Help me get my kid a phone
July 23, 2014 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Parents, what do you wish you knew when you got your kid their first phone? I need practical advice, but I'm also interested in the less tangible parent/child relations-type advice, too.

Kid BlahLaLa is entering middle school this year, and for a bunch of reasons it's time for him to have a phone. Mr. BlahLaLa and I have older iPhones (4S) and a joint plan on AT&T. Our two-year contract will be up in mid-September. Kid's school starts in mid-August, so ideally he'd have a phone by then.

All I really care about is that Kid can phone and text. Kid, of course, wants the NEWESTANDBESTIPHONEZOMG! I have no idea if it's better to add him to our account, open a new account for him, get a pay-as-you-go plan, or what.

And what about rules? He will have to keep it off during the school day, that's for sure. I'm also pretty firm on the idea that he can't have it in his bedroom at night. But what else am I not thinking of? Help!
posted by BlahLaLa to Technology (23 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I bought a pre-paid zero-camera zero-internet phone. Rules are about the same for off at school and it goes "to sleep" at bedtime in the livingroom where all shared electronics are charged.
posted by tilde at 9:51 AM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you get him an iPhone, plan on the screen getting cracked every few months.
posted by Dragonness at 9:51 AM on July 23, 2014

Best answer: Your kid will send about 500x more texts than you think he will.
If he's popular with the ladies, he'll receive about 3000x as many as you think he will.

Make sure your texting plan is unlimited.
posted by phunniemee at 9:54 AM on July 23, 2014 [11 favorites]

If you do end up with something with internet access, you might want to look into blocking on-phone purchases... especially in/for games.
posted by Jacen at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2014

Best answer: I bought a pre-paid zero-camera zero-internet phone. Rules are about the same for off at school and it goes "to sleep" at bedtime in the livingroom where all shared electronics are charged.

We're still quite a few years off of our kid needing his own phone, but this is sort of our general plan for most technology things. Kid gets the dumbest device possible, that still functions, and then gets fancier upgrades as responsibility is demonstrated. We already know our kid is a bit of a tornado, so YMMV.

When it comes to tech in general, we pretty much rely on hand-me-downs from his grandparents.

If your device for the kid will accept it, device gets a dock, and must be tucked into the dock at night, which is located in a common area.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2014

Best answer: He has to answer when you call/text, he can't always not hear it or have it be out of power or on silent or whatever. (This will occasionally happen, but not regularly.) You should also have the power to find where the phone is at any point, and your son should know this.

You'll also probably want to have unlimited photo/video texting.
posted by jeather at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2014

Best answer: What we learned from our first and did with our second and third child was that it was not "here is your shiny new phone." We made the arrival of a phone contingent on several things. First, we made it clear it was a trial period. They had the first 4-6 months to earn the right to have the phone. If there were limits, those limits needed to be respected or lose the phone for some period of time. Second, we made it clear that data overages or app purchases needed to come out of their allowance or birthday money. Third, we viewed the phone as a safety device first, and we expected them to respond to our calls and or texts in a timely manner. Playing games with friends comes second. Calling to let us know you rode your bike safely to Johnny's house was the type of thing we expected the phone to be for. We also learned to not accept the phone battery was dying as an excuse. They needed to learn to charge it and if there was no signal to go airplane and that using it for games could and would drain the battery.

We also explained that we would be periodically reviewing their usage of text, picture and the internet and we expected it to be appropriate and free of any sort of bullying, teasing, or other middle school potential missteps.

The bottom line was that each of our three acted consistently with their personalities and their past history. The responsible one was great about it. The forgetful one "forgot" to take it to the park, forgot to charge it, etc. The jock broke the screen sliding into second base once and another time thought it fun to play catch with it before it fell and needed some TLC.

