Everyone has a cell phone. At least, that’s what your teenager says to you during his/her constant pleas to have his/her own phone. One of the biggest questions making the rounds among parents of tweens and teens is not if, but when, to get your child a mobile device.

Teen cell phone usage continues to make headlines, from teen sexting bringing to light an old Massachusetts law that makes sexting a felony, to stories of how teens’ late-night usage of cell phones could lead to mental health problems. On the one hand, parents like the thought of being able to reach their kids at any time; on the other hand, cell phones bring a whole slew of issues to the parenting realm that many parents, much less children, are prepared for.

The majority of teenagers and parents report feeling safer when teenagers have their own cell phones because of GPS features, which allow parents to know where teens are, and also serve as insurance against abduction because of tracking capability. That said, if your child needs a phone for an emergency, there should be restrictions in place for usage, and there should be consequences prepared ahead of time if your child breaks one of the golden rules.

If you decide to allow your child to have his/her own cell phone, whether in middle school or high school, here are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind.

Remember that tweens and teens with cell phones are still children. If you decide to give a tween or a teen a cell phone, you must remember that the brain of this child isn’t yet done forming. Scans show that the parts of the brain that manage impulse control and planning ahead are not finished developing in an adolescent brain, and in fact, are among the last parts of the brain to mature. So teens may still feel like they are invincible, take risks, embrace danger, and believe they are unbreakable and that nothing bad can happen. It is up to you as the parent to carefully and clearly layout the ground rules with your children if you choose to give them cell phones, so that they understand and are involved in both the rules and the consequences.

Specify phone usage hours. Determine the time your teen can start using his or her cell phone and when the cell phone must be shut off for the night. You can even take the phone away at night and return the phone to your child in the morning. Studies show that kids actually like having these times set by parents, because it also gives them a socially acceptable “out” from having to be tethered to their phones for their friends 24/7.

Communicate with your child often and openly. In a study, 26% of teens report being harassed or bullied text messages or phone calls. This makes it critical for teens to feel that they can trust their parents enough to communicate if they are the victim of bullying or harassment via cell phones. Trust is based on experience, so begin by building open lines of communication by using my empathic process with your child from a very young age. That way if your child does find himself/herself in a questionable phone situation, he/she will feel comfortable coming to you with the information.

Know what the rules are at school. Each school has its own rules regarding cell phone usage on the premises. Some schools forbid student cell phones at all on school grounds, some allow cell phones to be kept in student lockers or backpacks, while others allow limited cell phone usage in-between classes or even during class time to aid with assignments. Talk with your child’s principal, guidance counselor, and teachers, read the school district guidelines and make sure that you and your child know what the rules are for your child at school.

Lay out the consequences clearly and from the beginning. Make sure your child knows that if X happens, then the consequence will be Y – and, make sure that you follow through with the consequence. Never go back on your word; that will only teach your child that there are no real consequences, and this is the age where learning about consequences can be crucial to your child’s future.

Consider a cell phone contract between you and your child. Cell phone “contracts” are all the rage online these days, and they’re not a bad idea. Basically, you take all of the cell phone usage guidelines you would like to set forth and print them out in an agreement that you and your child both sign. If you need inspiration, there are several online, including this popular contract and this printable cell phone contract that you can download and print out.

It is a parent’s job to teach teens that becoming an adult means finding and asserting your own authority. This is a great opportunity to model for your child what it means to be an adult by showing confidence in your rules, and also by gaining their trust. At the end of the day, parents must parent. When teens learn to find their own authority, they learn that people cannot pressure them. What you are modeling for your children is that strong central core so they’re not vulnerable to peer group socialization. Once they have that strong core and sense of self, things like bullying and peer pressure are no longer as big of an issue, and they are more confident in using a cell phone of their own and proud of the responsibility.



  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at EmpowHER.com since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Amazon.com. Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.