Establishing Smartphone Rules For Teens | A Guide For Parents

There’s no doubt that smartphones are having a profound impact on the way young people today communicate and spend their free time [2, 6], with the average Australian child now receiving their first smartphone at 12 years old [2]. Understandably, many parents are concerned about the increased online safety dangers that can arise with 24/7 access to an Internet-connected smartphone [2]. Furthermore, research confirms that social media and smartphone-based activities may trigger brain activity that fosters mobile device addiction [6]. With many teens seemingly glued to their devices, many families are worried that their teen’s smartphone use will develop into a fully-fledged addiction [6].

Smartphones also create additional risks in terms of online safety. In a recent study, 79 per cent of Australian parents feared their child would engage with a stranger online and 74 per cent admitted concern that their child would access age-inappropriate content [2]. While these dangers are real, smartphone rules can equip teens with the strategies they need to manage these risks effectively.

If you’re thinking about purchasing a smartphone for your teen or they already own one, it’s important to think about how you’ll help them learn to use it responsibly [1]. While it can be difficult to set enforceable rules, the best results are often achieved if you take a collaborative approach and help them understand and own the boundaries as healthy and beneficial. If your teen learns responsible mobile phone habits from an early age, they can enjoy their smartphone as part of a balanced lifestyle [1].

Steps to establish smartphone rules for teens

Here are five steps to help your family develop smartphone rules that work to keep young family members safe and accountable for their online behaviour.

#1 Set the smartphone rules together

Taking a collaborative approach, rather than introducing fixed rules, will increase the likelihood that your teen will follow, rather than resist the smartphone rules [1]. Discuss the smartphone rules you’d like to implement and why, and within reason, incorporate their feedback and ideas to encourage buy-in. Ideally, put this smartphone policy in place the very first day you allow your child or teen to own a phone [5]. This policy may be part of a comprehensive family media agreement [1]. If you choose to make this policy a formal agreement, it’s a good idea to revise it together regularly to make sure it continues to meet your family’s needs [1].

Alternatively, you may like to talk with your teen about having phone-free times every day [1]. For example, you may decide to ban using a mobile phone during meals and homework [8]. Since late night screen time can interfere with a teenager’s sleep habits, you might like to enforce a rule about when mobile devices should be removed from bedrooms [8] and placed in a central location in the house to charge overnight [5]. Working with your teen to develop these rules in a fair yet clear way can increase transparency and accountability.

 #2 Discuss smartphone and online safety

Smartphones can expose a teen to safety risks such as cyberbullying, sexting, inappropriate content, and contact with strangers [1]. Therefore, it’s crucial to have an open dialogue about how to handle these negative online experiences. Ideally, research and encourage your teen to use best practice privacy settings on their smartphone and social media accounts. Set clear guidelines such as:

  • Each smartphone contact should be a real friend or family member [5]
  • Only accept new social media friend requests from people they know face to face [8]
  • Seek approval from a parent or caregiver before downloading an app, and set all approved apps to the strongest privacy setting available [2]
  • Disable location sharing on their smartphone, regularly check which apps use location sharing, and switch off the ones they do not need [6]

#3 Role model responsible mobile phone use 

Show your teen how to use their mobile phone responsibly by modelling healthy smartphone behaviour [1]. If you text while driving or continually check social media, it’s likely they will internalise this as acceptable phone use [5]. By being mindful of your own choices regarding your smartphone and explaining your choices, you can help guide them toward conscientious mobile phone use with a stronger framework to resist dangerous smartphone behaviour.

#4 Guide your teen toward positive mobile phone use

Encourage your teen to adopt positive smartphone habits [1], such as learning how to communicate in a respectful way [1]. Using their smartphone considerately — including treating others with respect on social media — is an integral part of being a responsible digital citizen [1]. Encourage them to demonstrate courtesy in all online activities and set clear expectations regarding cyberbullying and sexting [2]. Depending on your parenting style, you might like to create a rule that supports the development of self-discipline, such as completing homework or assignments before using their smartphone [8].

#5 Create consequences for breaking smartphone rules

Talk about and agree on consequences if your family’s smartphone rules are broken [1]. For example, if your teen violates the rules or misuses their mobile, he or she might lose phone privileges for a period of time [5]. Make sure that all rules and consequences are communicated transparently to avoid misinterpretation.

Final thoughts

Teen smartphone ownership is a privilege, not a right [6]. As a parent, you have the power to play a significant role in shaping your teen’s smartphone habits [1]. To promote healthy smartphone habits, experts recommend deciding on smartphone rules together as a family, discussing online safety and positive mobile phone behaviour, role-modelling responsible mobile phone use, and creating consequences for breaking these smartphone rules. If your teen learns conscientious mobile phone habits early in life, they can enjoy their smartphone safely as part of a balanced lifestyle.[6].

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