When I checked usage data, it was clear that the ONLY time they used it to speak was with us or their grandparents and that it is possible to have 4,000 texts in a month. That is about 10 an hour on average for a twelve hour day. If you take out school, dinner, shower, hw time, that comes out to about 30 an hour. While you and I might think that is hard to do, apparently to a middle schooler, that is chump change.

Fwiw, we got our children their phones in the 7th grade (This was about 7 years ago.) I would do it the same time and way again.

Oh, Yik Yak is a middle schooler's ability to post stuff on the bathroom wall.
posted by 724A at 10:03 AM on July 23, 2014 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I recently went to a talk by Catherine Steiner-Adair, the author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. The talk was great, with lots of common sense advice for parents about managing their own device usage as well as their kids' device usage, how to set up boundaries, how to respond to crises, etc. I have not read the book, but I would recommend it based on what the author said in person.
posted by alms at 10:22 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've got three kids and all of them got phones as soon as they needed them. I think the eldest was around 13 at the time.

Many people are so tempted to share their, "When I was that age, I used to talk 12,000 miles to school in blizzards and die in school and bury myself and then I had to walk 12,000 miles home every day where my parents beat me AND I'M JUST FINE," nostalgic stories, leading into why damned kids today don't need phones.

Please do not listen to these stories.

Kids today have cell phones. And they use them for everything.

They largely communicate via SnapChat and texting. And they text A LOT. You want unlimited texting.

Before they were given phones, I made the following very clear to the kids:

* I am paying for unlimited texting and calls. If you go over data usage because you're on Facebook all the time, then you have to pay it yourself.


* If I ever call or text and you do not answer, I take the phone.

* If you ever have the phone out when we have company or we're having a meal, I take the phone.

* If you teach Grandma how to text, I will buy you candy.

All of my kids have been fine, never gone over, they all have iPhones with heavy-duty Otterbox cases and they've never broken them.

I have the $30 pay as you go plan with Virgin and it works for us.
posted by kinetic at 10:23 AM on July 23, 2014 [15 favorites]

I would triple-check your school's disciplinary policy on cell phones and then double check with administrators so that you understand exactly what cell phone use is permitted and when confiscation is appropriate or likely.

Does it have to stay in the locker? Can it be out at lunch time? If you are trying to reach your child during the school day, do you understand that calling the front office is probably the only authorized means of contact? Et cetera.

If you can be on the same page with the school and communicate to your child that your expectations are the same as the school's, it will go a lot easier.

(I say this because ambiguous and arbitrary enforcement of cell phone use policies is one of the ways administrators have to suspend kids at a whim).
posted by Schielisque at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just some random bits, as there's lots of good advice above.

Figure out in advance how paid apps will be funded, and adjust settings and preferences accordingly.

If your child gets anything better than a burner phone, put Find My iPhone or its equivalent on it, even if they're picking up the tab for a replacement. You'll quickly discover that not only is misplacing a phone an inconvenience to them, it's an inconvenience to you. (At one point I threatened to bill for mileage if the phone didn't turn up!)

If the phone's screen is passworded, make sure you always know what the screen password is as well.

Forbid surreptitious audio or video recordings of any kind. Especially if you don't want your casual conversation in the car to be the next great Vine, Snapchat, or Instagram.

Always know what the popular apps are in your area -- it can vary. Yik Yak hadn't caught on at our middle school (yet), but Instagram was huge.

iMessages may not count against text counts in plans, but Not all of your kid's friends will have the same phone OS.

Nth, nth, nth on the volume of text messaging. It is spectacular.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:39 AM on July 23, 2014

Figure out in advance how paid apps will be funded

Personally, the only card number my app purchasing accounts ever get is the number of a low-value app store gift card. $10-$25 gift card at a time, never link to a proper credit card. Easy to budget your app purchases, no concerns about accidentally spending huge buttfarts of money on in-game purchases, etc. It's really the most controlled way to do it.
posted by phunniemee at 10:57 AM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Parents, what do you wish you knew when you got your kid their first phone?
Kid, of course, wants the NEWESTANDBESTIPHONEZOMG!

