Big Father, Big Mother: Parental monitoring of teens' cellphone can erode trust, therapists say

Big Father, Big Mother: Parental monitoring of teens' cellphone can erode trust, therapists say

April 25th, 2014 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

phone trust photo illustration

phone trust photo illustration

Photo by Sara Jackson


Before handing over a smartphone to your teenage or preteen child, hold a family meeting to establish basic parameters for its use.

• Before the meeting, you and your child's other caretakers should draft and write down the rules for the device's use, preferably in language that leaves no room for misunderstanding.

• During the meeting, review and discussing each rule, tweaking as necessary. Ensure that everyone leaves the meeting clearly understanding your expectations, how they will be enforced and the potential repercussions of misbehaving.

• Ask your child to suggest any additional rules they think should be added.

• Warn about the dangers of sharing too much personal information online. If the child establishes a social media profile, monitor the set-up process and make sure he or she haven't included sensitive information such as birth year, phone number, address or their school.

• Cover safety tips such as how to contact you in an emergency and the use of the phone's emergency dialer feature. Discuss (or review) tips for web browsing, such as avoiding potentially harmful websites. Outline appropriate use of the camera and what types of pictures are appropriate to send. Emphasize that they shouldn't respond to texts, calls or other communications from unknown sources.

• If your child is of driving age, impress upon him or her the dangers of texting while driving, whether they're behind the wheel or in the passenger seat.

• Establish guidelines for preserving your child's privacy and the privacy of peers, such as not forwarding photos of other people or texts or emails containing another person's personal information.

• Set texting and talk allowances. If necessary, limit these forms of communication to certain times of day and collect the device when it may be a distraction from more important activities.

Source: "Generation Smartphone: A Guide for Parents of Tweens + Teens"


Just like caring for a pet or tackling chores around the house, owning a smartphone can be an opportunity to teach your child responsibility and discipline. Here are four tips to use the device as a teaching tool:

• Let the child help pay for it. Show them the monthly bill and what the device is costing the family and set aside a portion of his or her weekly allowance or assign more chores around the house to help contribute.

• Start out with more restrictions on the phone's use -- times of day when it can be used, purchase allowances for apps, songs or ringtones -- and gradually ease those limits based on good behavior.

• Show that the phone is good for more than just texting and social networking. Ask questions and make the child use the phone to locate the answers. Download useful, educational apps to show the possibilities of apps beyond pure entertainment value.

Source: The Online Mom

When she turned 13, America Burnette and her parents finally had "The Talk."

Grace and Anton Burnette describe America, the oldest of their six children, as a "very responsible girl," but they had plenty of reservations leading up to the discussion. For about two years, the teen, who lives in Cleveland, Tenn., sought to demonstrate that she was mature enough to be trusted. Finally, her parents relented.

She could have a smartphone.

But they weren't about to just hand it over. First, they had to establish some ground rules.

"We talked as a family with her about what our expectations were, what the rules were and what sites we thought were appropriate," says Grace, 35, who home schools America and her siblings.

According to 2013 data from the Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of teens ages 12 to 17 have a cellphone, and 47 percent of those devices qualify as smartphones. Along with the proliferation of these devices has come a myriad of new concerns -- sexting, cyberbullying, identity theft -- that parents of analog, offline generations didn't face. Confronted by these perceived threats, some parents, like the Burnettes, try to serve as a kind of digital gatekeeper to the online experience, regulating their children's access and monitoring their activity.

Family therapists, however, say the persistent technological connections can harm the relationship between teens and their parents. Too much digital eavesdropping, they say, can hamper an adolescent's ability to grow independently at a crucial time in their social development.

Such independence not only teaches the child to trust his or her decisions, it also allows the parents to trust the child, says Nickole Moore, a family therapist at the Serenity Center on Broad Street.

"One of the problems with kids and parents having constant contact is that kids do not have to think through potentially problematic situations independently," Moore says. "They depend upon parents to give them answers so, therefore, never make mistakes.

"Mistakes are necessary to learn from and to realize one is capable of handling tricky situations, therefore increasing self-efficacy. When you feel confident in dealing with the problems that inevitably come up, you develop resiliency and confidence. These are needed to be independent adults."


Brook Sprayberry, a Hixson-based licensed counselor specializing in children and adolescents, has worked with many teenage clients who have issues stemming from the use of phones. Some are in trouble for sexting, sending inappropriate pictures or downloading apps without parental approval. Others have become such religious texters, they have trouble speaking with their parents over the phone or face-to-face.

