Setting Teenage Cell Phone Rules

I have two sons–a teen and a tween. The older one has a cell phone, and the younger is about to get one. For today’s Deep-Fried Friday, I wanted to talk about setting cell phone rules. What’s reasonable? What’s not?

In my teen years, I had several phone rules. No hogging the phone. There was no call waiting then. No calling anyone after 9:00 p.m. No calling boys. Yes, that was a rule in my house, unless it was an already-established boyfriend. At any time that I was talking, people could walk by and hear my side of the conversation. Privacy was thus limited.

All of these rules don’t work in today’s teen world. Kids text and tweet and get on Facebook, and unless we hover over them and watch the screen, we don’t know what all they’re doing on that little piece of technology. But experts agree that there need to be parameters, boundaries, rules, especially when you’re the one paying the cell phone bill.

So what should some of the rules be? In my house, here are some of the rules and principles we try to establish.

1. The cell phone gets turned off at night. During the school year, it’s 9 p.m. During summer, it’s 10 p.m. Kids need sleep, but the draw of chatting with a friend can be too much unless it’s just not an available option. I must keep my cell phone on during the night in case an emergency occurs and family needs to reach me, but why does a 13 year old need access to a phone at 3 a.m.? So we tell the boys the phone must get shut off at night.

2. Focus on people when you’re with people. These days, it’s not surprising to see two people–teens or adults–sitting at a restaurant table and fiddling with their phones. I even admit to having my husband ask me to put away my phone when we were on a date. (I was checking blog comments! LOL.) But it’s a good practice to set the phone down and spend time face-to-face when you have that opportunity. I recently saw this photo and thought it was a great idea for parties:

pic from

Phones are a wonderful way to connect with people who aren’t near you. However, when you are with someone, it should become a habit to give that person or people all or most of your attention.

3. When I call, you answer. One of the biggest reasons to get your kid a cell phone is for you, the parent, to be able to reach them. You may need to inform your child of a change in schedule, remind them of a task they need to do, or communicate how much they are your cutie-wootie-pie. Whatever your reason, you’re the parent, you pay the bill, and when you call, the kid should answer. Barring severe injury, zombie apocalypse, or unconsciousness, your communications to your child come first. So if I call or text my kid seven times, and get nothing back, I have to wonder what is the problem. And the answer better not be, “I was chatting on Facebook.” Thankfully, in my house, it’s usually something more oops-ish like “I forgot my phone.”

4. You break it, you buy it. We buy the first phone. If the teen breaks it, he must pay for repairs or a new phone. Or simply live with it. Unfortunately, my son dropped his cell phone in the first few months of having it, and he has for more than a year lived with a cracked screen. He is already saving up for the next phone and a protective cover. I consider this along the lines of that 16-year-old kid you knew growing up who wrecked his brand-new shiny sports car, and then his parents bought him another one! If you keep buying your kid sports cars or cell phones every time they break them, how motivated are they not to break them?

5. I pay attention, but I don’t snoop. My kids know that their accounts can be scanned by me at any time. I periodically pick up my son’s phone and scan through his text messages. Does this make him uncomfortable? A bit. However, I’m not reading the messages. I am not eavesdropping on his conversations. I’m looking for red flags–names of people I don’t know, extreme profanity, links to questionable websites, etc. If I find something, I want to be able to bring it to his attention, talk about it, and coach him through. Teenagers deal with a lot of pressure, and as a parent, I want to help him navigate the stormy waters. I would want to know if he was being bullied by someone through his phone, if he was being sent pornography, if he was being stalked or targeted in some way. And admittedly, I also want to know if my kid is behaving, more or less. So I pay attention, but I don’t catch all of the details.

6. You can talk to me about your concerns. If an image, video, or conversation comes through the cell phone that makes a son nervous, I want him to be able to talk to me about it. I have an “ask anything” policy in my house. That means my children won’t get in trouble if they ask an uncomfortable question. I’m willing to take the time to help my teen text a girl with courtesy and respect, if he wishes. I will answer what that textspeak means, even if it has three cuss words I don’t like. I will call the phone of that person who keeps calling and hanging up to figure out what’s going on. While there are rules for my sons, more importantly I have a relationship with them. The cell phone is a tool for connecting with others, and my kids may still need some parental assistance in dealing with others as they mature.

So what are your rules for cell phone usage? Do you think it’s reasonable to establish boundaries for teens? What were the rules you had as a teenager regarding the phone? As technology constantly changes, do you think we’ll have greater or less ability to help kids navigate the challenges?

Source: Your Teen for Parents – Taking Charge of Technology

14 thoughts on “Setting Teenage Cell Phone Rules

  1. Great bunch of rules, Julie! I 100% agree! I’ve had people tell me it’s not right for me to check my kid’s phones from time to time. That it invades their privacy and that it breaks trust. Nope. First of all, as teens (with frontal lobes that are not fully developed until around 21) their unquestioned right to privacy covers the bathroom and that’s about it. Other than that, privacy is governed by the parents according to trust and the situation at hand. And as far as trust goes, my kids know their phones and computers are subject to random checks. And it’s not because I care about who likes who. I’m looked for the exact sort of things you mentioned.

