How Much Is
Too Much?

When we acquired a cell phone for Alfs a couple of years ago, it was pure pragmatism. There were a couple of days a week that he needed to go somewhere directly after school and before I was back in town from work. We needed to be in touch somehow. The arrangement was that it was for emergencies and contacting parents only. This worked the time.

Boy Texting
Alfs wasn't much interested in the cell phone at first, really. But I knew that would change. I knew that as he rose through the middle school, the phone would be a bigger part of his identity. And I was right. Even with his change in attachment to the cell phone, things are still going pretty okay (overall) on the responsibility front, in spite of some recent challenges.

In our increasingly technological world, I'm finding it challenging to balance appropriateness, safety, and letting my son be a citizen of the twenty-first century. I certainly didn't think I'd confront it so completely in the decision to upgrade our cell-phones.

Evaluating the choices

A couple of months ago, I realized that phone upgrading time was almost here. I started to research phones and plans after looking at our old bills. I wanted to make sure we had the plan that was the right fit, and decent phones. On the old plan, I had pay-as-you go texting. I didn't expect to use it much when I set up the plan, and I wanted to dissuade Alfs from using it. In the last year, I've discovered that texting can be very useful, though I use it in very limited quantity. Alfs has been itching to use more texting.  Given his grades are good and he's shown overall responsibility with the phone, I decided to give unlimited texting a try. I can always adjust, I figure - and I made clear to Alfs that texting is privilege, not a right, and he must treat it as such.

On the actual equipment side of things, I noticed features on newer phone that allow a parent to know exactly where a child is at any given time. At first I thought, "Cool!" But after thinking about it a little more, I wasn't so sure. While I could see that it would be handy in certain situations, and definitely in an emergency situation, it seemed like overkill for everyday - for us at least. I may change my mind (and I can enable the feature later if I want to), but for now I am trying to think about ways to build trust and responsibility in him, and this doesn't feel right for us.

Usage management

One feature I did decide to go for was usage control on my son's phone. And boy, am I glad I did. While, as I said, his grades are good, and he's been responsible so far, I want to have an additional point of leverage in certain situations. With this usage control that I set up and manage on the Web, I can set the number of text message and voice minutes he has, set up time limits for using his phone (ergo, not during homework time or middle of the night), and define trusted numbers (phone number that always go through) and blocked numbers (numbers that never go through) for his phone. I can adjust this at any time.

Surprisingly, to me, this all came in handy on our first weekend with the new phone. All of a sudden one afternoon, Alfs' attitude dropped - more like plummeted through the floor. After a discussion, I gave him another chance. But after no improvement, I was able to go online and reduce his text and voice usage to almost nothing. In a few days, with a sustained better attitude, I'll give the responsibility back.

Dealing with the inappropriate

In the midst of this, with his phone downstairs (not in his room, as is the rule) while he was asleep, the message sound went off. Wondering who it was, so late in the evening, I took a look. Someone had sent him a pornographic picture message. I was truly shocked.

It was a boy from school who had sent along the picture message, probably received from somewhere else. This calls for addressing two sets of issues: appropriate and inappropriate communication among peers, and appropriate and inappropriate expressions of curiosity and interest in the opposite gender. Those are both challenging conversations that probably needed to happen regardless of the cell phone. In the meantime, though, I was able to block the boy's number from being able to contact Alfs until we get all this straightened out.

No simple task

Teaching my son about managing the responsibility of technology, cell phone or otherwise, is no simple task. I consider myself a technologically savvy mom, but even I am being outpaced!  That scares me. But it also helps me prioritize issues. I may not be able to have total command on absolutely every issue, but I can recognize the foundation issues on which to talk and build trust. From there I'll continue to learn about technologies as best as I can as they come up.

Clearly Alfs is not ready to have full freedom with his phone (or other technology) yet. Small steps, as they say, and plenty of opportunity to talk and teach along the way. My son will continue to have a cell phone, and I'll continue to work with him on responsibility, independence and appropriateness.

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Comments on "Cell phone independence"

Donna January 31, 2011 | 9:29 PM

GPS doesn't really give you an exact address, especially if your child does not have a smart phone. The gps in my son's phone is less accurate than mine. But, after a few times that he was not honest about where he was, this will now at least give me a way of knowing when he's being truthful. It also helps me find his phone if he loses it.

Natalie June 10, 2009 | 10:11 PM

Thank you for posting this. I have been trying to find an article with a reasonable approach to this matter. I'm working on a paper for the Pros and Cons of cell phone use for teens, and every other website I have been to was so hateful regarding kids wanting a cell phone. Mostly it was parents seeing the phones as a fad and something else that they had to listen to their kids "whine about." Whether it's a fad or not, I think it is completely natural for kids to want cell phones. They just want to be a part of the technological revolution. New technologies are being developed everyday, and I think kids feel like they're being left behind. Also, It's nice to hear a different opinion on the GPS system. A lot of parents talk about it like it's necessary to know where their kids are 24/7, which i think it completely overboard. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for posting and I hope you and Alfs continue to have this good relationship of trust and open communication that is missing from so many households today.

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