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Parents You’re Responsible for That Mobile Device

Helping kids understand the nuances of communicating using mobile devices is our responsibility as parents—and it's not easy!

Closeup of teenage girls hands using cell phones outdoors

So here’s the thing—if you’re a parent and you’ve entrusted your kid with a phone or other mobile device, don’t do it and walk away. You are the adult in this situation, and like it or not, you bear the responsibility for your kid’s behavior with that phone or device.

My kids have had mobile phones (and other devices) for a long time. It kind of goes with the territory of having a mom immersed in the technology space and an early adopter of all things digital—whether that’s good or terrible is debatable—but it’s what it is. They are now in seventh grade, and I’m starting to see a lot of ugliness rear its head, which is why I’m bringing up what is sure to be a controversial subject. If doing so saves one kid from hurt, it’s worth it.

Our Kids Aren’t Grownups—And They’re Also Not Perfect Angels

Why am I having this conversation with you? Actually, I’m having it with all of us. Those kids of ours, no matter how sweet or kind we may think he or she is, is a crazy mass of insecurity, is easily manipulated, hormone-ridden, and dangerous as a result.

Tweens and teens not only aren’t fully grown physically, there’s much evidence to support the fact that their brains aren’t yet operating on all cylinders, and we parents can’t, or shouldn’t, in good conscience put a mobile phone in their hands and walk away, leaving them to make good decisions.

When you were a teen, were all your decisions good ones? Mine most definitely were not. I say mental apologies to my (now dead) mother all the time thinking back on the many dumb—and also dangerous—things I did when I was a teen.

What’s Happening in Teen Brains, Anyway?

While they’re quickly getting as tall as you are and becoming more responsible and capable, brain development in teens and tweens is growing just as those bodies of theirs are growing. That means kids are often less likely to think before they act, consider the consequence of any of their actions, or think about the fact that what they’re doing might possibly be dangerous. In addition, tweens and teens are more likely to do things like:

  • Misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions (shocking, I know)
  • Act impulsively
  • Engage in risky behavior
  • Get in fights or accidents

So it’s really no surprise that they might not always make the best decisions when it comes to behavior that is a natural part of having a mobile device. Things like participating in chat groups, engaging in social media channels, and heaven help me it scares the living hell out of me, sharing photos and videos by way of chats and messaging apps.

That’s Why It’s Up to Us, Parents

When it comes to monitoring their behavior on their devices, this one is on us, parents. We’ve gotta be on it. Sure, it’s easier to just let them be and trust that they are doing all the right things, but hey, mine can’t even manage to put the dishes in the dishwasher without getting distracted midway through or getting into an argument with sibling that ends up with me cursing. Why would I assume they are all good when it comes to understanding the nuances of what goes on with mobile devices and navigating the insanity of the internet? Dishes are easy, the internet is not.

Think I’m crazy or worse, breaching my children’s privacy to which they are apparently entitled? That is certainly your prerogative and I respect your right to make your own decisions about your kids and what they do with mobile devices and online in general. That said, in many instances, this is something that parents aren’t thinking much, if at all about, and it is those parents I hope to convince to think differently.

And while the crazy part is highly likely, and while of course I think that privacy is definitely important, it’s not more important than keeping my kids from being safe, as well as making sure they’re not a**holes to other human beings simply because they have a phone or other device in hand.

Real Stories from the Teen Trenches

Speaking of a**holes, here are some things I’ve discovered in just the last few weeks, information gleaned in a variety of ways, from what I’ll call the “Teen Trenches.” This has come from talking with my kids, listening to their chatter with girlfriends as they are hanging out with one another, and looking at their text messages on a regular basis. This openness with regard to messages is part of our deal on them having their own mobile devices, so they know it’s going to happen. Note this is the last few weeks, not an extended period of time, and for every example I share here, there are a hundred more.

Here are some juicy tidbits:

Hot or Not Hot List. The boys at my kids’ school created a “Hot or Not Hot” list, which is neat. I know this isn’t new, and that boys (and girls) have been having the “hot or not hot” conversation for eons. But somehow, putting it in writing seems especially cruel. Sharing it by way of group text messages, even more so. I don’t have sons, but if I did, I wouldn’t be a fan. Nor would I be a fan if I caught my girls creating “Hot or Not Hot” lists evaluating the boys in their classes. It’s one thing to have these conversations with one another, but definitely not cool to make a list and put it in writing where it can possibly get out and hurt someone’s feelings. While I write this I’m thinking of Gossip Girl, and how those text messages came out and immediately captured every kid’s attention. Imagine if that was your kid, getting notified that they were on the “Not Hot” list—doesn’t that just make your heart hurt? It does mine.

I’m a Dick, Get Used To It. A teenage girl sat at my kitchen table weeping the other day, and I heard her friends tried to reassure her that she was smart, and kind, and beautiful. She kept crying. I asked my girls about it later and they explained that it was all about a boy. A boy in a group text chat said to her “You’re a motherf*cker.” When called on it as being not only inappropriate but also mean by this young lady and by other girls in the chat, he responded, “So what, I’m a dick. Get used to it, that’s the way of the world.” Get used to me being a dick to you, that’s the way of the world. Nice. Seventh grade. Imagine how much better that’s going to get. If it was my daughter, or my son, talking to another person like that, I damn sure want to know it. I’m more of a dick than he or she can ever imagine when it comes to crap like this.

I’m In a Bitchy Mood, So I’ll Take It Out On You. It’s not just boys doing this stuff. Far from it. Girls call out other girls for not measuring up to their standards, often in a group chat comprised of almost every girl in the class. They do it in a passive aggressive way like “I’m not in a very good mood today, but it seems to me …… [that in some way you don’t measure up] [behave the way I want you to] [or other bitchy stuff] — my words, not hers. What the heck?

