Updated On: February 12, 2020

How to Deal With Cell Phones as a Parent

Under development.

“Dr. Leonard Sax” (0:09): Many kids are going to bed with their phones switched on. And that at two in the morning your daughter’s getting a text from her friend, “OMG Jason and Emily just broke up.” This is really big news we have to talk about this. Parents are astonished to find that half the eighth-grade class is awake and texting at two in the morning. That is now common in the United States. Next morning your daughter comes down, she looks a little tired. You ask her if she’s fine, she says she’s fine. Some of the problems we’re talking about this evening are not easy to fix. This one’s really really easy to fix. At 9 o’clock at night at the very latest you take the phone from your daughter. You switch it off and you put it in the charger which stays in the parent’s bedroom. She can have it back tomorrow morning. Look, the rules of good parenting have not changed in 20 years but 20 years ago a teenage girl could not accept a phone call at two in the morning to exchange gossip because the phone would ring and the parents would hear it and they would not allow it because they knew it’s more important for a kid to get a good night’s sleep than to be up for an hour in the middle of the night exchanging gossip. That was true 20 years ago and it’s just as true today. The only thing that has changed is the technology. It’s now very easy for your daughter to accept that text message at two in the morning because the phone never rang, it buzzed. She has it on vibrate mode and she’s not talking, she’s texting but just because it’s technologically easy doesn’t mean it should happen. This is your job. At nine o’clock at night, you take the phone, you switch it off, put it in the charger which stays in the parent’s bedroom. Now, when you get home this evening and you announce to your daughter that you’re going to take her phone at nine o’clock at night the latest and put it in the charger. She can have it back tomorrow morning. She may not applaud. She may protest. She may say, “But I use it as my alarm clock.” Let her know they still make actual alarm clocks. Go to the store and buy one, they’re not expensive. And now she really gets upset, she says, “But what if there’s an emergency?” Remind her you still have a landline. A house phone in the parent’s bedroom and if there’s a true emergency, her friend is welcome to call the house phone and you the parent will pick up and you the parent will decide whether this emergency warrants waking her up at two in the morning. It probably doesn’t. It could probably wait. This has to be your job. It is not reasonable to put this burden on your teenage daughter. What is your daughter supposed to say tomorrow in school when her friend says, “Hey, I texted you last night at midnight. How come you didn’t answer?” Is she supposed to say, “Researchers have found that sleep deprivation in adolescents is a major risk factor for the development of anxiety.” That’s ridiculous! You have to allow her to say “Hey, my evil parents take my phone every night and won’t give it back until the next morning.” This is your job. No devices in the bedroom. No phones in the bedroom. No video game consoles in the bedroom. That’s not just my opinion. Those are the official guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The link to the full text of the AAP guidelines are in your handout and they specify no unsupervised use of the internet. 


In your handout, you’ll find links to two studies of actual sexting in which researchers interviewed American teens who are taking obscene photos of themselves and sending them to other teens, their friends. And they interviewed every boy and every girl and asked them, “Why are you doing this?” The most common answer you get from the boy. Most common reason the 15-year-old boy gives for doing this is that he really enjoys doing it! It is common to find a 15-year-old boy who really enjoys taking a photo of his own erect penis and sending it to a 14-year-old girl and he is absolutely certain that the 14-year-old girl will be excited and aroused to receive the photo. He doesn’t know that many 14-year-old girls will be disgusted and repulsed to have this photo on their phone. He doesn’t know that, he’s 15 years old. He’s got a long way to go. But then they asked the 14-year-old girl, “Why are you doing this?” And the most common answer the 14-year-old girl is, “I wish I didn’t have to” and the researchers says, “What do you mean you wish you didn’t have to? You don’t have to.” No one’s holding a gun and making you do this. And the 14-year-old girls says, “Yeah but in my school, it’s just what you do.” If you’re one of the cool kids,  it’s kind of like part of your job description. 


