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Cell Phone Usage: setting boundaries

Children in households across America roll their eyes when their parents say: "when I was your age, I never had a cell phone...", an introduction to a tyrade about how cell phone usage is a privilege, yadda, yadda, yadda.  (If you haven't already, perhaps it's worth visiting the post: "Kids & Cell Phones: yes? no? when? how?")

Our middle-schooler  has been using a cell phone since she started coming home alone afterschool last fall.  When no one else is home, she will go into the drawer where it is kept, retrieve the cell phone, and text us to let us know she is home.  She does not take the phone to school.  She is not allowed to use her phone to text/call friends during the week.

One day last week, my mid-day run in the neighborhood ended at her school, thinking we could run home together.  I waited for her outside of the bike cage.  As she turned the corner, I was surprised to see her fiddling with her phone as she walked toward me.  When whe finally looked up, she gave a start.  For a split second, she tried to hide the phone, but she knew there was no point.

We had a long talk with her that night about her usage, and she was so sad to think about how she defied us.  We agreed that she wouldn't have use of her phone at all for the next week.

It was a quiet weekend for the family.  There was plenty of down-time reading the new library books.  She was lying in her bed, reading, when I came into her room.  I said: "what are you doing?"  She responded: "Reading, what does it look like?"  Noting her tone of defensiveness, I asked: "where's your phone?"  She pointed to under her pillow.  From its depths, I removed the hot piece of equipment; its internal temperature signaled recent long usage.  I flicked it on and saw that she was mid-game, with thousands of points racked up.

I took the phone back and left her to finish her book.  Curious about the cell phone usage - and amazed that I hadn't been this curious previously - I went online to check our usage summary.  I was disappointed - but I suppose I wasn't too surprised - to see this:

TmobileOur bill typically ranges $70-80 for two phone lines.  Not only did I find out that our daughter had 1400+ text messages, there were also downloads and pay-per-MB fees.  My heart felt heavy.

Later in the day, we found that my husband's phone had been disconnected/suspended, due to the overage in fees as well as late pays.  (We have an ongoing payment set up, since we rarely have any cost overages)

In an effort to get his phone line reactivated, we spent a long while on the phone with an agent at our wireless phone company.  When the agent saw our text message overage, she said "wow" under her breath.  She was impressed.  Then, she said that, from the perspective of the mother of two teenagers, kids these days just use text to communicate about everything.  She said each of her kids average about 5,000 texts a month.  She also counseled us on a few options (for additional monthly fees, of course) that would allow us varying degrees of control of the account: we could susupend service at certain points of the day (from 8am to 3pm, and from 8pm to 8am), allow service only to specific phone numbers (parents, family, select friends), elect for automatic shut-off once maximums were reached (maximum text or data usage).  I suppose we do have many options to exercise control.

We are so new to all of this, and I am so curious how you and your tweens/teens have agreed upon boundaries for their cell phones.  Have you decided upon a maximum usage plan, then insisted upon their adherance?  Have you and they both compromised on an in-between plan?  What about parental controls: have you used these options, even incurring additional fees?  Any of these services worth the cost and control?


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I would suggest a discount carrier such as Cricket. You can get a basic phone with unlimited talk, unlimited long distance, and unlimited text for $35 a month. It's an insurance policy for you to prevent overages. No data with this plan, I suspect the phone doesn't have any data service.

Control her phone usage by withholding the phone from her instead of trying to jigger a plan that doesn't provide you the protection you need.

wow! that's huge! I haven't seen a bill like that since those days in the 90s when we had to pay per minute for long distance (boy did I rack up some frightening bills in my 18th year). while I think it's typical for girls her age, I think parental controls are in order. we haven't dealt with the cell phones yet, but we *have* had a couple of shocking bills for in-app purchases on iTunes -- to the tune of $30 or $40 in a few days. after the first, I had a talk with my eldest about how much money that was, and if I saw something like that again, I'd have to change the iTunes password to something he couldn't possibly guess. sure enough, the second time came along about a week later.

