Children | Teens
August 31, 2016

Kids and cellphones: What are the ground rules?

by Navigating Cell Phones and Parenting

One mother shares her family’s experience regarding cellphones for her children.


My kids were latecomers to the world of cellphones. They got their first mobile phones at ages 15 and 12.

So far, so good, mostly. Nobody’s lost, destroyed or doused a phone, sexted or dialed China – that I know of.

My husband and I wrestled with the subject of kids and cellphones for years before equipping our kids with them, starting when our youngest was only 8. Some of her classmates had cellphones – in 3rd grade! Naturally, our girl began asking for a phone. Naturally, we said no. (“You’re 8!”)

One day my daughter made off with my phone. Mystified by its disappearance, I called it from our landline, listening for the ringtone in the house. Instead, my daughter answered, with much little-girl giggling and schoolyard din in the background. Busted! It took a few conversations to learn that a phone-toting classmate was teasing her for not having one, and my daughter wanted to pass off my phone as hers to stop the heckling.

The experience reinforced my adamant stance against mixing cellphones with childhood. But the reality is that in our culture, we expect instant, if not constant, communication from everyone and everything, especially our children. Parents want to know where they are, what they’re doing and that they are safe.

In the years since the stolen-phone incident, my husband and I resisted arming our kids with full-blown smartphones. We cited all the usual reasons: expense, cyber bullying, the distraction of having the Internet at their fingertips. Son is absorbed enough already by his own profound thoughts as the real world marches on around him; Daughter is a bit too vulnerable to peer pressure. Smartphones and the virtual realities they deliver would only worsen those tendencies.

When the kids asked for iPod touches several years ago, we viewed the devices as a happy medium between total digital deprivation and fully enabled smartphones. Each kid had to pay for half the $200 cost of the iPod. They took good care of these devices, which function like smartphones, minus calling ability. My kids used them mostly for music, but Daughter quickly discovered a texting app. I admit that made life easier, especially when she’d arrive home from school and couldn’t find the cordless to call me. (Chances the last user put it back in its charging base: 50-50.)

The kids immediately developed iPod addictions, though, so – new rule! No digital time before school, 9 a.m. on weekends. The morning ban ensures the dog gets fed and nobody bolts for the school bus wearing pajamas and earbuds.

We finally stepped up to iPhones when our children started 10th and 7th grades. I was getting too many voicemails from borrowed phones, and because we were in four different places all day, the ability to quickly contact our children was increasingly important. My husband and I bestowed the phones, with the following guidelines:

  • Lose it or break it, we won’t buy another. Result: Daughter suffered through many months with a cracked phone that wouldn’t hold a charge very long. She whined, but she also learned to keep it turned off for much of the day to preserve the charge.
  • Go over the data limit, you pay the extra bill. A good way to burn data is watching all those YouTube videos when you’re not on the home Wi-Fi, so don’t watch video outside the house. Result: Usually we’ve stayed within our data limit, but many times we got slapped with a $15 charge to add an extra GB of data when we blew our limit. Confession: Recently we upgraded our service to a plan providing more data, because it’s actually cheaper to pay a little more every month than that extra $15 several times per year. And I learned to monitor the data usage like a hawk as the month goes by.
  • If your grades plunge, you lose the phone. Result: We’ve never confiscated their phones due to bad grades. Another confession, though: We took away one kid’s phone for this summer after some inappropriate online behavior.
  • Mom and Dad will use reporting tools to know exactly how you’re using the phone, so prove you’re mature enough to handle it.

Monitoring is a big, big deal. In an early, blatant display of omniscience, my husband informed Daughter that she’d sent 175 texts in the first three days she owned her phone. She was almost as surprised as we were.

Yes, teens will make stupid mistakes with their phones, and frankly it is difficult as parents to stay one step ahead of our children’s use of data and apps.

But as weird as it feels to those of us who didn’t grow up with computers in our pockets, today’s world demands that our kids are connected, to it and to us. I just hope their smart-phone-enabled adolescence will teach us to trust them, and teach them to cultivate that trust.

This post was written by Maura Ammenheuser, a mother of two and a web content producer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.


Do your children have cellphones? What have you learned in navigating this new “normal”? Share in the comments below.

Middle Childhood, Tweens, Teens

4 thoughts on “Kids and cellphones: What are the ground rules?”

  1. BethAnn McLaughlin says:

    Great post! Thank you. Did you put any software on for monitoring what they are doing on social media or do you check their browser history? Just curious with so many phones giving kids automatic internet access.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Hi, BethAnn. Our phones’ service is with AT&T. We’ve used the monitoring tools on the AT&T website to keep track of our data usage and which family member has texted the most, etc. I assume most service providers can give you access to these reports, so check with your own provider for what it offers. Also, we follow/like our kids on their social media accounts so we can see what they’re posting. I’ll admit to not being diligent about checking my daughter’s very busy Instagram account every single day. But our kids know that we look over their shoulder and that we sometimes tell them to delete a post for whatever reason … but monitoring social media accounts is another article entirely!

  2. Dawn Simmons says:

    Thank you for your article. We just gave my son a phone yesterday. He turned 13 and we decided it was time. He is in middle school and involved in extra curricular activities and it will help with making sure he’s picked up at the correct time.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Hi, Dawn. The mobile phones help so much with communicating! Sometimes kids make poor decisions about their phone use but even if you and your son hit a few bumps I’m sure you’ll set ground rules that make the process go more smoothly.

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