This is a very powerful device. With this device, I can take a photo and once that photo is sent, I have no control over what happens to it. That’s a very grown-up functionality. To put such a device in the hands of a child. It’s like putting a child behind the wheel of a sports car with no driver ed. If you’re going to do that then you the parent are responsible for every photo they take. I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. The link is in your handout. I’m very specific in my recommendations based on the research. At what age is it appropriate for a child to possess a smartphone? Meaning a phone that can take a photo and send a photo. Certainly, no child under 13 should possess such a phone and most 13-year-olds are not ready for it. If you’re going to give your child a smartphone, you must install on that phone an app like Net Nanny mobile, My Mobile Watchdog and explain to your kid, “I will see every photo you take and if I see anything inappropriate you lose the device indefinitely.” Or just don’t give your child a phone and parents will say, “Oh come on that’s totally ridiculous.” Parents will say, “That’s unrealistic.” Look, they’ll say, “My daughter’s doing all these activities, computer coding, and soccer practice. What if her ride doesn’t show up? There aren’t any payphones anymore. I don’t want her going up to a stranger asking to borrow their phone.” Okay, I get that. I’m the father of a daughter. That’s not an argument for a smartphone. That’s an argument for a dumb phone. By a dumb phone I mean what is known in the industry as a basic phone. A phone that can make a phone call and receive a phone call. There are many models available. You don’t know about them because they’re not marketed to you. They’re marketed to the elderly. My father-in-law is 82. That’s his phone. It has large keys and a large display and my father-in-law tells me he charges it about every other month. The battery lasts forever and it works everywhere. It doesn’t need 3G or 4G. It works everywhere. This takes care of the concern about safety. If their daughter’s ride doesn’t show up, she’ got one of these. Give her one of these. If you’re going to give her a smartphone, you must install an app that I mentioned on the phone and explain to your daughter, “I will see every photo you take. Some parents are reluctant to follow that advice and a mother said to me, “Look, I don’t want to violate my daughter’s privacy. I respect my daughter’s privacy. If she doesn’t want me to see her photos, I am fine with that. I don’t want to see her photos if she doesn’t want me to see them.” And I said to that mom, “Look, the most important thing you must teach your daughter or your son about sharing photos electronically is that there is no such thing as privacy to any photo that you share electronically with a phone or online. That job has gotten easier, explaining that to parents since I discovered the three magic words. The three magic words are General David Petraeus. In case you don’t recall the story, let me refresh your memory. David Petraeus graduated top of his class at West Point, first in his class at Fort Leavenworth, earned a doctorate at Princeton, Brigadier General at 46. President Bush appointed him Commanding General. Barack Obama then appointed him Director of the CIA. You would think he would know that there is no such thing as privacy to any photo that you share electronically but somehow he didn’t get the memo. He and his mistress, Paula Broadwell thought, we’re so smart, we’re so clever. We’ve got our passwords. No one will ever find out. Bzzz. Wrong. Career over. What’s the moral of the story of David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell? Well there are several morals. One moral is don’t cheat on your spouse. Another moral is don’t share anything electronically in any format on any site whether you think it’s secure or not. Unless you’re prepared to see it in the newspapers tomorrow. And you don’t teach that by preaching. You do not inculcate any virtue by preaching. You inculcate virtue by inculcating virtuous habits. By preventing the formation of habits that are not virtuous by explaining to your son or daughter, “Look, I will see every photo you take before you even do anything with it and if I see anything inappropriate, you lose the device indefinitely. This is now your job. I understand that a lot of parents haven’t figured this out yet because this has all happened very quickly. 20 years ago, there used to be a public service announcement that would come on American Television. It’s “10PM Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” And any of us grew up in that era. Many of us recall seeing that and now we’re parents and we think, well it’s 10 o’clock my daughter’s home alone in her bedroom upstairs so I’m a good parent. But if she’s got a mobile phone, she could be uploading pornography, your son could be downloading pornography. She could be engaged in cyberbullying, he could be a victim of cyberbullying. The challenges today are different because the world has changed but your job is to be the parent and many American parents want to be their kid’s best friend. But a friend is a peer. A friend cannot command. A friend cannot say, “I will not allow you to pig out on ice cream right before supper,” but a parent must say that. A peer cannot say, “I’m taking your phone from you so that you can go to bed and get some sleep.” Only a parent can say that. There’s any number of kids out there who kid be your kid’s best friend but there is no one else who can be the parent. This is your job. If you’re going to give your kid a smartphone, you must install on that phone an app like My Mobile WatchDog or Net Nanny mobile. Some parents really do get that and some parents go a little further. One mother sent her daughter an anonymous text in which she said, “Hey hot stuff, I’m new in town. Can you send me some pictures?” And her daughter responded, “No, I know this is you mom, please stop.” And mom responded, “Proud of you honey. Keep making good choices, Love, Mom”