"I *knew* I wasn't supposed to, but I just really didn't want to lose x and y," he said. "and I honestly, really, didn't realize I'd bought so much." we changed the password and I started a point jar -- if he does reading or helps with chores or takes care of his brothers or any number of other "preferred" tasks, I give him points toward iTunes purchases. sure enough, without seamless access to the method of payment, he has hardly asked me for anything over the past month or so -- he's found other ways to entertain himself that don't cost incremental funds. the point jars are really filling up!

I think that it's too hard for tween-age kids to resist temptation for some things -- there's the compulsive loops built in to video games, and the social pressure (or even simply social attraction) of texting friends -- unless serious barriers are put up. when the barriers are there, when they have to budget on their own, it's SO much easier for them to comply. how much easier is it to say, 'my mom put controls on my phone' than 'my mom said I can't use it anymore'? very.

anyway, that's what I think you should do, but I'm eager to hear what other parents of kids with cell phones have handled this! oh, and for what it's worth, i'm a huge fan of the pay-per-minute/pay-per-text phone plan, like the gophone (the one I use). it's another method of forced budgeting that keeps you from having the parental controls. put $10 or $15 on her phone each month and she has to ration the texts accordingly.

As with all things involving children, it depends on the child. In addition, it depends on the parent's mind set. As a parent, I can make or not make something a big deal. It comes down to the relationship I have with my child.

A few years ago, I was going through a terrible divorce and was the primary parent to my 3 sons (cue TV music). I was working full time and had the same schedule as my sons since I am a school teacher. I needed a way to contact them in case I was running late; to let them know I was not late but just around the corner; or to organize after school plans.

The solution was a cell phone for the family, carried by my oldest son. It was, then and still is, a good solution. Money aside, because it does cost money, but I budgeted it in so it becomes money aside, the cell phone has been an asset to our family.

Having a cell phone is something that my oldest son took on as a responsibility. He sees it as a sign of maturity. With that maturity comes responsibility. He knows that he will have the phone taken away if he misuses it. No immediate second chances--no easy second chances.

Since we talked about responsible use of the phone, he uses it responsible. And it does come down to individual child need/personality. My eldest son would rather climb trees and build things our of scrap materials so I do not have to worry about the phone taking away from his life or being over used. My point, each child is different so it is good to hear what other parents have done in order to get perspective and see the big picture, but in the end it comes down to the parent and child. The relationship. The needs.

Thanks for sharing this post. My son and I read it and talked.

Unless it's a safety issue, I tend to address things with an attitude of "I'm giving you a lot of rope--don't hang yourself with it." I give a basic, relatively minimal set of rules, with the understanding that if my daughter screws up, the rules will become more restrictive.

My daughter has had her own cell phone since she started riding Tri-Met to and from school in the sixth grade. When I added her to my plan, I added unlimited texting; I'd rather pay a little bit more every month than have the awful surprise of a huge bill.

I set parameters that were more manners or responsibility driven than anything else. No cell phone use during meals, during family time, etc. Be safe and careful about who you give your number to. Follow the school rules regarding phone use; if you get in trouble, I'm going to back the school up. When you are home alone, or out with friends, keep your cell phone on your person and answer it (!!!) if I text or call. Keep the phone charged. If you lose your phone, you pay for the replacement.

At her middle school, there were strictly enforced rules about no phone usage during the school day (including lunch.) I never had to police that. Since she's started high school, I've monitored usage on line from time-to-time, and most of her minimal text usage during the school day is to me.

She doesn't have a smart phone, but any data usage for games or ringtones comes out of her pocket. She's found, with the phone she has, that those things simply aren't worth it.

To the original poster--IMHO, the bigger problem is with your daughter's lying and sneaking around in order to use her phone (not in any way to minimize a $500 phone bill--ouch!) Why is using the cell phone more important to her than maintaining your trust?

