Cell Phone Sleuth

My daughter is 12 and recently got her first cell phone. I’ve been amazed at how fast it’s become practically attached to her body. She never puts it down!

So here’s what I really need to know: can I read her texts and look at her photos?

I know it sounds bad, like I’m invading her privacy (which I never, EVER figured I’d do) but the stakes just seem so high now. How can I be sure she won’t be texting and sext-ing and end up doing something stupid and harmful? I feel so out-of-control! What now?

Sarah (I miss the terrible twos) Ann

Dear Sarah … Ann,

This is such a common tale; and frankly, we all worry about this stuff. The issue you’re really dealing with here is your daughter’s coming of age. She’s growing up and starting to make decisions and choices that are separate from you and they have some risk. The cell phone is just the beginning of a long process. GULP.

The question is, how much privacy are you comfortable giving her at this age?

With our own kids we let them know right up front that they shouldn’t expect privacy when it comes to the contents of their rooms, since while we have no intention of rifling through their possessions, we reserve the right to come in and clean (including closets and under the bed), put away laundry, etc. when need be. They can have all the privacy of that kind they want when they’re living in their own place, just not in our house. However, that doesn’t extend to their cell phones, which we see as more a part of their “personal space”. Arbitrary distinction? Maybe — we all choose where to draw the line.

As always, open communication is your best friend here. Have a long, frank talk with her about your concerns, including the dangers she may not be aware of. Let her know that having a cell phone carries with it responsibility. Ask lots of questions about what her friends are doing with their cell phones (she may be more open when talking about her peers than about herself, and you can assume her MO is roughly the same as theirs). Have her teach you some techy tricks; I guarantee she knows some that you don’t. All this will give you a good sense of where she’s at and what she’s up to.

You have every right (and responsibility) to limit the use of the phone. How many talk minutes is she allowed? How many monthly texts? Discuss what you think is fair and reasonable, including cost. Let her know how much of the family resources are spent on the cell phone bill each month and let her weigh in on what seems appropriate. Once you’re both clear on the issues, YOU, the parents, decide the limits and stick to them. And let’s assume she doesn’t have internet access on that phone — if she does, cancel that feature now. Does a 12-year-old need free range internet access? High risk option, don’t you think?

While you’re at it, come up with some rules about when and where it’s OK to use the phone. Some of ours are … never during class time, never during homework (through middle school), never during family meals, and never during conversations with adults (kid culture is so different, it’s hard to prohibit the phone during conversations with each other, though you can make it clear you consider it rude).

In direct response to your question about sneaking a look, we’ll repeat one of our top 10 rules of parenting … don’t lie to your kids about anything important. It eats away at their trust and your credibility. If you’re determined to look, tell her so.

Like we said, the bigger issue here is watching your little girl grow up and find her own way. As hard as it is for us (“just take that knife and plunge it into my heart, why don’t you”), it’s their job and they need to do it. Sometimes we just have to take a leap of faith, trust that we’ve done our job pretty well all these years, and keep those lines of communication open.

Of course, that may not be much help the first time (or the second or third) she leaves that phone in her jeans pocket and it goes through the wash.

For an example of a teen cell phone contract from RadicalParenting.com click here.

Good luck!

~ The Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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