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How to Monitor Your Kid’s Cell Phone — Without Making Her Feel Like You Don’t Trust Her

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I recently stood on the sidelines of a heated debate about the “right” age to give a child a cell phone. The moms on either side of the conversation were equally passionate about their views on the topic, and all of them made good points. I was sidelined not because they didn’t include me, but because I couldn’t choose a side. As a licensed child and adolescent psychotherapist, I can share statistics about technology addiction and the effects of too much screen time for little kids, but as a mom? That’s a different story.

A couple of moms agreed that the security factor is big. Scary headlines seem to be everywhere these days and although child abductions are not as common as the headlines might lead us to believe, sending a kid out in the world is a bit more unsettling than it once was. It’s easy to say that you always found a way to contact mom or dad back in the day but…when was the last time you saw a working pay phone? When was the last time you sent your kid out the door with loose change in her pocket? Perhaps that phone could be a lifesaver. We can’t know for sure, but sometimes a security blanket (even for a parent) provides peace of mind.

On the other side of the debate, a few moms argued that social media is dangerous for kids and that cell phones can increase dangerous or negative behaviors like cyberbullying and sexting. More good points. It’s true that your child might not be as likely to engage in cyberbullying if she doesn’t have easy access to technology, but the flip side of that is that many tweens and teens communicate through text and group messages. To have zero access is to limit social communication on some level.

Caught right in the middle of the debate, I couldn’t help but think that the two sides can find common ground. Kids can have cell phones and make good choices. Teens can use social media without posting inappropriate photos. Cell phones in the hands of kids don’t have to be labeled good or bad, they can just become part of the landscape.

When parents take an active role in educating kids about cell phone use (and that includes everything from the safety features to the financial aspect of mobile technology), they can build a trusting relationship with their child while monitoring digital behavior. Here’s how:

1. Be open and honest with your child. She knows when she’s being watched and no one enjoys breach of privacy. Instead of simply handing over a device filled with all kinds of parental controls and watchdog apps, talk to her frequently about the responsibility of using a cell phone. (Note that I said frequently; this isn’t a one-time conversation.) Share your concerns about things like social media use and texting. Ask your child how she wants to use the phone and what apps her friends are using. If you take an interest in technology instead of trying to run from it, your child will be more likely to open up to you and share her own feelings and concerns about online behavior. If you plan to monitor every little thing, let her know. Spying will break the trust and threaten your relationship with your child. Open communication is the key to setting appropriate limits while keeping your relationship with her on an even keel.

2. Understand how technology works. If I had a dollar for every parent who had no idea how a hashtag functions on Instagram and Facebook… You can’t send your child into the world of social media and technology if you don’t understand how things work. Learn about the current apps being used by kids of all ages before you jump in. Ask other parents for guidance. Check in with his school to learn about rules and restrictions regarding phone and social media use at school. You can’t control how he engages with technology, but you can explore the available parental control apps and work to make your child’s cell phone use as safe as possible.

3. Monitor content together. Watching your kid’s actions through parental control apps and then handing out consequences when she walks through the door doesn’t actually teach her about cell phone and online safety. Monitoring content together and engaging in frequent meaningful conversation does. Go through her Instagram feed together and talk about the fun pictures, the inappropriate pictures, and the mean comments that sometimes appear. Ask your child how she feels about those things and what she can do to make a difference. Empowering your child to become a change maker is huge — but you can’t empower your kid by taking the phone and sending her to her room for all of eternity.

4. Discuss financial responsibility. Cell phones are expensive, and kids should know what they cost. Some parents ask their children to earn money to help pay the monthly cell phone bill. I think that’s a great way to teach responsibility and empower your child to make good choices. 

People often ask me to name the perfect age for kids to get cell phones. The truth is that all kids are different and all families have different needs. You know your child best, so only you can make that call. When you do put a mobile phone in the hands of your child, be sure to talk about what that really means. Raising digitally responsible kids is up to us, fellow parents, and that begins with talking about the hard stuff.

 
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Photo: Getty