I grew up in the days when we camped out on the landline with friends talking and it was especially exciting when one friend got three way calling and we could all three tie up our phone lines. My daughter has had a cell phone since middle school and texts a ton, in fact I cannot recall ever seeing her put the phone to her ear. If you don't text you're out of the loop since kids now text about everything. They make plans, gossip, ask about assigments and they keep up with whats going on. When my daughter didn't have one she missed out on being a part of the socialization that goes on, didn't find out until too late about plans and changes to plans and generally was out of the loop which can equate to middle school social death. She started off with a simple phone but now that she's in high school she has a smart phone. If she keeps a 4.0 then she has a data plan that includes updating her twitter and facebook, some games and a virtual horse she cares for. If her grades slip we turn off the data plan and it's just a cell phone with texting. Teachers are strict about seeing phones in class so she'll text me at lunch if she has a rehearsal or some other message but not during school since no one wants to lose their phone.

It's interesting that most of these comments concern girls. My son is in middle school and his friends don't text at all. Ok, none of them have cell phones, but they are very involved in doing stuff with each other, making plans, getting information on homework, etc. They do all this either in person or via a landline. My son bugs me about plenty of stuff he wants, but has never asked for a phone or mentioned feeling out of the loop because he doesn't have one. Is this more of a girl phenomena?

We can barely afford our own phones (w/o texting) much less add our middle-schooler to our plan :( It would be convenient, and she would LOVE to have a phone and texting capabilities, but it's mostly not necessary. I'm a sahm and I'm just always around for her and her younger siblings right now. The majority-if not all-of her friends have no siblings, 2 working parents and are in more situations where they need a phone for safety reasons. Needless to say, my daughter feels left out and marginalized. She saved up babysitting money for an iPod Touch and got a free texting app and had a lot of fun with that for a while (but I still couldn't contact her through that, as I don't have txting) but it was stolen at school. It's a lot to save up for...it was a sad loss. But to be honest, I'm kinda glad to see her face again! She was tethered to that screen obsessively (as are her peers), no matter how many stipulations I tried to put on it's use. I am glad that Sheryl mentioned cell phone manners because it seems like most kids' access to and use of electronics and social media, etc is speeding ahead of their maturity to use it appropriately in society. I'm just sad because most of the kids I see with cell phones are tethered-- and have forgotten that children are supposed to climb trees and build things out of scrap materials. These are my kids' peers; it's hard to hang on to my tree-climbing values in this environment. Are my expectations just totally archaic and ridiculous?

Amy, I don't think your expectations are archaic or ridiculous at all. But I'm the Sheryl who doesn't allow phone (or other electronic use) during meals, etc....and I seem to be an exception in our wider circle of acquaintances with tweens/teens. But you know, as I write, it just dawned on me that the kids that seem to be the worst offenders are the ones that have parents who are tethered to their own electronic devices.

Zinemama, if I recall, the cell phone thing was just as pervasive with boys during middle school as it was with girls. Thumbs up, though, to your boys' disinterest in them!

My kids aren't at this age yet, so I am watching this thread with interest. I see my niece and nephew using their phones constantly (and yes, even dangerously while driving, etc) and it bothers me to no end. At this point, I try to model good phone manners with my kids - I put it away during appropriate times (in the car while driving it is volume off in my purse in the backseat, when in public/talking to people, and when my kids are talking to me). I hope that by modeling good behavior, when it comes time for them to get phones, the expectations will be set.

On a related note. My almost 7 year old is begging for a kindle or iPod touch. We haven't purchased those for her. I am not comfortable with the parent protections (or lack thereof) on them both for purchases and web surfing. She doesn't surf the web yet, but that time is coming soon. My delay tactic on this is that I've told her she has to earn them. So, I have at least a year of saved up allowance to go before I have to figure out those parental controls. lol.

Thanks for all the thoughts so far & glad to hear more.

