7 cell phone rules for kids that every parent should establish right now

Jan. 22, 2020

For years, my kids have watched me use the Internet and social media for both work and pleasure. They've also listened to my many, many lectures about how simultaneously wonderful and dark the Internet can be and about how I decided what personal information I'd share with others — and what I wouldn't. I shared these thoughts, fears and cautionary tales with them regularly because I wanted them to be as prepared as possible when they eventually had access to it all, too.

And, soon enough, the day finally came when I had to give my middle-schooler a phone.

Between carpools, sports, after-activities and walking to and from friends' houses, we knew that giving him his own smartphone would be a useful tool for us to manage life's logistics. We also knew that once we gave him a phone, we'd have to have more regular conversations about all the little issues that would come with it: specifically, what our rules are about texting, Internet surfing, live gaming chats, apps, social media — the works.

So, I took a deep breath and got to work making sure it would be an experience that was safe for us all. (And make no mistake: there is a LOT to consider when you're planning on giving your child Internet access.)

Here are the seven rules that we established as a family to teach our kids how to be smart device users — and, ultimately, to keep them safe:

1. Devices belong to parents, not kids

All of the kids in my house are minors. Therefore, all devices belong to us until the kids are minors no more. This means that we have full access to them at any time, and that we can take them away at any time (just as easily as we giveth them).

Having a phone or tablet is a privilege, not a right.

And since these devices belong to us, the parents, this means that we also get to dictate where they "live." We set up a big charging station in our kitchen where the devices go when they aren't in use — not in bedrooms, not hidden in pockets or bags. If a kid feels the need to hide their use, then something just isn't right about how they are using it.

This is also why passwords exist. My husband and I have access to stuff on our phones that our kids should not, so they need to ask permission to use them. We also encourage using passwords on their devices since you never know who might pick up your phone and do something on it you normally wouldn't want done.

That being said, our kids still are the day-to-day caretakers of said electronic devices. As with any other prized (and highly expensive) possessions, they're expected to:

  • Keep their devices safe (in kid-proof cases, of course).
  • Keep their devices powered up.
  • Keep track of their devices at all times.

2. Understand internet safety, inside and out

You can't erase what you put online or the experiences that you have there.

Whether that means that your kid accidentally shares a photo of his sister mooning him or someone else starts bullying him in a group chat, the ramifications of that behavior can run from broken friendships to brushes with the law.

NetSmartz, by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, is a great place to learn about using the Internet safely, as well as to better understand situations like cyberbullying. The F.T.C. also has its own resource for the basics on how to protect yourself and your family online.

If you have a babysitter or nanny, make sure that you have a conversation with her about your rules for social media use — especially when it comes to her posts.

Remember: as wonderful as the Internet can be, there are also some dangers that we need to look out for. The more informed you and your kids are about Internet safety, the better — and safer — your experiences will be.

3. Parents will set restrictions on devices as needed

You can set age restrictions on the apps the phone is able to download, remove apps/games from the phone, remove Internet access — and, generally, tweak the whole thing so that it becomes completely customized to suit the user’s needs.

There are also several apps that allow parents to control their kids' phones. (You can check out this Tom's Guide article on the best parental-control apps of 2020 to get a taste of what's available.) These apps will range in price and level of control, but will help you make doubly sure that your child's using their device safely.

4. Every download must be parent-approved

Setting age restrictions on a phone is a great first step, but it's not the only one. You'll also need to make sure that all of their device downloads are age-appropriate — no matter whether they're apps, games or social media accounts.

You might think that this sounds a little extreme and "Big Brother-y." However, there are a lot of apps out there that seem innocent on the surface but actually give our kids access to way more (and way inappropriate) stuff than we realize. Take it from me: I've actually tried out some of the apps that I know parents let their kids to use and accidentally stumbled across a ton of inappropriate content in the process (think sexually explicit images and text, hate speech, etc.). Believe me, it wasn't pretty ... and definitely not what I'd want my kids to see.

One easy way to avoid this is by making a rule that every device download needs to be approved by you, the parent. And it's really up to you how you decide what apps are approved and what aren't. Some parents like to try out the apps themselves before making a decision; some parents like to do their research to see what other people have had to say about the apps. To cover all of your bases, we suggest that you try blending the two approaches.

To help you along with your research, we've provided you with links to the "Parents" pages of the most popular social media networking sites:

If you'd like to find more advice about Internet safety and age-appropriate downloads, check out sites like Common Sense Media, which is an independent nonprofit organization that reviews online content.

5. Set accessibility restrictions for every downloaded app

Apps tend to default to a state in which they can access a lot of information about a user — from their "current locations" to their social media accounts.

To prevent this from happening on your child's device, try putting every app on an age-appropriate lockdown. (You can learn how to do this by reading that app's "privacy policy" and "settings options" on its website.)

6. Kids are expected to behave as well online as they do in person, if not better

I like to remind my kids about the importance of respecting other people's privacy (and being mindful of their own), of being kind to others and of thinking about how others will react to their opinions and comments before they hit "Post."

I think the last one is probably the most important one. We just need to encourage our kids to think before they type in a chat message, text, comment or post. (We think that this is an obvious rule, but when you're a kid, it's not as top-of-mind.) We need to remind them that once their thoughts are out there, there's no taking them back. And just as they don't want their feelings hurt by friends or strangers online, they need to also make sure they aren't the ones doing the hurting — on purpose or by accident.

7. We are models for healthy device use

As cool as the Internet is, we also need to make a habit of reminding our kids — and ourselves — that real life is so. much. better. In fact, prioritizing real-life moments with a shared laugh or touch, rather than focusing on capturing that moment on a device, is probably the healthiest thing we can model for our 21st-century kids.

So how do we model healthy device usage?

Well, let's start by putting our phones away more, by turning off our notifications and by making sure that they see us without a device in hand on a regular basis. This is the best way to show our kids what truly matters in life — and will increase their likelihood of doing the same.

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