Smart Phone Safety for Adolescents: Advice From a Parent

Health & Wellness

As I write this blog entry, I have a 13-year-old son at home who isn’t happy with me. In fact, he believes that I am completely unreasonable and that I am responsible for ruining his ability to be entertained. Quite frankly, the latter half is true. Yes, by opening an app on my personal cell phone and selecting one option, all the apps on his personal device disappear and only the option to call or text remain. He has found this to be very inspiring to complete responsibilities as requested and to walk the straight and narrow. (I know… such a mean mom, but I’ve never believed my job was to be his friend.)

Now, just like most moms, I will say that I have a great kid, and I am thankful for this. However, the part of his brain, the frontal cortex that controls reasoning and helps him think before he acts, has not fully developed. This part of his brain will continue to change and mature well into early adulthood, but until then, I have the responsibility to provide guidance, love and consequences for his failures. The technology and smart phones that most children have access to make our responsibility more significant than ever before.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry warns that based on the stage of their brain development, adolescents are less likely to:

  • Think before they act
  • Pause to consider the potential consequences of their actions
  • Modify their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors
  • Adolescents are more likely to:

  • Act on impulse
  • Misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
  • Get into accidents of all kinds
  • Get involved in fights
  • Engage in dangerous or risky behavior
  • Now, go back and read those again and think about how each of these bullet points apply to smart phone usage, digital identities and social media activity. It is quite alarming.

    Ultimately, parents decide what rules are needed and important to enforce. The most important concept I have to share is establishing the rules. I even suggest going a step further and propose you have the rules in the form of a contract. Then when our kids make mistakes, and let’s face it, they will make mistakes, we can point to the contract that clearly states the consequences for their actions and sincerely say, “Man, I hate this for you. I know it will be difficult to go without your phone for the next (insert time frame).” It’s better for teens to experience consequences now from their mistakes and learn from it than when they are 18 and the consequences are much more severe.

    Creating a contract sounds like a lot of work, but honestly there are many websites that provide templates, such as TeenSafe, that can be personalized, printed, discussed and signed. Done! The most difficult parts of having a contract are enforcing it and modeling appropriate smart phone usage.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m being punished when I enforce the contract. Seriously, the main reason my son has a phone is for my convenience and so we can stay connected, so if I take the phone away, I no longer have that connection. So, have a Plan B in place before the first time you take it away or limit the child’s usage.

    We obviously want to teach and model kindness and good manners online, but sometimes the other contract items can be difficult for parents to abide by! Just like our kids, we should limit smart phone usage and be fully present. To me, the most important behavior to model is putting our phones away when driving. We may not have drivers today, but we will and they will surely throw that back in our faces if they have witnessed us driving and using our phones. Make the commitment now and consider a contract for the adults in the family too.

    As parents, we can’t expect perfection from our children or from ourselves, but communicating what we expect and enforcing family rules should help everyone navigate this smart phone generation of parenting.

    Below, I’ve copied and pasted the contract we have personalized for our family.

    I, ____________, understand that having a smartphone is a privilege, and not a basic human right. If I choose to accept this smartphone, paid for by my parents, I also choose to accept the following rules and responsibilities:

    1. I will give human beings priority over my phone – this means that it will be silenced, turned off, or put away in public.

    2. I will not play my smartphone while at the dinner table, or while eating at restaurants.

    3. Every weeknight at ______p.m., my phone will be handed over to my parents. I will get my phone back when I am ready for school the next morning.

    4. My phone is never to be used to tear others down. My first priority is to be a good friend, not to instigate gossip and hurtful conversations.

    5. I will follow all _______(school name) rules for using my phone.

    6. I understand my phone will be taken away if my grades drop or I do not complete tasks as requested.

    7. If Mom or Dad call me, I will answer right away, no exceptions. If for some reason I miss their call, I will call them back right away.

    8. Numbers that I don’t recognize will not get a response – texts or phone calls.

    9. If I wouldn’t text or say it to my parents (or better yet, my grandmother), I will not text it to my friends or put it on my social media accounts. What I do online stays with me forever and I don’t want to tarnish my reputation by sharing an inappropriate photo or comment.

    10. My parents will always know my password and I will not change it without notifying them BEFORE!

    11. If I lose or damage my phone, it is my responsibility to replace or fix it.

    12. I will access the Internet only for things that I would share with my parents. This means no porn or any other inappropriate videos, photos or content.

    13. I will talk to my parents before I download new apps, social media accounts or games. Downloading happens at my parent’s discretion.

    14. I understand that my parents have the right to set up monitoring software on my phone, tablet and laptop. I know this is because they love me and want to help me make appropriate decisions when using technology.

    15. I will not hide behind my phone to bully. I will only communicate with others the way I would if we were face to face. My phone should be used to build others up, encourage and never to tear them down.

    16. All selfies, photos and videos that I take will contain appropriate backgrounds and props. I, along with all those joining me in selfies, photos and videos will be fully clothed. Only clean language will be used in videos. I will ask permission to take selfies, photos and videos of anyone else and will also ask their consent before posting to any public account. Please refer back to #9.

    17. I will not text and drive. I will not use my phone for calls or look at my phone while driving. I understand my parents will be monitoring this through the Life360 app and if any activity or phone usage shows up on my report, both phone and keys will be taken away immediately. I will be responsible for finding rides to all my activities and will be required to pay mileage to my drivers.

    If my parents deem that my use of my smartphone is inappropriate, that I have crossed boundaries, or that I have not maintained my end of the bargain, I accept that my parents will remove my privilege of having a smartphone.

    We love you,

    Mom and Dad


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