Sheryl: you are right about the dishonesty being the bigger issue and we talked at length about this last night. We did not harp on the cost (though it is absolutely money we don't have), but we continued to talk about how - since the advent of her phone a few months ago - we don't see her as engaged as we used to. It hurts and is bothersome, and we are considering just taking the thing back, although she does need it when she is home alone.

Amy, I don't think your expectations are archaic. Kids have plenty of time as adults to get sucked into technology. I only hope that I can teach our kids to learn to use technology as a tool, not to abuse it as a vice or use it as a social crutch. Although I am almost always working, I leave my computer/phone out of site from 5pm to 10pm when we have our time together as a family.

Our conversation yesterday ended with talking about a few things that our middle-schooler was interested in, and helping pursue those interests. This included a book club (non-fantasy/sci-fi based, since the clubs we know of at the library & book store & school seemed to be of this theme), more baking/cooking, and drawing/painting.

A couple of thoughts:

1. Does your daughter see you/your husband constantly on your phones/using technology or do you have "rules" for yourselves that you truly follow as well?

2. The cost should, I feel, be a HUGE issue-that is a lot of $. Why not have her think of some ways that she could work off a reasonable part of that debt and/or future limited use...?

3. Maybe chores/volunteer work could be used to "earn" the privilege each month of using her cell phone at all-not just because she broke the rules you had established, but also to emphasize that it is something that costs money, isn't free and needs to be used responsibly.

I'm in the "my kids are too young still" camp, and feeling very grateful! Interesting conversation though, and one I will tuck away for the future. I can't help but giggle at the feeling in the pit of her stomach your daughter must have had when she saw you at school. I so remember being in middle school when the high rubber heeled shoes were all the rage. I wanted to be able to wear them so badly and I was only allowed the 2 inch heels, not the 4 inch ones I coveted. I had a pair I kept in my locker and would change at school, of course. Until the day my dad showed up at school unexpectedly. I was so busted!

I was wondering though, you just moved, didn't you, Olivia? Is your daughter using the phone to keep up with her friends here or is she making a solid new circle down there? I don't know if that needs to get factored in to any of the conversations, but it did jump out at me.

$500+!!!! wow. Whether or not she is using the phone to keep in touch with friends, that is a huge amount of $ (could be a family vacation). I would say you need to set up some consequences and clear boundaries for her cell phone use.

I guess I don't understand the first part of your post. Why buy a cell phone for your daughter if she is not allowed to use it? And if, like you said, it was only to be kept in the drawer so that she could text you to let you know she made it home-why not just have her call you on the landline phone(assuming there is one)?

I feel for you mama! Such a tough lesson to learn. Bring back the days of passing notes to your friends. Though I have a few years before we approach the tweens, I do find that I have to set strict limits with my kids on technology. They don't get to play games on our phones but they do get to use the iPad to play games sparingly (once a month, maybe?) - no access to passwords as I think they are too young to set personal limits. Even then it's a slippery slope as my boys can get easily drawn in and play for hours forgoing food and everything else if I would let them.

Maybe a non-data plan would help to set some limits and adding it back on down the road. I love to text and I find it convenient, but there's something to be said about helping kids learn to communicate verbally.

I agree about the money being an issue. My 4 year old broke a new book of his sister's a while back and we made him do extra little "jobs" around the house to earn quarters to "pay" for a new book for him. It was totally symbolic, of course, because he couldn't actually earn enough money to pay for replacing the book, but I wanted him to learn that you can't just be careless with other's things.

Of course, there are many teachable moments in the scenario you present, so perhaps you are choosing to focus on other aspects besides the money issue.

I'm hoping we still have the great neighbors we have now when we hit the cell phone for kids years. I'm also hoping we won't get one and he/they will have to borrow a neighbor's phone to call if there were a problem. There are so many friends with phones that could be borrowed, or the phone in the office before they leave school to update on practices etc. that I'm betting it will be ok for him/ them to not have one. Big fingers crossed, I know! Good luck on finding the balance in the now.

