Who's Cell Phone Is It Anyway?

Panopticon – an “inspection house” or a prison design in which all inmates can be watched from a single point without the inmates knowing whether or not they are currently being watched. The intended effect is that in order not to be in violation of the rules, the inmates must act as though they are being watched at all times.

Cell Phone – the same thing (if you’re a teenager).

Now, while you may disagree with this parallel, what many families describe is in fact this scenario. That is, the parent states that they pay for the cell phone and have given it to their teenager to ensure their safety, and in return expect an increase in the communication between them and their teen. Basically they want periodic check-ins; usually at the immediate behest of the parent. However, while most teenagers say “yeah, yeah” to these expectations, they do so in the same manner and with the same distain that most of us ‘agree’ to those annoying legal terms of usage on the majority of our smart phone apps.

And here is the discrepancy between what you and your teenager see as both the purpose of the phone and who has ownership. Whatever your teenager is saying to you, you must believe they do not see it as your phone, any more than they see the underwear they are wearing as your underwear. Just because you paid for it doesn’t make it yours. And this concept of ownership extends to the conditions and purpose of usage. The conditions and purpose of usage of most things is determined by who in practicality owns them, where possession is 9/10th’s of the law.

A teenager sees the primary purpose of a cell phone as a necessary tool to stay current, up to date, and relevant within their chosen – and desired – peer group. This is done by direct communication, group communication, sideline communication, and browsing and commenting on trends. It is not done by communication with parents. For many teens, without this tool they are simply not relevant. To the extreme, they panic over missing out and the phone allows them not to miss a thing (it’s actually the ease at which info is shared that causes the panic, but that’s another topic). The majority of teens do NOT see the phone as a safety tool, or a life line to their parents which they can use to access your wisdom and support when faced with challenging decisions.

So what’s the remedy for parents who are fighting with their teens about their cell phone use? Should they reasonably expect compliance that the teen answer whenever they call? Even just to ‘check in’? And by extension, should the parent have the right to confiscate the phone if it is not used primarily for this purpose?  The answer starts with an honest and appreciative review of both party’s needs and wants with respect to the phone. Consider what it was like, as an adult with your young child in tow, talking with a colleague or sales clerk just to have your child interrupt with, “momma? Momma? Momma!?” Is it possible they are experiencing the same feelings when their phone rings while engaged with a group of their peers?

So what is truly at issue is whether or not they are respecting your expectations of informing you where they are, and when they’ll be home. And this is where the discussion needs to lie. If this is why you plan to get them a phone, don’t. It’s a set up for both of you. Getting them a phone is a great way to celebrate that they are a responsible young person capable of handling the responsibility of (age appropriately) using a phone.  And if you take their phone away for not checking in, they’re not learning about time management, respectful communication, or empathy; all skills that are necessary to navigate successful relationships.

And that last point is the real key. If you are simply trying to get compliance on your rules for the phone that you pay for, there is no modelling of respectful communication or empathy. Start with knowing who they are (rather than who you currently want them to be), and then build expectations together that do not violate or directly conflict with their needs (and situational reality), while still meeting your expectations. And a hint; you have to trust them in order for them to learn these important skills. If you’re giving them a phone because you don’t trust them, trust me. They know you don’t. And the remedy to building trust between you and your teen is never through threat of sanction.