Conflict Resolution is a Real Skill

This is where we need to teach kids, especially our daughters, that if they have a problem with someone, the path to a resolution isn’t posting some nasty message in a chat with 30 other girls in it, but to make it a point to talk personally to whomever it is you have an issue with.

Conflict resolution is a skill, and it’s not something that’s being taught in junior high (or high school, for that matter). But this is a skill that young people desperately need to learn, and there’s no time like the present. That’s where you, as a parent, can help. You can see these things happening and give advice on how to best resolve these sticky situations your kids will inevitably find themselves in.

They need to learn that even if they’re having their very worst day, that to publicly air “issues” with another person maybe just to pick a fight is not cool. In fact, it’s flat out mean. It’s also sometimes putting a whole lot of other people in the middle of a situation they would likely prefer not to be in the middle of.

If you’re checking your kids’ phone on the regular, you would see this behavior, on the part of your kid or someone else, and you could talk with them about it. If they are the aggressor, talk with them about conflict resolution, and teach them how to resolve things in productive ways. If they are involved as spectators, make it a teaching moment and help them learn how to manage this and/or how they might step in and help. If they are the victim of someone else’s aggression or bitchiness, teach them how to reach out to that person and attempt to resolve the issues they have privately. When you, as a parent, are oblivious, they are on their own navigating through this mess and largely out of control. Our girls need our help in this realm, today more than ever. You don’t have to do these things for them—I’m not advocating more helicopter parenting than we already do—I’m advocating talking, talking, and more talking to our tweens and teens, so that they can learn about this stuff and how to manage conflict.

Boy Behavior vs. Girl Behavior

One interesting thing that I’m noticing is that when boys are rude to girls in a group situation, the girls generally step up and stand up to them, protecting one another and calling out the boys. Taking on the boys in these online conversations is probably fueled by the courage that comes from being in a group. It’s safe to take a stand when you know your girlfriends are there and have your back. Girls don’t seem to have any problem standing up to boys, which is a good thing.

What I’m noticing, however, that is not happening, is that girls aren’t doing the same for other girls as vocally and as passionately as they do when defending against boys. It’s as if they are afraid of pissing off another girl and rather than being brave enough to step up and take a stand against one of the other girls in a group conversation who is being unkind in some way and, effectively, bullying, another girl, they are quiet. Ominously so. They don’t quite know what to do or say, and taking those kinds of stands is infinitely more difficult.

Being Silent Is Sometimes Being Complicit

I just recently had a conversation with my kids about this and said that in some instances, being silent is as dangerous as being a bully. I told them that when you see someone being mean or bullying someone else, with words or otherwise, you have an obligation to stand up and call them out, or at the very least to do what you can to shut that down. Because if something happens to the person being bullied because you didn’t stand up, you’re as responsible as the bully is.

They looked at me with wide eyes when I told them that, because they didn’t think about it in that way. They were just reluctant to piss another girl off. Taking a stand is hard when you’re a teen, because of course being liked is pretty important, but teaching them to take a stand now and again, and certainly to stand up for what’s right, is foundational for the adult human beings they are quickly growing into.

The cool thing that happened as a result of that conversation, is that they went back to it, and gently chastised the girl being mean, and reminded her that they are all schoolmates, and friends, and that they should support one another rather than knocking one another down. As soon as one girl took a stand on that front, the other girls chimed in in support, with what seemed like a collective sigh of relive. No one really wants to be at odds with one another, but sometimes they just don’t know how to get themselves out of those situations.

I think that’s an important thing to know as a parent—and a skill to teach them. It’s okay to take a stand, and once you do, chances are good others will stand with you.

Let’s Own This Responsibility, Fellow Parents

So here’s the thing. You’re the parent. We are the parents—the grown ups in this situation. Let’s acknowledge our responsibility when we hand our kids a mobile device, own it, and keep that acknowledgement front and center in our minds.

Think about all the bone-headed things that our tweens and teens do that you observe, that are just part of growing into both their bodies and their minds. Understand that they can’t be expected to navigate the nuances of appropriate online behavior when far too many adults can’t yet seem to manage that.

And let them know you are there for them. Not only as a guide, but as a monitor. Just like you’ll likely be vigilant about educating about and monitoring other dangerous things like alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, vaping, drug experimentation, etc., you need to be equally as vigilant about having conversations about the dangers of online bullying, harassment, sexting and the like, because they, too, can cause your children real harm.

I firmly believe that this means that you also need to periodically and regularly ask them to hand over those devices so that you can check them out. Let them know you will be reading their text messages and conversations and that they are expected to adhere to your family values and mores, and to treat people with kindness and respect.

Let them know that if they find themselves in a situation where they don’t know how to respond, that you’re there to help. And let them know that they don’t have to respond to every message they receive, no matter the channel. Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to just walk away from uncomfortable conversations or situations. They’re kids. They don’t know these things and it’s our job, and our responsibility as parents to understand the enormous stress that having a mobile device in hand at all times can cause a kid.  

Suicide is at an all-time high among teens today and bullying is a large part of the reason for that. How do you know if your kid is a bully, or being bullied if you never check to see what they’re doing online, whether on a mobile device, gaming system, or computer? Short answer: You don’t.

When kids know that your agreement with regard to that device, and all devices, is that you’ll be looking at their communication at random times and without warning, that might well factor into their behavior. Consequences have a way of doing that.

What do you think? How do you treat mobile devices and other devices in your home? Are you totally hands off, or do you monitor what they’re doing? I’ll admit that monitoring, mostly remembering that I need to, is a chore, and one that would be easier not done. I just don’t think that right now I can leave my teens to figure this out on their own. I’d love to know your thoughts on this front.

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