Tween phone woes

I have a picture of my son excitedly holding a small box that had arrived in the mail. 

It was taken just weeks before he started middle school. In it, his ecstatic expression says it all: I have arrived. I am among the elite. I have a phone.

A few months into the school year, he realized: As exciting as it was to pull it out and text amongst the other tween masses, it was just a phone — a Pantech, which enabled him to text and call and not much else. 

About a year ago, my husband and I realized our iPhones were up for renewal and, like a lot of families do, we traded up, passing our old iPhones down to both of our kids, our 10-year-old daughter included. They were both thrilled (and the Pantech quickly became a thing of the past).

Yes, I was uneasy at the thought of handing a 10-year-old a phone. But after a recent move to a new state, where we didn’t know anyone, I needed the assurance of us being able to reach one another.

 We chose not to give either of them Internet access: They could text, they could purchase gaming apps and music (with our permission) and they could Instagram. When all else failed, they could make a phone call. 


Parenting 'digital natives'

At a recent church service, our pastor talked about the difference between digital immigrants (those born before 1980) and digital natives (those born after 1980). I could readily identify with his terminology. 

I’m doing my best to make a digital playbook for our family, but it’s new territory for me. As parents, we’re digital immigrants trying to control digital natives. They have the lingo down; they have a better grasp on how to adapt quickly to its updates and changes. Quite simply, our kids adapt naturally because they’ve always lived in a world where technology was available to them.


Breaking new ground

While I manage with phone basics, some things still don’t come naturally. I have to look things up (and hope I can easily keep up with every iOS update). 

How many times have I handed my phone over to my daughter when I was too impatient to figure it out and she was too impatient to watch me struggle through it? But as a parent, I’m responsible for teaching her how to use this thing properly.

As a digital immigrant, I didn’t have the privilege of watching my parents manage these kinds of digital expectations. 

We’re groundbreakers, hammering this path out ourselves. We make the rules as we meet new challenges. The difficult part is balancing our use of technology, so these rules make sense.  


Creating house rules

How do we handle it? To start with, we don’t allow phones or iPads at the dining table or at bedtime. This goes for us parents, too. We all get to enjoy each other — and a real conversation — over a meal. 

Experts recommend no technology an hour before bedtime to produce a more restful night. In our house, all the gadgets are plugged in 30 minutes before bedtime in the kitchen — and if the kids forget to follow this rule they can’t use their phones the next day. This is important because I’ve noticed the text threads my kids are a part of go well into the middle of the night.

Both my kids know we can and will pick their phones up at random to read their conversations and see what they’re posting. (We usually do this when they’re in bed.) 

I always tell my son: Whatever you type,  pretend your dad is reading it, along with your friend’s dad on the other side. 


Contracts, advice, and apps

If it seems difficult to start incorporating digital rules, consider creating a technology contract. Google “teen media contract” to find templates you can adapt to your needs.

 I recently attended a cybersafety course provided by our local school district. They gave a list of more than a dozen popular apps, games and social-media sites teens and tweens are using now — Snapchat, Reddit,, Kik, Tumblr, League of Legends, Wanelo, Yik Yak and Omegle. (There are many more!) They recommend researching these apps to see if you’re comfortable with them (you may not be). 

You can do this easily on a family-friendly website called Common Sense Media. Simply enter your child’s age and get advice and ratings on books, apps and movies. Best of all, there’s a smartphone app, so if your kiddo calls and asks about a PG-13 movie that you’re on the fence about, you’ll have help and advice right at your fingertips.

Yes, technology may always be changing, improving itself — updating — but I am, too.