Setting Cell Phone Guidelines

What guidelines and boundaries do you set with your cell phone? Here, PSP members discuss, deliberate and debate boundaries and use of mobile phones and technology.


The issue of tweens and cellphones brings up a lot of issues not just about cost, but also raises concerns about privacy and even bullying.


In this section:






General Tips for Cell Phones, Texting and More


GUIDELINES - suggested by parents:


Set rules, or your tween will take advantage:

"Feel free to make rules about them texting you at certain times. But try not to go crazy when they don't! There is always an excuse (usually valid) why they didn't text or didn't respond: out of charge, phone turned off for school, etc. Try to be zen about it; bad news travels fast as my mom used to say, so not hearing from them is usually not the end of the world, just a huge stress for you! On a final note, I love being able to text my older kids. It really helps to establish a relationship where you can check in on them without being obvious and you can keep abreast of quickly shifting plans as they get older and more independent. We have had many sweet text moments as well as resolved some tensions by using the phone well.”


1) Set time limits

 " No phones in bedrooms at bedtime... all phones down by 9/10... If you use it as an alarm, buy an alarm clock..."

“I don't have all the answers that you seek but I can say with conviction - take the phone away at a certain time at night. Whatever time works for your family. These phone become addicting and kids will stay up all night if they can and talking to a friend makes it that much easier to do .. So - if there's one thing I can truly suggest (and as the parent of an almost 20 yr old - I may have only learned one thing) - take the phone away at night!”


2) Buy a non-fancy phone, without internet

"We also got a cell phone for our 12-year old son to be able to get in touch with him. Therefore we got him a regular cell phone with no internet browser (yes, they still exist ;-) ) and disabled texting. This fulfills its purpose. Granting him access to texting and constant internet access is an issue I’ll revisit later – and separately."

“We did a lot of research and talking to people before getting our son a phone (in 5th Grade) and we decided to go with a basic phone (looks cool but really isn't!) and a pay-as you go plan with Virgin Mobile. He has unlimited texting and we're charged a negligible amount per call. He barely uses the phone at all -- which was our hope! In other words, we did not give him a smartphone deliberately, partly because it's such a distraction and temptation, partly because its misplacement or loss would be great (where a cheaper phone's would be less so)and partly because we, too, feel like a kid wandering down the street or riding the subway staring at a phone is really not engaged with the world at all and is certainly not going to be paying attention to much of anything -- especially a potential phone-snatcher. We're not paranoid: There is actually a dramatic increase in the theft of smartphones from subways in particular -- it's called "Apple Picking!”


3) Get your tween to pay for texts!

One parent shares: "Same here - our 12-year old has an old fashion phone, and no unlimited texting - he can surely text, but it costs him 30 cents a text, therefore he is very conservative with it. And no internet browsing - he does that on my computer, with the door open. And I still feel uncomfortable sometimes."


4) No phones at the dinner table (if only adults could do the same!)

"I let my kids get phones when they started traveling by themselves, which was 5th grade. They don't have smart phones even at 13 and 17yrs old and cell phones are not allowed at the table and/or other family times. They always charged their phones away from their rooms, so having at night was not an issue, but I think it's a good idea to have a nightly "turn-off" time if it is. One thing about smartphones: Please be aware that they are high theft items. I know many kids whose phones have been stolen out of backpacks, or just "disappeared" when the kid put it down for a second. That is one reason I don't want my kid to have one. (My older son was mugged twice for his cell phone before the iphone was so prevalent. Now I don't think anyone would bother, but it certainly rattled him and me.)
Other ideas (to take or leave!)"

“We didn't get the phone yet, but plan to have a strict no phone at the table rule. Although my husband should probably start leading by example!"


5) Sign a cell chone contract

“At the beginning to 5th grade, I accepted to get my daughter a phone. She had received a generous present for her birthday and wanted to buy an Itouch. Long story short it made much more sense for her to buy an Iphone and I pay for the services. I was worried about it. She was all excited for a month or so and then it phased out. I have to say that I am divorced, so I love staying in touch with her without having to go through her father first. She walks to school on her own, so I am glad she has a phone. Sometimes when she is a bit nervous walking alone, she calls me and we talk until she is at her destination, which is never too far of course. I actually wrote a contract for her phone and computer and had her sign it, she did not like the idea but I made my point. Some of the items are for future use. Yes, you will hear horror story, but my opinion is that it responsabilizes your child, and you can talk/text at all time with her. I have had some of the deepest conversation with my daughter on the phone, when something was bothering her from school and I was at work.
I just dropped her off Sunday to her (traditional) summer camp where she will stay for one month and I already miss communicating with her on a daily basis. But I guess it is also good to go back to the snail mail...”


6) No walking and texting!

"Also, extremely important. You need to get them into the habit of NO MOVING WHILE PHONING (walking while texting, listening to music, etc.). I have seen scores of kids walking into traffic while texting, and there are stories every day about phone snatching. They are in a little bubble when they are on their phones and you have to make it known loud and clear and over and over that they can put themselves in danger when they are in the bubble.”


