I would like to alternately title this post: Cell Phones: The Blessing and The Curse. Because in my experience in working with teens and families, that’s exactly what cell phones are. They can be a huge blessing – parents can contact their child and know where she is in those couple of free hours after school. They can help kids connect with their friends and they can be a huge lesson in responsibility and maturity. But of course, they can be a curse as well.

The biggest mistake that parents make when buying their child his first cell phone is handing it over without any discussion or guidelines. The first thing to keep in mind when your child starts asking for his own phone is that a phone should never be a gift. A phone should always be a loan.

You can explain to your child that you own his cell phone. Because he has proven himself responsible and mature enough to use a phone, you are happy to loan it to him. But he must remember that it is a loan, which means it comes with terms. And if those terms are broken, well, it’s your phone. And you can take it back. (Of course, you should give him the opportunity to earn it back. We’ll revisit this in a minute.)

So because it’s your phone, you have the right to see everything on it. You will have passwords to all of the accounts that he accesses on the phone. You’ll be able to read anything on it at any time. Let him know that any texts he receives on his phone are copied to your phone as well. (You should tell him that you do this, or that you can do this at any time, even if you don’t set up this feature.)

Another really important rule to set in place with a child is that they have the right to borrow the phone between certain hours. At 9:00pm, the phone goes with you where it is charged in your room. The child can have the phone back beginning at an established time in the morning. The phone should also be off-limits at other pre-established times, such as the dinner table, or while watching movies as a family. And once he’s old enough, definitely no phone while driving.

It is important to teach your child about safe and unsafe phone behavior. Let him know that it is never okay to send or receive naked pictures on the phone. If the child ever receives a naked picture, he should let you know immediately and not try to hide it.

What happens when a child breaches the terms? This should be set in advance as well. The phone should be taken away if he breaks the terms of the agreement. But it should be for a specified amount of time (a day, or a week). Then you can explain to him that this is an exercise in continuing to build trust and responsibility, and that you’d like to give him another chance to try again to make responsible choices.

I encourage you to have your child sign a cell phone contract. Here is a great one I found online. Of course you can create your own. As a family, you can identify the rules that you want to enforce and the consequences when the rules are broken.

Kids are tricky – they might try to make you feel like you’re oppressing them. That you’re intentionally making them suffer, that they’re missing out on everything their friends are doing after 9pm, that all of the other kids have cell phones and they’re poor victims of horrible parents. But you’ve got to hold strong. Remind them that having a cell phone is a privilege, not a right. And that your job is to keep them safe and give them freedom, while also protecting them and helping them make smart choices.

Cell phones are a stepping stone to other technology. If they can learn appropriate behavior early on with a cell phone, they’re better prepared as they dive into social media and whatever crazy app we haven’t even heard of yet. It is imperative that we teach our kids appropriate technology use, and that begins as early as they have access to it.

I know none of us want to hear this, particularly those of us who are attached to our phones, but we also have to be careful about our phone usage in front of our kids. As they reach the age where they start having access to technology, we have to model good behavior. That means no texting and driving. If we ask our kids to put phones away at the dinner table, we have to too.

Lastly, let me share some important apps and features that you may want to consider as your child gets his first cell phone. You should let him know that you’ve installed these and plan to use them.

  • Ignore No More: this app can shut down a phone’s ability to do anything other than return a parent’s call or call 911.
  •  MyMobileWatchdog.com: You can use this to monitor your child’s phone activity and location

It is important to explain that these apps are not about snooping or oppressing your child. They’re about working together to keep him safe in the crazy world of technology. And in the end, this whole process is about keeping communication open as he faces experiences that are new and foreign to him.

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