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What teens think parents should know about phones

15 min

Few topics of discussion between kids and parents are as fraught as cellphone use. That’s because phones intersect with so many areas of parental concern: safety, gaming, screen time, social media, bullying, sleep, grades, attention, manners, responsibility, peer pressure, sexual behavior … the list goes on.

“This is the world we’re in, and it’s not going away,” said Adam Pletter, a child psychologist in Bethesda, Md., who helps parents deal with the ongoing changes in technology.

Pletter encourages families to develop a plan before their child gets a phone that covers how they will handle the predictable issues that cellphones bring, and he suggests increasing phone access as the child gets older and demonstrates responsible use.

Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker and family coach, suggests that instead of lecturing kids about the downsides of phones, parents ask open-ended questions along the lines of why teens like a certain app, or involve kids in discussions about what’s going on in the news, such as TikTok challenges. Parents should have a series of conversations over the years, because technology and teens’ interests change so rapidly. “I think that we all have to be engaging in digital education for the rest of our lives,” said Pearlman, author of “First Phone: A Child’s Guide to Digital Responsibility, Safety, and Etiquette.”

But perhaps the best advice and insight is from those who truly understand: teens. What works? What doesn’t? What do they wish their parents had done differently? Read on to find out what they want parents to know about their relationship with cellphones. [Responses have been edited for length and clarity.]

Our phones aren’t just for fun

Since I was 10, I’ve had a cellphone. My phone is as important to me as my house keys, and, luckily, I have parents who understand that. What I don’t think they understand is that when I’m on it, I’m not just mindlessly scrolling. I’m actually productive on it — I’m answering school-related emails or responding to texts from friends. And, most apps that I need every day for school require two-factor authentication, which I need my phone for.

I do feel a little bit of pressure from my friends to be on social media, but other than that, my phone is a necessity. At the end of the day, it opens up the world. I can learn about what’s going on in my community by reaching into my pocket. On the other side of that, there’s also a lot of bias it exposes me to, so I have to be careful. My parents prepared me pretty well for what comes with a cellphone. They also have a rule: If they want to look at my phone at any time, they can. I let them see it. They don’t snoop. They don’t look through any of my texts. But they do make sure I’m safe. It’s beneficial to all of us. For that to work, there has to be mutual trust there to begin with — and I have that with my parents. — Carlin Greenhouse, 14, D.C.

Texting is different than saying it to their face

I do use my phone a lot. I don’t actually have a lot of social media, and that was something my parents told me from a young age. But it’s not something I really pushed for. I don’t see myself needing it. It helps me focus on other things. You’re going to laugh, but I have LinkedIn for jobs and internships and stuff.

I was explaining something weird to my mom the other day, how when she texts me and uses periods, I assume she’s mad at me. It feels so final. If she says, “Great.” I think, ‘Oh, no, what did I do?’

I don’t use punctuation unless it’s professional. I babysit a lot, and if someone is texting me about a job, I want to be professional. There are some teachers I know I can text in lowercase, and I know it will be fine. With my English teacher, that’s not going to slide.

Emoji — these days, people use the skeleton to say, like, “I’m dead, that was so funny.” One of my best friends, every once in a while she’ll change it up. It used to be the cartwheel one. Then it used to be the fencing one. And then the dinosaur. And she would send it when she didn’t know what else to say.

A lot of the time, I use the crying/laughing one with the tears streaming down its face. (It’s the straight-on one. I do notice that a lot of people who are older than me use the one that’s out to the side.) I kind of age myself when I use this, but I do like the facepalm one. I use that so much. Sometimes I use it as a joke.

I think phones definitely have been a source of problems. Texting someone is different than saying it to their face. Over text, things can get so lost. The message can get so lost. I think a lot of times that causes drama.

I find so many people are on their phones the entire time at lunch. There are people who I’ve never actually had a conversation with. I’ve texted them. And that’s kind of sad. Talking to people is cool.

My parents go through my phone every once in a while. There have been certain situations, and it’s definitely changed how I use my phone. They would say, “No, you’re not allowed to do that.” I’m torn because, in some ways, I’m like, ‘Why do you have to check my phone? Why don’t you trust me?’ But the conversations we’ve had have prompted me to be more aware about how I use my phone. I think we’ve seen a lot of stuff come out about TikTok and the algorithms. … Seeing that has made me really grateful that my parents are aware of what I do on my phone. I know people’s parents who don’t know half the apps they have on their phone. — Gabriela Sousa, 15, D.C.

Make rules, but talk to your kids first

My advice for parents who are about to get their kid a phone would be to set up those systems like screen time [limits] and downtime right away. But talk about it first. I think those ground rules are probably better set through an actual interaction. A lot of parents make the mistake of just setting up those limits and it pops up and then the kids are mad at their parents. But have an interaction and say, “We’re setting this up, but not because you are doing anything wrong.” For me, my parents had the conversation. So when my limit pops up, it’s telling me I’ve been doing this for too long and that’s okay. I think it’s helpful in being mindful with how I’m using my phone.

I got my phone on the first day of sixth grade. I think that was about the time most people got it. I definitely made a lot of mistakes. I’d play a game and purchase things without realizing what I was doing and had to face consequences. But those mistakes are very valuable in helping kids. You have to make mistakes to learn.

Don’t let kids have social media until they’ve had a phone for a while. Social media is not good. And however old I am, it’s still hurtful. TikTok is incredibly addicting. I have woken up and just scrolled for hours. Instagram, especially for my friends who are girls, is really not good for mental health as far as body image stuff. And there’s so much going on on Instagram to be jealous of.

