Parenting: Harnessing the Power of the Cell Phone

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

If you have a teenager, chances are he or she is glued to his or her cell phone at this very moment.  (And I would bet that’s probably how you’re reading this- but that’s beside the point, right?)  Today, teens are on their phones all of the time- texting, Snapchatting, Instagramming, gaming, and so forth.  Maybe you’ve heard your teen’s cell phone referred to as his “lifeline” or “connection to the outside world”.  Well, if you’ve ever tried to take it away, chances are you have.

Yes, teens and cell phones today are like fish and water, cars and gas, peas and carrots…you get the point.  I had a colleague suggest to me that I write an article for parents about this topic.  It made me think about my own practice and just how often this has come up- parents saying their teen is “addicted” to his or her phone; losing sleep over it; using it inappropriately (threatening, sexting, etc.); and more.  And I’ll disclose here that I have a teenager as well, so this issue hits close to home.

What I want to talk about  is how parents can set effective limits with cell phones- to help keep their teen safe, to use the phone sensibly, to be more productive- and so parents can take back some of the control they may have lost.  The cell phone may or may not be the issue- or even part of the issue, but appropriate limits can help parents use the phone in a positive way (as a reward and as a source of motivation)- rather than a source of idle threats or punishments.  Many parents recognize this, but what I want to get away from is the all-or-nothing approach that we often jump to out of our own frustration.  Often our teen goes from free reign with the phone to losing it entirely- for a pretty long time.  I’m here to say that approach just doesn’t work.  It does little to change behavior, it just makes your teen angry, and it increases your frustration.  So what’s the alternative?  I’ll outline 5 things here that you can do to use the cell phone in a positive way, while getting more of the results you want.

1. First, you may need to adjust your mindset. A cell phone is not an entitlement.  You probably bought the phone AND pay for the monthly plan.  In the context of a family, food, air, water, shelter, and clothing are entitlements.  Cell phones, computers, cars, expensive sneakers, music lessons, multiple sports teams, spending money… those things are all privileges.  And privileges should be earned.  How does a teen earn a privilege?  By getting satisfactory grades, following house rules, staying out of trouble, doing chores, etc.  When those things happen, you’re probably happy to grant privileges, like supplying a phone, paying the bill, driving your teen around, etc.  But why should you have to when your teen isn’t holding up his or her end of the deal??

2. Next, set the rules and make them clear.  For example, “You can have your cell phone, provided that the following rules are followed… no grade below a B, no disciplinary or legal trouble, you do your chores without me asking you, you use the phone appropriately, and you treat us with respect”.  Your individual rules may vary, these are just examples.  Type it up and have everyone sign it (like a contract) to demonstrate agreement and understanding.  A family meeting is a good time to hash this out.  And if your teen says “no”, then you have the right to withhold the phone or to turn it off until they change their mind.  On a day when your teen follows the rules, he then has use of the phone.

3. When rules are violated, you enforce consequences. As in, you take the phone away.  You don’t threaten or forget to, but you do it.  This is important, because if you don’t, your teen won’t take you (or your rules) seriously.  And you can say to your teen, “You didn’t earn your phone today because you did or didn’t do ________.”  I would do this on a day-to-day basis to ensure that your teen keeps up with the rules.  Homework doesn’t get done?  Your son won’t take out the trash?  Take the phone and try again tomorrow.  The only exception would be if something major happens- for example, a suspension from school, inappropriate use of the phone was found, you were lied to, etc.  Then, you would be justified in holding onto the phone for longer.  I would set the limit at a week, or in the case of grades, when the grades reach a satisfactory level (most parents can check online these days.  You’ll be surprised at the boost in motivation you see).

4. When you take the phone, keep it for how long you said you would. Your teen will beg, cry, lie, guilt trip, and/or manipulate to get it back.  After all, it’s her lifeline!  Tell your child, “Because you did or didn’t do _____, you don’t get the phone today.  We’ll try again tomorrow”.  And then don’t have any further discussion about it.  When you entertain your teen’s excuses or have excessive discussion about things, you send the message that it’s negotiable and that you may change your mind.  When this is followed, the begging and tantruming, etc. will stop.  And if your teen knows tomorrow is a new day, or he only needs to bring his math grade up to a B, and so on, motivation will certainly increase.

5. Talk about issues as they arise. Make sure your teen knows your concerns and why they worry you.  For example, do you know that bullying peers over a cell phone can lead to criminal charges?  It can and I have seen it.  Do you know that any nude photo sent to or from a juvenile equals child porn?  It is, and if your teen is caught doing this, he or she could be labeled a sex offender for a very long time.  It’s important that your child views the phone as a tool and a responsibility, not just a toy.  The more conversations you have (and not lectures, but conversations!) about cell phones and related issues, the more responsible your teen is likely to be.  And if this is done in the right way, he or she may even come to you with questions or concerns.  If you want to have positive family relationships, it starts with good communication.

I could say much more about cell phones and technology in general, but I thought this would be a good starting point for parents as many seek to address issues or to take control over cell phones in their homes.  The key points here are to communicate, hold your teen accountable, be consistent, and to be fair.  Doing so will help your teen to be honest, to be more motivated, and hopefully to be safe and responsible.  If you find that cell phones or technology are a major source of conflict in your home, or that it is difficult to make any changes, try consulting with a psychologist for assistance.

Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: .

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