By Temima Feldman

The phone will never ring quite the same way again once the inevitable moment arrives: your teen has successfully won you over on the tiresome but convincing debate of “everyone has a cellphone.” Or maybe you are actually excited about the prospect of the long-anticipated first cellphone. Whatever the influence, this occasion is a milestone. The first cellphone is a rite of passage.

As with every other stage of development, parental input and oversight play a critical role in the success–or failure–of this endeavor. As our children grow and develop a social life beyond the confines of home, our guidance becomes a more crucial, albeit often invisible, piece of the never-ending parental responsibility.

Handing a child his or her first cellphone without a framework is as irresponsible as handing that child a set of car keys without the proper driving instruction. While our children may be emotionally ready to handle a certain level of independence, it is our job to provide them with the structure necessary to navigate that level of freedom. It is most effective to provide that framework proactively, before you present this exciting gift. But not all is lost if your teen is already well into his or her “cellphone life” culture.

A recent study by the Digital Citizenship Project found that 70% of Jewish middle-school students own a smartphone and over 60% of them sleep with their phones within reach. In older teens, the Pew Research Foundation found that 85% of teens sleep with their cellphones near their beds, often using their phones as clocks, alarms, flashlights, or other gadgets. On a practical level, this means that each beep or vibration steals another moment of sleep from your teen. Sleep deprivation in teens is a rampant problem and puts adolescents at risk for cognitive and emotional difficulties and poor school performance. More than 59% of the respondents in the Digital Citizenship Project Study report that they have gone to bed late as a result of their technology.

Even without sleep deprivation as a concern, having a cellphone within reach at bedtime can be problematic. Online disinhibition, which is characterized by the loosening of social norms or personal inhibitions in the online realm when compared with normal face-to-face interactions, becomes all too real when teens are texting late into the night. Teens are far more likely to act, say, and do things in the online realm that they would not in real life. The Digital Citizenship Project Survey found that over 70% of respondents reported that their friends do not definitively have consistent behaviors offline and online. Social connections play a critical role in developing self-esteem during adolescence, and online disinhibition can have long-lasting negative consequences.

While cellphone ownership can present challenges, parents can implement some simple policies to reduce problematic behavior and potentially negative outcomes.

-     Have a set time when devices (cellphone, iPad, tablets, and the like) must be off and out of reach.

-     Have a central charging station where teens have to leave their phones and iPads to charge overnight. This is one of the best ways to combat both sleep deprivation and late-night texting.

-     Set the tone in your house that technology use is a public activity–this includes a policy that requires doors to bedrooms to be open while technology is being used. This creates an environment of open communication.

-     Utilize the parental control options on your child’s devices.

-     Model the behaviors you want to instill in your child.

-     Above all, have the dialogue with your child about both your and their technology habits.

Technology is ubiquitous and offers many wonderful opportunities when used within the proper framework. It is our job as parents and educators to provide that positive framework for our children so they can maximize the benefits of technology while minimizing the inherent dangers. v

Temima Feldman has over 20 years of experience in school leadership, administration, and school-based consulting. Her areas of expertise include differentiated instruction, curriculum development, classroom management, behavior modification, instructional supervision, Myers—Briggs, and school—home engagement. She currently serves as the general-studies principal for grades 1—5 at the Torah Academy for Girls Elementary School and is a co-creator of the Digital Citizenship Project.



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