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Teens and Phones: Can They Govern Themselves?

By Sandra Clark

President Nelson’s challenge to oust all the youth off social media for seven days amounted to zero tidal changes at my house. Nada. He came home laughing, saying he had that one covered. He had no phone and no accounts other than email.

That was weeks ago. And I had no plans to change any of that for him. I had banded with another mom friend to waituntil8th.org. (Really, it is a thing, and a fine one).

And then my water bottle leaked on my phone.


I was exercising and trying to do the good thing of ignoring my phone while it was drowning unto death in my ignorant downward facing dogs. Even if I was a lousy phone life guard, can I get a point for morning mindfulness? (And no, the 48 hr. rice trick and the cool-setting hair-dyer only get an E for effort- nothing revived my phone).

For my son, this death threw him a bone. Of course it coincided perfectly with the add-a-line BOGO that translated to $700 account credit, new phones in the hands of all the adults in the house, my non-functional phone into $35 cash, and a hand-me-down double cracked screen phone lobed at the in-bound 8th grader a few months earlier than planned.

Argh. The decision was easy, but I wasn’t psychologically/logistically/mentally/or in any way prepared for his long awaited mobile phone initiation (since I depend on ABQ tablet repair service for any issues) to come so haphazardly or hurried even though it meant saving some cash. I had loftily thought he should have a contract to read a stack of mind-stretching classics (or a least something other than graphic novels), and keep his bed made without my reminders, stop eating all the pepperoni straight from the package, and I don’t know start a nonprofit or something grandiose before he was legitimately qualified to have the world at his fingertips.

But here it is anyway.

I’m not ready but doing this. He doesn’t have a key to the city or his eagle scout award (yet, because growth mindset? It’s possible, right?) but the hand-me-down double cracked Samsung a few months ahead of the plan.

I told him to write me up a list of rules based on his tendencies and needs and I would amend it to include some parental guidance where needed.

There was a list waiting on the counter moments after my asking.


I’m NOT interested in smothering him with rules that I have to enforce- because heaven knows I don’t need one more thing to do.  I AM interested in helping him learn how to manage himself- to be purposeful and mindful with his new privileges. I also understand that’s a tall order for an almost 14 year-old brain.

The last thing I want is to make it an illicit pleasure he’ll sneak and indulge and then I’ll snatch back and hide in a place even I’ll forget about for 3 months (but he won’t and bring it up every 34 hours for 3 months)… speaking as a parent who’s been there, done that, and now looking for a better way.

I figure it’s not so different from learning that vegetables makes your gut happy, clean laundry is nice to wear, and locking up your bike is worth the effort. They will learn that taking care of yourself is taking care of yourself, but sometimes they don’t learn until they’ve crashed into the pit of crappy choices something I’ve also witnessed first hand and maybe helped expedite so he could learn those lessons faster. (Okay, I did steal the unlocked bike, but boy did that work well. I sang the whole way home as I stole it and he panicked ran the whole way home from school that day to find it locked up at home.)

But I don’t have a plan to execute so brilliantly that I’m singing this time. The stakes seem higher and I don’t want the kid to drown before I am forced to play lifeguard. I want him to learn to swim.

How do I do the “teach correct principles and let [the new mobile phone user] govern [himself and his phone usage]” thing in a healthy and effective way?

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

4 thoughts on “Teens and Phones: Can They Govern Themselves?”

  1. Well. I have mixed feelings about the phone and have told my 2 younger kids they will have to earn their own and wait until theyre 18. My 17 yo has her nose in that thing more than I do! ? One piece of advice, collect the phone at bedtime and charge it in your room. Notify them you have access to all content. Pray.

  2. Well. I have mixed feelings about the phone and have told my 2 younger kids they will have to earn their own and wait until they're 18. My 17 yo has her nose in that thing more than I do! ? One piece of advice, collect the phone at bedtime and charge it in your room. Notify them you have access to all content. Pray.

  3. My 5th child is just going into 8th grade this fall and we found ourselves in the same boat: extra smart phone and she's super responsible and her friends are always texting emoticons and videos and I just felt bad for her being so left out. So we gave her the smartphone and I instantly felt a crashing sense of "no! This is not the right thing!" So after two weeks we–the worst parents in the known world–took it away and got her a slider phone.

    Ultimately we felt like it's too much. There are too many kids addicted to porn, too many kids who are bullied 24/7, too much distraction when it's time to do homework, too many bad things. My child might be OK (might, no way to know for sure) and have an innocent relationship with her phone. But the stakes are high. Much higher, I believe, than we adults realize. None of my older kids got a smartphone before age 16 (my oldest son just got his first smartphone when he got back from his mission last year) so we've told my daughter that she can get one when she's in 10th grade AT THE EARLIEST!

    And even though she just has a slider, she still has to leave it in our bedroom at night. Just like her 12th grade sister does. Kids are idiots, no matter how smart and wonderful and trustworthy they are. I hate being the phone cop but I just think the consequences can be very real and very serious.

  4. I was a teenager before smart phones were common, but I did learn the blessings of reduced TV watching simply by living in a family that had family-wide (parents too) definite limits and guidelines on TV watching PLUS parents who were interested and able to make the time to create a home where there were lots of other engaging things going on.

    What I learned and what I see going on in my own family now: you cannot teach a child the value of limiting media (TV, smartphone, or anything else) in your life unless you a) specifically limit it for yourself as well, b) have lots of other worthy, good things for him in his daily life since the goal is not just to teach restraint but also to teach alternative activities that are engaging and good and c) not have him carry it around with him all the time and definitely not have it in his bedroom and d) keep the communication about those family decisions calm, informative and positive.

    How you manage to do that is up to you. There are many different ways to do that. It doesn’t mean that they will learn the value of a life with media under regulation right off the bat, nor that they will not whine or feel left out of the world of their peers, or occasionally sneak off and indulge, but I have seen those principles and practices play out in various families in positive ways, empowering young adults with greater skills at managing their time and choices when they are setting off on their own.


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