Inside One Family’s Phone Rules Conversation

Dr. Delaney Ruston – In the first blog of the new year, I wrote that “I will share some helpful tips around screen time family agreements in February.“ And here we are.

Today I’m writing about rules around cellphones. I am known for saying that young people want help managing screen time, including time on their phones. I base this on ten years of conversations with kids, tweens, and teens. And, studies support this, such as this small one by Megan Moreno, a leader in research around young people and tech topics. 

That said, many youth would never say to their parents/guardians that they want rules!

The fact is life has rules. Our kids follow rules in life all the time. We all follow rules all the time. 

Recently, two friends of mine — a married couple, a trauma surgeon, and a  pulmonologist — told me that they were just about to get their 13-year-old son his first smartphone. They explained that they told him they would get him one once he reached 8th grade and did well academically during the first part of the school year. 

They explained to their son, I’ll call him Charlie, that they needed to set up expectations and ground rules around the phone, and they wanted him to write down the reasons he wanted a phone and why he felt he needed a phone. Also, they asked him to write some possible rules and ideas about good digital citizenship. 

I know plenty of parents who have asked their kids to have such a conversation before allowing a phone, and their kids refused. That can happen. In that case, a parent has to drive the conversation more, which is okay. 

Knowing the family planned to discuss Charlie’s list and rules, I asked them if they would record their conversation. 

Today I share parts of their conversation and intersperse some of my thoughts along the way.

Charlie’s parents also had his only sibling, his 6th-grade sister, participate in the conversation. They suggested the siblings work together to develop suggested rules and such. The parents did that because they knew the phone would pertain to both at times, i.e., when they played a game together. 

My comment: I think it was smart to get both siblings to work together on the ideas they brought to the parents because tech devices, such as a new phone, impact the whole family — i.e., sibling relationships.  It also lets the sister think about issues around having a phone in preparation for when she gets one.

Below is the conversation. Please know that I just included various snippets from the entire 40-minute conversation. Also, I use the word “parent” rather than noting when it was the mom or dad because it really makes no difference for our purposes today. 

Parent: “You wrote for needs that it includes being able to call when stuff comes up. Maybe you missed the bus, or you need to stay after school for some reason, and to coordinate activities.

And then things that you said you would want to do on a cellphone but weren’t needed include games, music and videos, talking to your friends.”

My comment: Talking about wants and needs is a very good idea.  I often talk about “tech as a tool” and “tech as a treat.” 

Later in the conversation…

Parent“Even though there are needs, the phone is a privilege, not a right. You’re not entitled to a phone. We can give you a phone because we feel like you’ve earned the privilege, and we can take the phone away when we feel like you’ve abused the privilege. Does that make sense?”

Charlie agrees.

Parent: “You guys actually came up with a really good set of rules, and we’ll go through them in just a minute. The other thing that I wanted to point out is that we can start with pretty strict rules, and the longer you guys use your phones and demonstrate responsible behavior with phones, the more we can relax those rules. If you guys are abusing or pushing the boundaries with the use of the phones, the rules will stay strict or maybe even get stricter. Does that make sense?”

Charlie and his sister say, “Yeah.”  

The parents moved on to talk about the phone and school. 

Parent: “Okay, so does the phone go to school? We’ve all said yes. You guys included specifying where it would be during school, which I thought was awesome. So you would keep it in your backpack. And if you took it out and use it inappropriately in class, like when you’re supposed to be doing homework, then you would first get a warning. And then if you did it again, the phone would be taken away.”

Charlie: “Would the warning have a “reset” in case you like, forgot, or there was an emergency or something?”

Parent“I feel like phone use during a legitimate emergency doesn’t break any rules.”

Later the Parent said: “And, I would say, again, that whatever the rules are at school for phone use would be followed, right? So if your teacher says, “No cellphones during my class,” you have to follow that rule.”

My Comment: I was so happy to see that they were thinking about phone use at school in this rules conversation. 

Later they talked about a rule that would require the cellphone out of the bedroom at night. They decided that it would go into a charging area in the kitchen about an hour before they typically went to bed. 

Of all the many struggles around tech time, I don’t push for the hour before bedtime rule. It is great if a family can make that work, but I have not found major downsides to being on it before going into the bedroom to go to bed. 

The kids who don’t have tech with them in their bedroom tell me the many ways they relax to fall asleep, like reading. Often they say they are so tired they just fall right to sleep. 

Of course, if a child is doing something like high-octane video games right before going into their room to fall asleep, that would be a different situation because this could indeed interfere with sleep. 

Later in the conversation…

Parent“Okay, so phones get broken. Phones get lost. So I liked your proposal: Try your best to retrieve or fix the phone. Go through the trouble of trying to replace it and cover costs. 

I think if it’s really something that we all agree was sort of outside of your control like it was, in checked baggage on a flight and the luggage got misdirected or something that is totally outside of your control. You did everything possible to take good care of your phone. And despite your best efforts, it’s gone forever. The parents will definitely help you with that. 

But, if it was, I told you over and over again, always make sure it was in your backpack before you got off the bus or whatever, and you did not do that, then you’re going to have to bear some responsibility for the replacement cost.”

My Comment: It is wonderful that the kids thought to include the issue of if a phone is lost in their write-up. Another thing I would suggest is to talk about screen breakage. Do they have a strong phone case? What are common situations when screens can be broken?

The family also discussed other topics that I will save for a later time. The topics included rules around downloading apps, social media, issues around parents reading any of their conversations, in-phone purchases, issues about subscriptions, posting photos of self, and consequences. 

Ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. When was the last time we talked about rules around cellphone use?
  2. Are there any rules that your child or children have been following and you could point out to them?
  3. It is a good time to ask what they think the rules are at their schools.