I knew, of course, that social status is a huge deal in middle school. I did not know how much a phone could influence social status until years later when my son was still getting shit about his trac phone from random peers we'd run into.

I understand this is about you being able to communicate with your child, not your child having a cool toy to play with. But, if I were buying my son his first middle school phone today, I would definitely take coolness far more into consideration than I originally did.
posted by 0 at 11:27 AM on July 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Definitely use gift cards for their appstore purchasing. It's embarrassingly easy to unlock the setting for app purchases and forget, then wonder why you spent $90 on weapon upgrades in-game three weeks ago. Gift cards are great and give them something to work for and budget around vs a steady stream of asking parents for $0.99 at a time.

Go over the huge criminal and social disaster of naked selfies. Remind them that they will be seen. Practice online bullying with them, what they can text back or not, what's cruel and illegal, what to do when a jerk sends them gross pictures etc. Also, they may be sharing passwords with friends, so tell them to keep you in the loop for passwords.

We do hand-me-downs - parents get the new upgrade, kid with the lousiest inherits that one so it evens out. Kids have to pay for up to half their phone bill, anything over the plan, and they are fully responsible for daft or intentional damage repairs.

Also, if they have an eye for photography, you can set up a bunch of camera apps and follow them (if they're okay with it) on instagram or something and encourage them in photography. Having a digital camera in your pocket can be surprisingly creative. If they're a big reader, ebook apps and journalling, etc. It's not just a phone - think of hobbies and interest you can encourage with a tiny pocket computer.
posted by viggorlijah at 12:05 PM on July 23, 2014

Best answer: Add him to your plan right now and get the crummiest phone that comes free with service. Write down a list of rules and hand him the phone. Tell him that if he shows himself to be responsible with the inexpensive phone then you will give him your iPhone in September, while you get the newest, coolest. When it is time for his upgrade in two years, if he has shown himself to be one of the few kids in the world who is responsible with an iPhone, then he can have the newest, coolest phone on the market. When you give him your iPhone, keep the cheap one in plain site so that he knows what he will be stuck with if anything happens to your iPhone.

1) The phone lives in the kitchen from 10:00 pm to 7:00 am.
2) The phone does not get turned on in school.
3) Parents are given all passwords, including facebook accounts, in writing.
4) Phone will be searched by parents at any given time.
5) If it looks like anything has been hidden or deleted, phone will be taken away.
6) Having a porn site open up on a phone is never an accident. Phone will be lost for a month if porn happens.
7) Any apps must be pre-approved by parents. If the app is something that is recommended by another middle school age child then it is an instant no.
8) No offensive music is allowed on the iPhone.
9) Forgetting to return the phone to its home in the kitchen means that it will have to stay in the kitchen for an entire weekend.

I once got through to my son by threatening to delete his candy crush account if he didn't shape up. Phones can be valuable tools.
posted by myselfasme at 12:07 PM on July 23, 2014

If the app is something that is recommended by another middle school age child then it is an instant no.

Maybe I'm a spectacularly immature Middle-Aged-Dad, but when Middle-School-Age Nephew talks to me about an app, he's usually spot-on. I mean, he misses obvious malware sometimes, but that's why he asks his beardo hacker uncle about apps.

I think that maybe this rule would get triggered by a violation of number 6. But, then again, we're obviously different people - I personally made sure that MSAN had Explicit Content Only on his Nook, because it's PURE GENIUS.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 12:19 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

In all seriousness, watch this Louis CK bit with your kid about cell phones and bullying and talk to them about how easy it is to be mean with texting.

**Also, we recently had 2 kids in our town arrested and they're being charged with making threats because they texted their friends how some teachers were jerks and how they wish they could blow up the high school. It's THAT easy to get in serious trouble with cell phones.
posted by kinetic at 3:39 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not sure where you're located, but my niece is not near the city, and I got her a prepaid Straighttalk phone - turns out she doesn't actually have much service at school, which is an issue when she needs to change pick up time, etc. So if you have any concerns about coverage, I'd confirm before you pick a provider.

