mother and tween daughter look at phone

The Trouble With Phones (Part 1)

Unless you live in a tech-free zone – and if so, you probably aren’t reading this! – you’ll know that there are a number of challenges for parents when it comes to kids using their phones.

Sometimes these can be funny, like when auto-correct makes your child think you’re asking them if they want scary legs instead of scrambled eggs. 

But sometimes, things get serious pretty quickly. In one situation I heard about recently, and apparently this is not an uncommon scenario, a 13-year-old girl had sent a boy a picture. It certainly wasn’t a naked picture, but it was perhaps a little suggestive. And the boy, instead of keeping it to himself, had shared it with the whole school.

So you’ve got this girl – a very sweet kid and a good student – she’s got hormones starting to happen, and this is the first boy she’s really liked. Then technology gets involved, and kids act on impulse or under peer pressure. She walks into the classroom and everybody is looking at her and laughing. It didn’t end there, because she came home crying and embarrassed, and her mother didn’t know how to address it.

Her mom was angry and upset because, as a parent, she’d been taken off-guard. She had this idea that her daughter was a sweet, innocent little child and mom perhaps wasn’t really keeping up with what was happening, developmentally, and what kinds of things were going on at school.

The parent in this kind of scenario usually has two big questions up front:

  • How do I open up communication – and keep it open – on sensitive topics, especially, without things getting too emotional?
  • How do I set boundaries for kids and teenagers in regard to this sort of stuff?


So let’s look at the communication side of things, first. One of the things that’s really important is not to over-react, or to react the way maybe instinct is telling you to. Step back, take a deep breath, and ask some questions to try to get your child’s interpretation of the situation first.

With teenagers, it’s important that you start to move towards more mutual communication. You’re not having to explain everything like you are to a little kid, and they’re going to have to learn to negotiate as they grow older. So one of the first things the parent needs to do is to think about things from the teenager’s perspective. But at the same time, remember not all teenagers are the same. In this case, as I understand it, the mother was assuming that the daughter might not tell the truth, and what happens when you approach something in a disapproving way rather than in a more open-ended way is that you can get off on the wrong foot.

So even when there are serious things to cover, like:

  • the appropriate use of a phone
  • what’s okay to send and what’s private
  • the fact that images can be shared with anyone; and even,
  • what’s legal and what’s illegal

… you need to hold off on just blasting the kid with all that information all at once. Get some information from them. Find out what they think. They may already know some of this stuff, but maybe there are circumstances you don’t know about. You might even be surprised at what they DON’T know.


Moving on to the second aspect, what I find parents want to know about when they’re in this situation is how to fix or change the situation. A lot of parents feel 'stuck' because they know there needs to be a consequence but they don’t know how to enforce consequences that involve technology. So they say: “I can’t take the phone away because my child needs it for emergencies, or to let me know where they are", or "I don’t want them to be the only kid who doesn’t have a phone and can’t communicate with their friends”. In the case of a computer, if you try to tell the child they can’t go on the computer then the first thing they’re going to say is: “But I have to use the computer to do my homework.” Same with using the internet.

So just to be clear here, what we’re talking about is where there’s a rule about using the phone or the computer and the teenager’s gone against that rule. Let’s think about a scenario where, say, your teenager has created a social media account without you knowing about it, when you had a specific rule about not doing that. So the parent needs to establish a boundary and have a consequence for that action, but for the reasons we talked about they don’t want to just say: “Well, that’s it – you can’t have a phone anymore.” This consequence may be too harsh for the infraction and the teen may become lose motivation to make any changes.


You might think a little outside the box and, say, stop the child from going to a concert or an event or the after-school activity they like doing. But maybe it’s worth thinking about it a bit more, because you want to do a few things:

  • Connect the consequence to the inappropriate behavior.
  • Use the situation as an opportunity to teach more about using the technology appropriately.
  • Give your teenager the motivation to learn the appropriate behavior.

So you might want to think about things like how you’ll:

  • Establish that you’re going to have some level of access to the texts, data, browsing history, social media accounts and that sort of thing;
  • Put limits on when, how and/or where the phone or computer can be used. It’s probably a good idea to spend some time as a family agreeing on some rules that everybody has to stick to, such as no phones during meals, or no phones in the bedroom at night after a certain time.


In regard to that last point, these might be quite strict limits in the short term, but the idea is that the teenager can earn the right to have those restrictions eased a little bit by demonstrating their responsibility and willingness to learn and do the right thing.

If you’re really having some trouble getting all this to work, you can do a program like Teen Triple P and you can learn more about things like setting up a contract with your teenager. And this isn’t about a carrot and stick approach, it’s about really helping them to understand other people’s expectations and how to negotiate and cooperate and all those other relationship skills that are going to help them in life.