need to relearn their manners and use them when technology is concerned. Set and enforce family cellphone rules that reflect consideration, moderation and manners. A few reasonable rules may include: No technology at the dinner table; no texting or answering a phone while in the middle of a conversation; and no cellphones when visitors are at the house.

Accountability

One of the dangers of cellphones is the lack of accountability. Consider having a rule that all cellphones need to be turned off and turned in to Mom at the end of the day and that no cellphone may be used while driving. Also, establish the understanding that cellphone bills are not private property. As a parent, you have the right (and responsibility) to know with whom your teen is interacting. Emphasize accountability — not control.

Perhaps you have a knot in your stomach because your teen has had a cellphone without restrictions. Don't panic! Evaluate your teen's age, maturity level and the amount of responsibility he has displayed with the cellphone. Based on these variables, you may choose not to change anything. But if you believe boundaries are necessary, don't be afraid to enforce them.

You are not simply setting boundaries for cellphones; you are teaching lifelong principles of consideration for others and of consequences, self-control, financial stewardship and accountability. Now that sounds like a good use of minutes !

This article first appeared in Focus on Your Child Teen Phases, October 2008. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
Copyright © 2008 by Focus on the Family.

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