Celling It: A Smart Approach to Smart Phones

Celling It: A smart approach to smart phonesIn the last decade or so, getting a cell phone has become a new element of coming of age.   A study from the Pew Research Center in 2013 showed that 78 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have a cell phone, and just over one third (37 percent) of adolescents own a smartphone. Cell phones can be an amazing tool for communication: they allow teens and parents to keep in touch and for teens to immediately ask for help in dangerous or uncomfortable situations. Cell phones may be a critical part of an emergency plan for a teen with particular health concerns, such as severe food allergies. Many teens maintain friendships and connections through social media, and access to a personal smartphone might mean fewer squabbles over who gets to use home computers.

Cell phones, however, have their risks and side effects as well.  Cell phone use while driving, including making phone calls, texting, and accessing maps or social media, falls under what is termed “distracted driving.”  The CDC reports that more than 3000 people died and 421,000 people were injured in 2012 in motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver.  Small studies have also documented that use of electronic devices that are lit with blue light interfere with the release of melatonin, the message that our brain uses to tell our bodies to sleep. It’s thought that use of these screens – including computers, tablets, televisions, and cell phones – before heading to bed can make it harder to fall asleep and interfere with sleep quality. Additionally, texting and use of phones to access the internet can be a form of screen time that is incredibly convenient, which means that screen time hours can creep up in number, and increased screen time is associated with health risks such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and being overweight or obese.

While families may make different decisions about when their child gets their first cell phone, it’s important to lay out expectations about how and when that phone will be used before the adolescent has the phone in hand and the texting begins.  Here are some areas for the family to consider before an adolescent gets a cell phone:

1. What is it for?

It’s important to define the purpose of a phone before it’s in the house so that everyone is on the same page and make sure that this is reflected in your cellular contract.  If a phone is primarily for emergency use, for example, it may be appropriate to discuss limiting text messages and minutes and to discuss what is covered in the monthly plan.  Clear expectations about what will happen if a teen goes over their minute, text, or data usage can help avoid future arguments and help the teen ration their phone use for what is most important.

2. The internet!

If the plan is for the teen to get a smartphone, discussing how they’ll access the internet and how to keep things appropriate and safe is an important part of a family’s media plan.  This can be a great time to have a discussion about safe interaction with others online and what sort of information should or should not be shared, as well as exploring together how to make sure that the teen has the appropriate privacy settings on any profile or site that they maintain.  Have an open dialogue around the safety concerns around meeting someone online versus “IRL” (in real life).  Set up expectations around how phone and internet use will be monitored; often, it is helpful for parents to have access to the teen’s history and social media pages, but the teen should have some warning and be present when this is happening, so that there can be a conversation about what is in the history and why certain choices were made.

3. How much is too much?

Discuss clear expectations around how much time can be spent on the phone… and what is meant by “on the phone”!  For example, a teen may agree to limit time “on the phone” to two hours per day, but think that this means talking to friends and doesn’t include texting and social media, so clarifying terms is important.  Decide as a family what the times are that everyone will be expected to put their phones away, such as meal times and at least 1 hour before bedtime.  A “charging station” where all of the phones are plugged in in an area outside of everyone’s bedroom can help with accountability.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that everyone limit screen time to 2 or less hours per day outside of work or school.

4. The big picture

Limits for cell phone use are not just for youth; as with anything, modeling and healthy habits are important for everyone in the home that uses a cell phone.  Parents and guardians should look at their own use: do they follow the same limits that they expect of their teens?  Are there exceptions related to work or school that may need to be anticipated?  Are they following the same expectations for avoiding calls and texting while driving?

Tackling these issues ahead of time can help parents and youth define their expectations around and relationship with cell phones and internet use, which can help everyone benefit from technology and use it in a responsible, healthy way.  For a sample media time family plan, check out this sample from healthychildren.org.


  • What age is appropriate for a cell phone?

  • We got our children phones for Christmas of their 5th grade year. This was a basic phone, then upgraded to a smart phone their 7th grade year.

  • You dont mention the cyber bullying that is occuring in Middle and Highschool on phones and tablets. It is HUGE and it is damaging. Setting very clear expectations on what is allowed behavior for your child and what they need to let you know is happening to them is essential. Apps such as Snap Chat are very prone to inappropriate behavior.