I had for a long time, I think even before a phone. Now I wish I didn’t have that. I was so young. That’s the only glimpse of social media you have, and it makes you think teen friendships and relationships are different than they are. It’s not a good world view to base your life off.— Caleb Murphy, 15, D.C.

Teach your kids internet safety

I think [parents] should teach kids internet safety. For example, there’s this app called Omegle where you can, like, talk to strangers, and it’ll just give you a stranger to talk to. And I know people use it, but I feel it’s pretty unsafe.

[Also], social media is not really that necessary. But if you’re waiting for something, usually that time is filled with going on social media, which I guess causes impatience, because ... we kind of need constant stimulation. If you’re waiting for something, you’re not just waiting; you’re on your phone.

Sometimes, I have not used social media. It makes me feel better. I feel calmer, and I don’t feel the need for constant stimulation and I have more time to do things that I actually like doing, maybe reading or talking to people in person. — Stella Forsyth, 16, Brooklyn

Social media can cause a lot of drama

I definitely think there need to be some ground rules for social media. I remember some instances where I was little and had lots of girlfriends I’d talk to on social media, and there was maybe a little too much drama. I was probably 13 at the time. I think also it’s important to know what issues social media brings with it, and the responsibility of using it. A kid that’s maybe too young to know something — they can easily see it just by pressing a button. It’s important to tell them to follow people you know and that’s it, or to say if you want information and you’re looking at social media for it, let us know. It’s so easy to find something that’s inappropriate at that age.

I also think parents should know, even though there are a lot of scary things on social media, it’s the big way that preteens and teens communicate. This is how they make friends, and it’s not such a time waster as some people see it. This is them finding their way. — Katherine Harris, 18, student at James Madison University

Phone and social media breaks are important

Right now, I’m restricted from using my phone. It’s been almost two weeks without my phone, and, believe it or not, I feel great. At first, I gave pushback about losing it as a consequence, but I realized I wasn’t going to win that battle. I got into an altercation with some other people, and video about it ended up on social media. My mom took my phone away because she didn’t want me exposed to that, and as a consequence. While I don’t agree with taking away phones as a punishment, it did make me realize how important phone and social media breaks are and how beneficial they can be. I feel more energized. I feel like my sleep is better. And having a break from just everyone has been nice because I didn’t realize how stressful social media and all that social pressure can be. It’s still crucial to communicate with people and keep in touch with friends and to keep my calendar organized, but I don’t think my parents understand that fully. My generation was raised with technology. For my parents, it came later in life. A good balance would be having the option to take regular breaks, not because of punishment. — Kyle Reed, 16, Cleveland

It’s important to learn what is fact

I think I was just about to turn 12 when I got my first phone. I needed a phone to call my parents and say like, “Oh, I’m going to go hang out with like this person,” or whatever. I was tired of having to ask my friends to use their phones to call my parents. I was 12 when I downloaded Instagram, and I remember it says you have to be 13 to use the app. And I was like, “Oh, I’m so sneaky.”

I think that iPhone addiction is totally real. But I think it changes the conversation when you’re like, ‘Whose fault is it?’ I only heard within the past couple of years that these apps like Instagram are made to be addicting. They’re a product, so they want their customers to keep coming back.

Over the summer I deleted Instagram, because I was like, ‘Enough.’ And that was nice. Now I have downloaded it because I can’t get away, but I have a timer on it so it tells me when I’ve spent an hour on Instagram. It tells me to get off the app. And so sometimes I do. I think the social media cleanse did help over the summer, because now I’m into reading again.

I always hear about the kid that became, like, a white supremacist because of things that he was seeing online. I know people who will see something on Instagram or Facebook and not realize that it’s propaganda, or not realize that it’s, like, exaggerated or completely false, and take it as fact. That, to me, is the number one enemy.

I think scaring your kid about iPhone addiction and talking to your kid about predatory social media companies actually really worked for me and a lot of my friends. And I think that’s because a lot of kids nowadays are getting into anti-capitalism. I think an easy way to get your kid off Instagram is by talking about how much money they’re making by stealing your data. I mean, that stuff is real, and I think it’s dangerous, too. — Ava Orrantia, 17, Brooklyn

Sometimes, I wish my friends would put their phones down and talk

When I was in sixth grade, my friends had phones. And I really envied them, because they would text their friends and call them. I think that not being able to do what the other kids were able to do kind of made me mad at my parents. Whenever I asked them why couldn’t I get a phone, they just kept telling me it was just going to be a distraction, I didn’t need it, I didn’t need to text my friends, I knew everybody in my class, I could just talk to them. That’s how you build connections and relationships. And looking back, I didn’t need a phone in sixth grade. It’s just a distraction.

I’m actually very appreciative. They didn’t give me a phone until later, and when they did, they gave me very heavy time limits.

A lot of my friends are kind of addicted to their phones. Like, I’m trying to have a conversation with them and they’re on their phone, scrolling through TikTok. I just kind of wish they would put down their phone and, you know, have a conversation with me instead of looking at stuff that’s online. Sometimes, I ask them, like, “Hey, can you put down your phone?” They go, “I’m listening. I promise I’m listening.” But they’re really not.

I know someone two years older than me. She’s deleted all of her social media. She felt like she was going into a downward spiral. She felt like she wasn’t really enjoying other people. She just found herself in her room scrolling on TikTok rather than going out and hanging with friends or going for a walk. Now she only uses her phone to take pictures and call people. She thinks that when she takes pictures, she looks at it a different way because it’s not for the purpose of posting on Instagram. It’s like you live in the moment, and when you take a picture, you really get more joy from it. — Isabel Celedon, 18, freshman at University of Central Oklahoma

Jenny Rogers and Amy Joyce contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Gabriela Sousa.