Also, I've heard that putting a screen protector on the phone actually makes the screen less likely to break. It took my niece 7 months to break hers, after she took the protector off!
posted by needlegrrl at 4:58 PM on July 23, 2014

I'd suggest starting to have the talk about sexting and appropriate videos/photos too. Like most serious conversations about morals it can be best to have the conversation slowly, over several years rather than in one giant lump. You might want to discuss what to do if someone asks for a photo you're not comfortable with, what to do if your friends are showing one around, that no technology is truly erasable or secure and that it's not an 'if you loved me you'd send this'

Regardless of gender I think it's important to have the conversations and give your kid tools to use in the culture they will be exposed to.
posted by five_cents at 5:07 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have rules for not using the phone:

If the kid has a certain bedtime, that's when the phone is turned off and surrendered to you at night. No arguments about how it's his phone, no swearing that he will not touch it if you just let him keep it by his bed, no begging for you to let him use it for just 10 more minutes, etc. He can get out of bed early in the morning to use it (after he is ready for school) if that helps him and his friends get going in the morning.

And for meal times together, do that thing where you all turn off your phones (no ringing or beeping or buzzing while you eat) and put them in a pile, and the first person to touch their phone after they go into that pile loses the game and pays a penalty, which at home might be something like doing the dishes immediately after the meal. And maybe you'll have other family times that call for the same rule, like when you always watch some show together.

(That's my favorite phone rule. Everyone should follow it when they get together with friends and family. "First one to touch a phone pays for the [meal|tip|gas|drinks|etc.].")
posted by pracowity at 2:22 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Add to your phone plan, and you get to control the phone. (Check to make sure you're getting the best deal, naturally.)

And see what kinds of kid-control services you can get on your plan. For a time when my teenage son was over using data, I added a control where I could remotely turn off the phone in all kinds of ways and times. Like, I could turn off the phone for most uses except emergency during the school day and bed time. This was a very useful disciplinary tool.
posted by RedEmma at 6:32 AM on July 25, 2014

When my step-niece got her first phone, she would call her friends and hang up when it went to voicemail, then call back again and hang up when it went to voicemail - rinse and repeat to the tune of a $600 bill for the first month. This was before texting was as big as it is now, but general phone procedures should be discussed (she had no clue that each one of those calls was a minute or two toward her monthly quota).

When you talk to the kid about sexting and bullying via text, make sure you encompass other digital communications, like email. This is also probably a good time to teach them that whatever they post online or email is forever and they should always behave like you or their teacher is reading or listening to their communications.
posted by youngergirl44 at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you so much, guys. I could have marked many more best answers. You have given me a lot to think about. Some general ideas:

-- Yeah, I think the kid's personality should factor into this -- meaning, he is a responsible, respectful kid, so we're gonna start with outlining his responsibilties and go from there.
-- There will definitely be a family contract in terms of what we expect and what the consequences will be.
-- Cheapest phone added to our family plan -- as a matter of fact, the iPhone 4S is currently free, and we can add him to our plan for about $40 per month. That's about what I had expected to pay. Bonus: because Mr. BlahLaLa and I also have 4S phones, we understand how to use it, how to use the settings, etc. Also, can keep him on our Apple ID, which he will like (being able to use the apps he already has on our family iPad, for example) and I will like because he does not know the password, and understands and accepts this limitation.
-- Unlimited texting and calls: hell yes (included)
-- Watching data usage: I'm already on this since Mr. BlahLaLa has done some boneheaded accidental data hogging, so by adding the kid to the current plan this will go into my current workflow.
-- Sturdy, well-reviewed case for protection: on it.
-- Knowing the rules his school enforces: working on it.
So, thanks.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:10 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

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