Ask Amelia: How Do I Protect My Kids From Cell Phones?

TAlk about Kids and Cell Phones

More and more kids today have cell phones, but is it possible to keep them connected and safe? Here are some great guidelines for kids and cell phones from Amelia Peck, LMFT.

Do Our Kids Need Cell Phones?

Dear Amelia,

My husband and I are considering getting our daughter a cell phone. While we were trying to decide the best way to go about this, the woman at the cell phone store told us that teenagers are texting each other nude photos. She acted like it was very common. I was shocked and it makes me rethink giving my daughter a cell phone, however, I want her to have one as she participates in afterschool activities. How do we stay connected and also make sure she doesn’t fall into this? – Weary Mama 

Dear Weary Mama,

This is a common problem, unfortunately. I speak with several therapists who experience this type of situation in their practice and are working out how to navigate the issue with their adolescent clients. From my conversations on this topic and my observations of families navigating technology for their adolescents, here are some practices I encourage as you move forward in helping your daughter get set up with a cell phone.

Kids and Cell Phones: You Are the Boss

You’re the one buying the phone. You are paying the phone bill. You are in charge. Power struggles with children and their parents are challenging. Some parents feel there are larger issues in the home, so giving their children freedom in another area is a way of picking and choosing their battles. This is not that area. 

Set Clear Boundaries With Kids and Cell Phones

If you are funding the cell phone for your child, set boundaries that remind them you call the shots when it comes to phone access. The main ones I suggest to parents:

1. Cell Phone Contracts.

This includes how much access is permitted, what apps are allowed to be downloaded, etc. You always have the final say. Always know your child’s passwords. You can always take the privilege away.

2. Cell Phone Curfew.

Kids should not have cell phones in their bedroom all night long. Not even implying something inappropriate would be going on, but it is too tempting (even for adults) to play games and scroll through social media late into the evening. 

3. Have a Technology Room.

Designate an area in the home for technology to be used. Parents are up against a lot these days. Schools issue laptops and iPads for homework. While it seems convenient, even with filters put on by schools, it can make the argument against technology a bigger challenge. Creating a single space in your home for all computers, laptops, and even phone activity allows you to have more awareness of when your child is doing.

4. Set Filters on All Devices.

There are many ways to set filters and have certain content emailed to you if you want more ways to be aware of what sites your kids are surfing. Set the same standards for all the children in your home. Don’t wait for something to go wrong to decide what filters to set. Do your research on the front end and make it clear going in that you are going to be watching what they do.

5. Limit Social Media.

Teenagers are over Facebook and are onto other platforms like Tik Tok along with other sites like Snapchat that are having a big moment with teens as well. Your child does not have to be on every platform that is out there. They will be ok.

One of my sources did not let her daughter be on Snapchat as early as some of her peers. Once she was given permission, she saw the content and how others used the platform to bully classmates. This made her less interested in the platform and no longer uses it. Maturity is essential when allowing your kids to venture into the social media world. If your child isn’t there yet, they just aren’t, and that is ok. Many of these sites are also a vessel to prey on younger users who may be vulnerable to different types of exploitation. Nothing ever truly leaves the internet. You don’t have to understand how cloud storage really works. But know that it is harder to delete images from any cloud data storage than you think. 

6. Gradually Introduce Cell Phones to Your Kids.

Your child’s first phone does not need to be the newest smartphone with an unlimited data plan. You can give them an older version of a phone with NO data. This means that they can’t interact if they don’t have a WiFi connection. Then, they prove they’re responsible and as they get older and more mature, you can explore gradually increasing their data access. 

7. Enforce Those Boundaries With Your Kids and Cell Phones

Never make a rule you aren’t ready to enforce. This is a challenging road for many parents. However, you can find some comfort in the fact that you have more awareness of technology and media than the generation before you. Get clear on your “why” behind the boundaries you are going to enforce. It will get you through the more challenging days and potential screaming matches with your teenager. They are worth it. 

8. Understand the Law Behind This Activity

Many kids and cases I learn about through consultations and discussions about how to address issues just like this reveal some similarities that are good to be aware of. Often, girls who are targeted for inappropriate photos are younger than high school. Even as young as late elementary. However, when this material is sent, it is considered a sex crime on both sides. It is child pornography. Taking the photo is creating it. Having the photo on your phone is the possession of it. Sending the photo is a distribution of it. Both sides can be prosecuted and teenagers engaging in something they think everyone else is doing can be forced to register as sex offenders. The consequences are real. 

Talk To Your Kids About Cell Phones

Tell your daughter you know about this trend. Help her understand why you are having this conversation and why it is important. Also, empower her to report this activity if it happens. While she may be strong enough to say no, maybe someone else isn’t. It’s likely the person targeting her is targeting someone else or has in the past. From the cases I have heard about, these are rarely isolated events. 

I know the idea of kids being older and having more freedom should feel like you can loosen the reigns a bit and relax as a parent. Not just yet. Your child’s brain, your child’s identity, their sense of self, and who they will believe they are in the world is in such a fragile developmental stage at this time. Fight the good fight. Embrace the eye rolls. Your kid is worth it. 

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