Some of the issues she sees, however, aren't because the teens are using the phone inappropriately but because their parents are. One of her clients is a student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she says, and he intentionally hasn't set up his phone's voice mail to avoid the persistent calls from his Chattanooga-based mother.

"There is a lack of trust with teenagers and their parents," Sprayberry says. "There is less opportunity for children to prove themselves on their own merit by coming home when they say they will or being where they say they'll be. They know that, at any moment, mom or dad can check in on them."

In some cases, Sprayberry's teen clients have misbehaved and been stripped over their phones. Rather than chafe at being severed from the Internet and their friends, she says, they seem to be more relaxed after cutting the digital umbilical cord to their parents.

"They don't have the stress of having to stay in constant contact or worry about what's going on on Facebook," Sprayberry says. "They can just be a kid or a teenager ... without the pressure of always being connected to everyone all the time."


Every couple of days, America Burnette's parents will take up her phone -- as well as her younger brothers' tablets -- to make sure everything is "good and clean and age-appropriate." On occasion, her mother admits, she'll log in to America's phone to read what the teen is talking about with her friends.

America is aware she is under scrutiny, but says she isn't concerned that her parents are looking into her activities. She's a good kid, she says. What does she have to hide?

"I have a pretty good relationship with my Mom," America says. "She already knows everything that's going on in my life anyway, so she'd literally just be rereading anything if she went on my phone. It's just stuff she already knows."

Last year, online parenting/tech community site The Online Mom and mobile security company Lookout, Inc., collaborated on "Generation Smartphone," a guide to provide parents of teens and tweens with suggestions on how to prepare themselves for their child's entrance to smartphone ownership. One of the primary suggestions was the importance of parents drafting a clear-cut agreement outlining how the phone could be used.

During their meeting, America's parents laid out an extensive list of rules she would need to abide by to keep her iPhone 4S or her Facebook account, which she was allowed to create at about the same time she received the phone.

• She had to tell them her Facebook password and add them to her friend network.

• Before she can subscribe to a YouTube channel, they must approve it.

• If she goes out, she has to check in with them when she gets there, when she goes to bed or when she leaves.

America's mother says she trusts her daughter and occasionally feels conflicted about keeping such close tabs on her. When she was growing up, Grace says, her own parents rarely knew everything she was up to.

"That was the reason why I probably got in some trouble," she laughs. "We would leave when the sun came up and come back when the sun came down, and we selectively told our parents what we were doing."

Unlike reading a diary, however, her mother insists checking America's phone isn't an excuse to invade her privacy. Safety comes first and foremost, she says.

"I've tried to be somewhat more vigilant [than my parents were]," she says. "I don't want to use technology as a way to spy on my kids, but I'm not going to feel bad that I've used it like that before.

"I've seen parents who don't care and parents who smother too much. I want to try and find a happy medium."


Although it can be misused, technology affords too many opportunities for education and healthy socialization for parents to consider disconnecting their children entirely, says Sarita Schoenebeck, an assistant professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

Coming from a mixed background in computer science and social science, Schoenebeck has studied the ways technology affects the relationship between parents and children. Increasingly, she says, children are getting smartphones and joining social media services at younger and younger ages -- a 2013 study by Common Sense Media found that 38 percent of children under 2 had used a smartphone or tablet -- but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I think that there are a lot of benefits to it," Schoenebeck says. "Parents can give their children a cellphone while they have still have authority and ability to teach the child to use it safely."

According to a study by The Online Mom and Lookout, Inc., concerns that parents sometimes express over a phone being a gateway to inappropriate content or behavior are largely unfounded.

Respondents to the website's survey found that only 3 percent of parents with phone-using tweens had experienced issues with sexting or cyberbullying. Nine percent said mobile use interfered with family time or school work, and 16 percent said they had experienced "friction or disagreements" over cellphone use.

"There's a tendency to overemphasize the occasional major issues that happen and not to appreciate the social benefits," Schoenebeck says. "Kids, for the large part, want to interact with their friends, whether offline or online. They want to socialize, and these are all pretty reasonable things for kids to be doing some amount of the time."

The real danger, Schoenebeck says, isn't that teens will misuse the phone, but that their parents won't know how to adequately prepare them to take advantage of it safely.

"Part of their charge as parents," she says, "[is] to try to keep up with the major sites and learn about ways they can engage with their children but also give their children some space to explore their own identities and be creative and learn about the world around them."

Contact Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.