Should I limit phone use?

As pre-teens become increasingly involved with friends, they spend more time on the phone. Some make short calls for practical reasons: “When’s the game?” “Do you want to come over?” “What’s the homework?’ Others spend long periods on, the phone every day. They call each other to talk about school, tests, social activities, who likes that, clothes, weather, sports, music, movies, and families. They even call to “watch” television together: “We’ve both got The Simpsons on.”

Parents wonder why their child wants to make and receive so many calls. Adults try to minimize their own time on the phone, especially in the evenings. Yet some kids want to talk constantly, even to people they’ve just seen. A girl leaving a friend after a sleepover may yell, “Call me!” as she gets in the car. One parent described her thirteen-year-old’s visit to her grandparents: “Hi, Grandma and Grandpa. Can I use your phone?”

There are many reasons children like to call each other. Talking on the phone is an activity—something enjoyable to do, especially during the long afternoons if parents aren’t home. It’s a way to stay busy.

Phoning also gives kids a chance to talk about their feelings. Twelve- and thirteen-year-olds share less and less of their personal lives with their parents. They’d rather discuss family and social problems with friends who won’t criticize or lecture them. As friendships become increasingly intense at these ages, kids stay in touch out of a sense of loyalty and concern: “Did you get in trouble with your dad?”

Another reason friends call each other is to finish conversations they’ve started in school. Although classmates are together all day, they rarely have time to socialize. Since talking in class can get them in trouble, they call each other at home to talk in detail about the day’s events.

Most parents don’t want their child to spend a lot of time on the phone. They worry about the hours away from homework, chores, and physical activity. They dislike the frequent interruptions caused by phone calls and get angry when the line is busy. “I’m expecting an important business call,” sometimes gets the response, “But I have to tell Jen just one more thing.” In addition, parents don’t like siblings arguing about phone use: “You always let Michelle talk longer.” “John’s on the phone all the time. It’s not fair!” Some parents try to control phone calls with rigid rules, but this rarely works. Tracking calls and strictly allotting phone time takes considerable effort, and there are always special circumstances. If parents forbid all weeknight social calls, their child may end up sneaking calls or lying: “I wasn’t on the phone.” “I just had to ask a question about our math assignment.”

One solution to arguments about phone calls is flexible scheduling: “You can use the phone from 7:30 to 8:00 and then it’s Tim’s turn.” If you try this, make sure all family members know there will be exceptions to the schedule. An important call might come in, someone may have to return a call, or an extra few minutes may be needed to finish a conversation.

You also can try a flexible approach without specific scheduling. If you remind your children to be patient and considerate of each other’s needs, they may be able to juggle phone time according to daily circumstances. You and your spouse also should try to follow the guidelines you set up. Your child will feel angry and uncooperative if all of your calls, even unimportant ones, take precedence over hers.

If you find your child is not spending enough time on homework or other responsibilities, limit her use of the phone: “You can only make a call when your assignments are done.” “You have a big project due in two days. No calls until it’s finished.” You also should limit your child’s calls if you want to spend more time with her: “I just got home and I’d like to hear about your day. You can call Carmen later.”

If she spends too much of her free time on the phone, suggest alternatives. You don’t want phone use to be a substitute for other activities. Try interesting her in drawing, playing a game, and writing, reading, going outside, having a friend over, or taking part in after-school activities or sports.

When she uses the phone (even if it’s her own phone line), be sure she knows how to act responsibly no late-night calls received or made, no trick calls, no calls with silent friends eavesdropping, no rudeness to adults who answer the phone. Be aware of the ways she uses, or misuses, services such as conference calling.

Telephone technology changes constantly, offering options that may help (but also may complicate) home phone use: answering machines, additional phone lines, call-waiting, call-forwarding, computer dedicated phone lines, cell phones, caller ID, and other services and devices. You and your child may be using email and computerized instant messaging as phone alternatives. Whatever options you try, continually encourage your child to share, to be reasonable and responsible, and to show respect for others.

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