    1. Well-said! I also don’t care who likes who, even though the concern is usually that I’ll discover some private detail. I am not looking for details, just the red flags. It’s also so true about that frontal cortex. Thanks for the comment, Kea!

  2. When I was in HS we lived in the country, so everyone I wanted to call was long distance – which back then was expensive. My phone time was very limited. It sucked! My daughter’s cell phone rules are the same as yours, except we don’t make her turn the phone off. So far she hasn’t abused that. Also, no phone calls or texting during dinner! Now if only my husband would abide by that one.

    1. I forgot that one! We also insist on no phones during dinner, and sometimes it’s hard for my husband and me to put ours aside too. LOL. It’s a great practice, though, Jennette. Thanks!

  3. I agree with all your rules, Julie, and try to enforce them. Because my daughter knows I can look on her phone at any time, I’ve found that she deletes the history of her texts. I have to address that issue today. Whereas my son, who is 18, and knows I know his iPhone password, doesn’t seem to care because, get this, he is never ever without his iPhone. He sleeps with it and never puts it down. It’s been hard for me because he is old enough now to move out if he wants to and he knows the rules about checking in with me, no matter WHAT his age. And they both know that I get the phone bill and every single number coming in and going out is on that bill for my perusal.

    1. It is definitely a challenge, Patti. I know that kids can delete history too. Somehow, though, I look back at my own teenage years, and it was a reasonable deterrent to me if I knew my parents could walk it at any time. Knowing that they were checking up on me kept me from doing some truly stupid things that could have had lasting negative consequences.

  4. I applaud your Rule #4. We have a friend who bought both his teen daughters iPhones. They break them occasionally, and he just buys a new one or has the old one repaired. I think this is not a great way to teach kids about money. Not too many of today’s kids understand how much things cost and what it takes to earn the money to pay for those things.

    I think you are doing a great job of parenting. Too many parents just sit back and let their kids do whatever. At least you are actively, you know, parenting. 😀

  5. Great rules. Only one child (12) has a phone in my house, but two more are watching. I love the focus rule. I hate when adults don’t interact on a personal level out in public, instead spending every second on their phones. I also have a “text check” rule. At anytime I can check her texts. I’ve heard too many horror stories of bullying and inappropriate texts, so she knows I can spot check. She hasn’t fought me yet, but she is 12 and not entertaining “boyfriends” yet. Good luck!

  6. Great list of rules. I would also make some rules with school time, too. No phone in class, etc. The school is supposed to do that, but I’d reinforce it at home. And like others said, the focus rule is so important. Nothing else is more rude than someone texting while a conversation is going on around them.

  7. These are all excellent rules. It’s funny to me because this wasn’t an issue less than 10 years ago, when I was a kid. I didn’t have a cell phone until I went off to college. And before that only the “rich kids” at my school had them. And you couldn’t go on Facebook or search the web with them. (Pause for reflection on how far technology has come in such a short amount of time.) Now, kids are getting cells before they hit middle school. It’s still mind boggling to me (like, what do they actually need cell phones for?). My mom never had a policy for me, but that’s because I was (and still am!) a straight-and-narrow kind of person. If she had, I think her rules would’ve been something like this. And I would have been totally okay with that.

    Here’s a question I’d like to see your response to: At which age should a child get a cell phone and why?

  8. I want to be you when I grow up to be a teenager parent. 🙂

    The rule about the phone in my house growing up was I had to be off the phone for 5 minutes at the top of every hour so my mom could call in if she wanted. Obviously, I was always chatty…

  9. “When I call, you answer”. This was the most difficult one for my son to understand when he got his phone. Especially after we added texting to his plan (we started with a limited amt of texts–even though we got burned the year before when his sister amassed 10,000 in her very first month of texting-insane)–I would text him about pick up times after his track practice, but he wouldn’t text me back a response. HIs explanation? He didn’t want to waste a text. Oh how important did I feel?

  10. In my opinion, cell phones should be an ’emergency only’ addition to an electronics collection. It think they’ve done more to hurt social skills than help. My daughter and her boyfriend have never called one another. It’s always texts. When I mention it, she acts like I’m nuts. Why would she ever want to hear his VOICE over a phone line? (my paraphrase) I also think they contribute to the stress everyone has to deal with. How’s that for old-fashioned? Sometimes I feel like a clone of my mom and grandma. 🙂

    Still, I recognize that not everyone agrees with me…especially my daughter. So I limit some things. I insist on a pre-paid minutes cards. When they’re gone, she’s just tough out of luck. So she is learning to budget them-not well, but learning.

    I have put a new rule into effect…after discovering that cell phones do not survive the wash/rinse cycle (twice), and that tires on vans aren’t good for them either (once). She will always have a cell phone…even if I have to pay for them. Because I need that peace of mind. However, we’re clear on the fact that if this one doesn’t last long enough to wear out, she will either make the next purchase…or all she’s getting is a cheap $10.00 one…because I’m done spending small fortunes on phones.

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