7) If your tween does have a phone, make a rule that it is charged...

“We're new to the cell phone thing with our tween. But one hard-and-fast rule we've had to establish already: She *must* have at least one bar of battery -- green bar, not yellow or red -- left until she's reunited with us after time away (e.g. transporting herself to/from camp), or else her cell privileges get taken away. "I didn't get your message b/c I didn't have any charge left" isn't an excuse we're willing to tolerate when much of the reason we have given her a cell is to be able to communicate with us especially in emergency...and when we know she makes sure to preserve enough battery to text her friends, play games, etc during her free time.”


8) No Texting when Doing Homework:

“I have taken away my daughter's phone periodically, if she was texting too much while doing homework."


9) Teach etiquette

"For better or worse, we cannot turn back on technology now, but we can maintain our family values and teach him cell phone etiquette etc. We have the right to access our son's phone and he cooperates fully. We also demand that the phone is off from 10pm and he complies. Lastly, we've taught him how to text or write commentary on the social media - which is to say, minimal texting and minimal commentary! We've also told him all parents can access their kids' phones so he has to be super careful what he texts others. And that written word is permanent. He gets it so far."




Some parents recommend unlimted texting:

“Get unlimited texting. It will be worth it, that's all they really do on the phone.”


On insurance:

 "The insurance wasn't worth it for us. Even when we had it, the phone company had some technicality that they wouldn't reimburse for. They don't for theft or putting in the wash (!) for instance. Always check pockets! You can buy refurbished "no-contract" phones as replacements relatively cheaply from Amazon."


Tweens don't listen to voicemails...

“This is a tip that I received from a friend of older kids after 6 months of leaving scathing voicemails on my kids' phones that were never returned. They don't listen to voicemail and they will NEVER pick up a call from their parents when they are with their friends. The "no charge" on their phone may be a ruse. My friend's advice was only to text them. It worked like a charm. They would text me back immediately every time. It makes them look popular and no one knows it is from you so they save face. When they went to college, we realized that they didn't even know how to access their voicemail. We taught them right away because scholarship info, admissions info and job info that they wanted was coming to their phones and they didn't know it.


Remember,  your tween having a cell phone can be important for you too:

“My 11yr old daughter has an iPhone (.99cents on Att plan I think it was refurbished-it works just fine) we got one for her 10th birthday. We have a family plan and are very strict when it comes to usage. We laid out the law to her before handing her the phone. Because we commute to the city every day for school and work it was imperative that she have a phone. So far she has been very responsible and does not go over her data plan. We have unlimited text bc we like to text. I really like that she has a phone bc I if I'm running late I can text her to let her know I'm on my way.”





"Trashtalking" (jump to full discussion)


Target of theft:

"My oldest girl will turn 12 in 2 days, and she will not have an iPhone for a long time, partly because I don't want her to be able to send or receive pictures, partly because it's expensive, and partly because I'm afraid she'd be a target of theft. With her little square non-smart phone, she can call me, text friends, and no one covets it.


Too young:

"We got our 12-year-old a simple cell phone, with no texting plan, when he began commuting to Manhattan for school. The phone was lost or perhaps stolen within two months, which to me reinforces my feeling that tweens and young teens are too young for an expensive piece of technology like an iPhone.)"



One mother raises the issue of her tween “trash talking” by text. How does a parent balance concerns of privacy against bigger issues like bullying? Here is what the issue a parent writes: “My daughter who is 13 has an iphone and definitely does some trashy texting and facebook messaging. We do not have it set up so that we are reading her texts or have access to her Facebook account except for when she accidentally leaves it open on the computer or my phone. I think its by and large harmless exploration. That said i have a different concern in that I think she spends way to much time on her phone streaming or downloading tv shows, texting, etc including while doing homework or when she should be going to sleep. I would love to hear what others do in this regard in terms of rules and enforcing them or using technology to turn off access or monitor content.”




"I remember as a teen being totally shocked that my friends' parents read their diaries, and that still seems too invasive, but when we let our now-12-year-old daughter get an e-mail account, we told her we reserved the right to read all e-mails at any time, and when we got her a phone with texting abilities, we told her that we might read all her texts at any time. The other night I realized that, in addition to texting friends who are girls, she is texting friends who are boys, and after the initial shock, I sat down with the phone and started reading. Totally harmless stuff, and I'm glad she has friends of both genders, but as I told her the next morning, I have tools to keep her safe at my disposal as a parent, and I would be foolish not to use them. She says that of course she would show me any strange or inappropriate message she got, and I believe she would, but 12-year-olds haven't fully developed their judgment, as evidenced by her next question: "If I send a message to someone, then I delete it, and they delete it, it's gone forever, right?" That said, I'd like to give her more freedom as she gets older, and I can hardly picture reading her texts or e-mails when she's 18, though I will definitely be her Facebook friend (or get my husband to do it,  since I don't have a page).The newest thing for us to negotiate is Instagram, and I'm just not comfortable with her sending pictures to people, not as a seventh grader, and not considering the stories she and her girlfriends tell about provocative pictures posted by other kids.”