Thank you for writing so much about this topic. This info is wonderful and very useful

off topic, i know. but, does anyone else think about making sure kids have access to a phone for 911? i feel like we can't give up a landline because i want the kids to always ALWAYS know where a phone is that they can use to call for help if they need to. they're little now, so never home alone. but even now, if something weird happened to the adult in the house i don't want my kids having to guess where i left my cell phone last. maybe it's paranoid, but i can't get over that hurdle. byclist mama carie's comment made me think to ask this question in this thread.

jojo - we haven't ditched our landline for the same reason. We rarely use the landline, but I like having it there.

Yep, another landline parent. I like knowing that "I couldn't find my phone or my phone was dead" isn't a valid excuse.

In the above situation, it seems like the $ due to the extreme usage of the phone and not telling the truth should both be issues. Many, many families would not be able to pay that kind of bill...at all. Kids need to start to understand basic concepts about $ and what things cost, how to save it, donate it, etc. Letting that part go would seem like something that most families (unless, perhaps, extremely wealthy ones) would not be able to just ignore. Trust, obviously, is also a major part of the equation and one that I would urge you to continue to address as she navigates through middle school. Maybe consider having her contribute through chores/volunteering/doing something for others in order to be able use the phone at all-with whatever boundaries you clearly establish for its use. It should not just be automatic, especially after this incident.

k-I agree. S&%t would hit the fan if my kid ran up a bill like that. They would definitely have to pay it off. If they didn't have the money saved to give me, they would have to work it off, scrubbing toilets at say $1 per toilet until it was paid off. That should prevent a repeat offense.

jojo - we are the same. My kids are young so they aren't alone at home, but I also thought about if something happened to my husband or I when we were alone with the kids, my oldest has known to dial 911 since he was about 4, long before he'd memorized our address. With a landline, I believe 911 automatically knows the address it's calling from, so I figured all he would have to do is dial it and they would already be sending help. Will be paying for a land line we seldom use for a few years more mainly for piece of mind.

Re the landline, we had a sitter over the summer who left her cell phone at home. If we didn't have a landline, they would have been here without a phone in an emergency since I had mine with me in case I was needed. And I'm not convinced 911 can always track a cell phone, maybe not even a landline. That was one of the problems with the Powell case just recently, when the visit supervisor didn't know the address she was told they couldn't locate it at 911s end. But that was a cell. Anyway, I think if kids know to use 911, they should also at least know some part of their address if needed.

Not sure if anyone posted this but what about the "pay as you go" phones? You could give it to them as a gift with something like $50 or $60 dollars on it and then if they used that up they would have to do more stuff to earn more time on it. That way they might learn to manage there time better on the phone. Just a thought.

We, too, are trying to balance the benefits of technology - functioning successfully in an evolving world - and the drawbacks - overuse and lack of balance of skill and experience. Honestly, it's a unique issue for our generation of kids and us as parents.

A couple solutions we've come up with:
An itouch with downloaded apps that allow for free texting and phone use (free? my husband and I are skeptical, but there have been no charges so far). We communicate with our 7th grader via text frequently, esp. when she's babysitting.

Parents know all passwords and have unlimited access to auditing usage and messages sent.

No itouch until after homework is completed. No itouch at school.

Much of her homework is done using google docs, so she is on google + and google interfaces frequently with her classmates to interact on and give feedback on homework. This homework has to be done in our home's common area so we can monitor interaction. Like the itouch, we also frequently monitor usage and interactions.

...all of these have made for some good boundaries while maintaining a healthy use of technology. It's certainly had a learning curve, though, so I appreciate the topic on UM.

and as for landlines and the phone bill, both my husband and i have smart phones with unlimited data plans, and we have a "house" cell phone for use here (same unlimited plan). The "house" phone is helpful for times when we have a babysitter here or one of the kids (4 of 'em!) needs it. No overage charges!

Good luck with your situation...sounds like a tough one. Thanks for sharing.

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