Have this talk before your kid gets a phone: digital parenting tips #1

The time has come for a teenager to get that first smartphone. Parents, before you head to the store, save yourselves a lot of heartburn with these simple steps.

By Brad Berens

(This is the first in a series of practical tips about parenting in the digital age.)

Parents of adolescents worry about when a kid should get her* first smartphone. It’s a legit worry. On the plus side, smartphones connect kids to a vast world of information, resources, entertainment, and community… and that’s the down side, too. The magic mirror is a source of infinite distraction that fits in a palm, even a young one.

At some point, your kid will start a mosquito campaign: she needs a phone because all her friends have them. The worst part of this is that she’s right: phones are the main way that adolescents communicate with each other, and starting around 12 or 13, their peer group looms largest in their minds. Being disconnected from that peer group is like being dead for a teenager.

But, parents, before you hand over a handheld device—whether it’s a phone or a tablet, with a data plan or without—here are some conversations to have. They’ll make life easier later.

First: grownups? Talk amongst yourselves…

If the kid is living in an intact family (all parents and siblings living under the same roof), then this is at least theoretically an easy conversation to have

However, as Yogi Berra famously observed, “in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.” Don’t expect to get through this conversation in 15 minutes. Book an hour to explore your partner’s expectations about phone use. Are they the same as yours?

Here are some sample questions parents can ask each other:

  • Who will pay for the phone? What about voice, text, and data?
  • Should the kid have unlimited text, voice, and data, or should it be limited?
  • Are there limitations on phone use? If so, what are they?  For example, where is the phone during meal time?
  • Does the phone go to school?
  • Where does the phone live at night?
  • When the kid is doing homework, where is the phone?**
  • Will the parents put tracking software on the phone?
  • If so, why? How will you use it?
  • Can your kid be on social media? Which ones?
  • Is using YouTube on the phone acceptable?  How about Spotify?
  • Can your kid use Uber or Lyft?
  • Has the kid learned about internet safety and cyberbullying at school?
  • Does your kid know about sexting, and why it’s a stupid thing to do? (Remember: the internet is written in laundry pen.)
  • What should the kid do if a stranger approaches her online? What should the kid do if a stranger wants to meet?
  • What happens when your kid breaks and/or loses the phone? (It’s a when, not an if.)
  • What will the consequences be when the kid breaks the rules? (Again, it’s a when, not an if.)

Don’t worry too much if you’re not 100% aligned with your partner at first; you’ll want to iterate with rules to see what works for your family. What’s important is knowing how your partner feels about these questions, which expectations are important to her or him and which aren’t critical.

The more aligned the parents are beforehand, the less conflict you’ll all have around the phone later.


At some point, your kid will start a mosquito campaign: she needs a phone because all her friends have them. The worst part of this is that she’s right: phones are the main way that adolescents communicate with each other, and starting around 12 or 13, their peer group looms largest in their minds. Being disconnected from that peer group is like being dead for a teenager.


If the kid is not living in an intact family, then that conversation is going to be harder. Ideally, the parents will be able to have a civil, collaborative conversation, working through that list of questions. If collaboration isn’t possible, then each parent needs to figure out the rules for her or his household and to make sure your kid understands the rules ahead of time.

Second: ask your kid to propose a set of rules and expectations in writing

Most adolescents will be so desperate to get a smartphone that they’ll agree to anything… but not really pay attention to the rules laid out by Mom and Dad.

An effective way around this is to make your kid articulate a set of rules and expectations for the family, in writing, before you start shopping for phones. You can use the sample questions I listed above as a starting point. You can treat the rules and expectations as a contract where all parties sign, or you can just have it as a document to which all of you can refer later. (You’ll need to.)

There are two non-obvious benefits to having the kid propose the rules.

First, your kid will internalize and own the rules because she came up with them.

And second, the kid will surprise you with narrower rules and harsher penalties than you’d come up with on your own… and that will make enforcing those boundaries easier on the parents later.

Third: review, revise, and accept

After your kid hands over her proposed set of rules and expectations, don’t just accept them without review. The parents need to go over the proposal with each other. Then, it’s time to sit down with the kid and talk about where things are good and where they need to change.

It’s then on your kid to revise the document and resubmit. If the kid doesn’t get back to the parents with a revision, then she doesn’t get a phone. If she doesn’t take the revision seriously, then she doesn’t get a phone until she does take it seriously.

Unless there’s something big that’s wrong with the second draft, at this point you move onto a budget discussion (how plain or fancy a phone are we talking about here?), and then schedule a trip to the real happiest place on Earth for teens, the AT&T store (or Verizon, or T-Mobile, or Apple…).

Note: rules aren’t just for your kid

If you were reading quickly a few paragraphs ago, then you might have missed the prepositional phrase “for the family” when I wrote that it’s your kid who should first propose the rules.

It’s important to have rules that apply to everybody in the family, even if there are exceptions for some.***

Your teen may frustrate you (to the point that you’ve ground your back teeth flat) by not listening to what you say, but she’s paying sharp attention to what you do. If you have your smartphone at the dinner table, then she’ll do the same (even if it’s on her lap). If you sleep with your phone next to your head, then she’ll do the same. If you are constantly checking social media, then she’ll do the same. If you text and drive, then she’ll do the same… no matter how many times hypocritical grownups tell her not to.

Gandhi supposedly said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Likewise, we must demonstrate the healthy behavior we wish to see in our teens.

* Everything I write about in this column applies to both girls and boys. I just chose one gendered pronoun to avoid endless “her and his” and the like. Furthermore, everything I write about in this column applies to trans and gender fluid children. No matter the pronouns, teens are teens.

** Be warned: You’ll hear, “I just want to listen to music while I do math” or the like almost immediately.

*** Exceptions need to be explicit and negotiated. If mom is a trauma surgeon on call, then it’s fair for her phone to be near the table, but she should still do her best to keep dinner time sacred if that is what is in the family rule book.


Brad Berens is the father of two teenagers.  He is also Center’s Chief Strategy Officer, and principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting.



See all columns from the Center.

October 9, 2019