“Someone mentioned the comparison between diaries and emails/texting. I would never read my sons' diaries. (One of them has flirted with journaling from time to time.) A diary is private. Email is not.  One of my sons left his email open on my computer and I read through it. That night at dinner I told him and his dad what I did. I told them we have access to their email and their texts and I won't secretly go through their emails, but I have access to it. Period. I sometimes read through their texts in front of them. When they are adults, their bosses will have access to their emails. When they are looking for a job, prospective employers will look them up online. They need to be aware that whatever is put out there now can haunt them later so they might as well feel like I am reading everything they say. Which isn't to say they aren't hiding things from me. My more socially savvy son regularly deletes his texts so I don't have easy access to them.”


“Texting trash is something we had to deal with last year when my son was in 5th Grade. We got him a phone because he would walk from my youngest daughter's preschool to his school on his own and we gave him permission to leave school at dismissal and meet us at the playground beside his school, and it allowed us to test out giving him more independence gradually before he transitioned this fall to traveling to the city for middle school.  A new friend of his who had started at the school that year and lived en route between the preschool and elementary school also was given his first phone, At first it was really cute to watch them texting each other instead of talking to each other, and then it gradually digressed. The insults the two were hurling at each other became more hurtful and some lines were crossed. My son finally came and showed me a series of texts and I was upset by the bullying type of content in them. I forwarded the string of texts to the other mom and we explained that we were going to block the other boy's number from our son's phone for a period of time.
It was not one sided, and we talked to my son a lot about texting and bullying and proper friendship etiquette. He lost some privileges for a period of time. I was clear that a lot of the trash talk and the bullying was just what would have happened on the playground in days of yore, without any evidence, chances are they would have worked it out without adult interference and either gone on to remain friends or drifted apart. Once something is in writing though, it of course becomes a record and something that can be revisited and become more hurtful with more readings. I believe my son learned an important lesson and it certainly opened up communication between us about a lot of subjects.”


“The next texting issue I have is a lot more serious and happened with my 14 yr old girl. We learned some really difficult and important lessons about the dangers of texting and not actually being able to see who you are communicating with. Over the holidays my daughter received a message from an unknown number, it was a local 718 number that she did not have programmed into her phone. The message included her name, it was benign and just 3 words. Her reply was "who is this??? Jane???" (name is changed here). The reply was, "Ya. whatcha doin?" The conversation proceeded for 5 hours and 190 texts with my daughter thinking she was having a conversation with her 14 yr old girlfriend. Ok, so the story gets really creepy and unsettling. It was a 40 yr old man who was a friend of the family's for several years with children the same age as ours. He had a temporary phone number. He called it a prank, after initially lying to my daughter when she called him several days later after her friend Jane told her they had never had the conversation. We have had to cut him out of our lives completely. I had to communicate with his wife to let her know what happened and tell her her husband is no longer allowed near our family. Really unpleasant. One of the several conversations with my daughter, she expressed how she should never had had given a name for him to run with. I assured her that she had done nothing wrong, there was no way to predict that someone would be that creepy and in her words Weird.”


“Both of these incidents are very unsettling, and I'm really sorry that your kids had these experiences. It sounds as though your children handled the aftermath thoughtfully. But honestly it makes me think, maybe kids should not be be texting at all. It seems to me that both these types of incidents would be avoided if kids talk on the phone instead. Clearly children (and grownups) say things via text and email that they would not say face-to-face or voice-to-voice on the phone, so the text conversation between the younger boy and his friend would most likely not have escalating to bullying if they'd been chatting in person or on their phones. And the older girl would obviously have known immediately the voice of an adult male was not the voice of her teenage female friend. I suppose it's too late for such hilariously stone-age thinking, but I think it's worth stepping back and asking: just because a technology exists, is it really one that is working for us? Would it be better to wait until the kids are closer to adulthood and more able to understand its hazards, both emotional and potentially even physical? Especially in these tween/teen years when kids are learning to negotiate their perilous social world, I think it's healthier for kids to talk on the phone, with live voices conveying real emotions, or even--what the heck--get out of the house and hang out--than text each other.  My son got involved in a Facebook conversation in 5th grade that turned rather ugly, and hurt another child's feelings. I had allowed him to do Facebook because it seemed that "all the other kids" were on, and I didn't want him to feel like the odd guy out. But that incident convinced me that he and his friends were too young to handle Facebook, and I cancelled his account. Now 12, he has no Facebook and no texting plan on his phone. And he doesn't miss it. Somehow he manages to converse with and see his friends when he needs to. Anyway, there's my two cents.”



Everything You Nneed To Know About iPhone Etiquette is in a Mom's Letter to her 13-year-old Son