Changing Teenager’s Behavior–The Cell Phone

Changing Teenager’s Behavior–The Cell Phone
We parents know that most teenagers are wired to their
electronic devices–computers, Play Stations, X Boxes, or
cell phones. Talking on cell phones is ubiquitous.
Texting each other during school hours is endemic and has
replaced passing notes between classes. It used to be
that only doctors had pagers and cell phones. Now, pagers
are obsolete and everyone has a cell phone, and that is not
much of an exaggeration, at least in developed nations.
From the teenager’s perspective, no one who is anyone doesn’t
have one.
Of course, your teenage wants a cell phone, and according
to his or her perspective, will suffer much social stigma
should s/he be “deprived” of one. Your task, as the parent,
is not to hold your teenager back; rather, to give him or her
the tools to succeed, again, recognizing that the limits of
having tools are set by need, circumstances and your teenager’s
The immediate questions I hear from parents, are “At what
age should a kid have a cell phone?” (I often also hear the
question, “Should s/he have one at all?”) “How much should we spend?”
“How long can s/he talk on it per day?” “What constitutes abuse?”
“What other conditions have to be met in order to get one?”
“What happens if we say ‘No?'”)
The short answer to the above questions is, “when you teen is
ready.” The longer answer involves discussing the details.
Some kids need a cell phone earlier, if for example, they are
latchkey kids and need to be more or less immediately or
predictably available by phone to a working parent. If this
teen is responsible enough to manage going straight home after
school and calling Mom or Dad at work to let them know s/he has
safely arrived, then probably this teenager can be trusted with
a cell phone. Or, put another way, if necessity mandates the
teen have some communication device, the parent and teenager will
have to work out all the contingencies to make functional
meeting that need. The reality of being safe pressures both
parent and teen to accommodate other circumstances, like being
home alone with a cell phone when other teenagers are also out
of school and likely chatting away (instead of doing homework).
At the other extreme are the teens who do not need cell
phones for any other reason than to fit in with peers.
“Everyone” has one and “everyone” talks all the time, and
“everyone” texts, etc. “Therefore” I need a cell phone, or
so goes the argument. Teenager’s social and peer needs peak
during these critical development years, and modern technology
has given them a way to socially network that has never been
extant before. Both the pressures to interact this way and
the consequences of not are now much more extreme, especially
amongst teens. (One psychologist dryly commented that the more
communication devices teenagers posses, the less they
communicate with their parents.) Not surprisingly, the
ramifications for inclusion or exclusion from social gatherings
also have increased, and cell phone interaction is at the hub of
this interactive wheel. I’m not saying the cell phone is THE
thing necessary to be popular, but it seems that without one, it
is much harder to compete with those who are “in.” (The age-old
have vs. have-nots argument has invaded the realm of cell phones.)
This cell phone need is typical of teenagers who have a lot going
for them, either monetarily from parents, or from natural looks
or personality or brains. These teens do well and use the cell
phone to commemorate their triumphs, big or small, immediate or
delayed, social, academic or personal. If this teen succeeds at
getting good grades, avoids the usual pitfalls of being a teen
(alcohol, drug use, or excessive sexuality), then parents usually
grant use of a cell phone, justifying it with acknowledgment of
his or her successes. Parents say their teen is doing very well,
“therefore” a cell phone is allowed. As long as successes keep
piling up–good grades, clean rooms, good driving records
(for older teenagers), the more likely the teenager can keep his
or her cell phone.
Most teenagers fall in the middle between these two
extremes. Most teens do not have stellar grades and seldom
clean their rooms. Most teenagers talk back to their parents,
pick on their younger siblings and often do not cooperate.
What about these teens? Here’s when judgment and deal making
interface. Remember, at this age, teens are sort of adult-like
but sometimes more child-like, alternating between the two poles.
Sometimes teens cooperate; sometimes they are obstreperous.
Sometimes parents will back up and the teen will advance in
maturity and privilege. Sometimes the teen will regress and
the parents will retrench, resulting in loss of privilege, status
with peers, etc. I call this “The Dance.”
Parents want teenagers to “shape up” and know that rewards
shape behavior. Remember, at this age parents can’t give kids
stars on a chart or easily send them to their room. But, teenagers
have needs that adults can meet, like cell phones, being taxied
to and from events, getting money, being allowed to stay out longer
at social functions. These are the “things” parents use to bargain
for better behavior. Not surprisingly, when teenager’s needs are
highest, they are most responsive to bribes and other parental
“manipulation.” (A very concrete approach to controlling teen
“talk time” is to have them pay for their own cell phone bill, A
ND work for that money. This does not obviate conforming to other
household expectations.)
This is part of a series of articles on teens and specific
issues. Read the other articles on teens and curfew, teens and
grades or just read the ebook on teens for the whole presentation.
-Dr. Griggs

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