Forget the iWatch: The early days of teens on cellphones

As more parents buy smartphones and gadgets for connected teens, one mom finds the original ‘contract’ she made with her kids when she caved and bought them ordinary cellphones almost a decade ago.

Joanne Ciccarelo/Staff/FILE
Forget the iWatch: In this 2006 file photo, the Independent Mobile store at Shopper's World in Framingham, Massachusetts, offers customers the choice between major plans from major carriers.

While looking for something else, I recently came across the "Cell Phone Contract" I made my kids sign in 2006 (when they were 13 and 15 - and getting their first cellphones). Here are the funniest provisions:

- Please don't use cellphones in the house.

- I did not buy the text messaging plan so please avoid text messages.

- Your phone has all kinds of fancy capabilities, but many of them cost extra (like downloading pictures, sending email, going onto the Internet).

- Cellphones are expensive. The monthly fee is $90, before any extras. So I will need you to be more helpful around the house. That includes cleaning when I ask for help. Also, every day, you will both trade off emptying and loading the dishwasher and cleaning out the litter box. I will post a schedule on the refrigerator, which you can initial when you have done your daily task.

When I read this aloud to my daughter, Becca, we laughed till we cried. Neither of us can remember any "cleaning schedule" ever going up on the fridge. Becca also instructed me not to throw this document away, so she can show it to her own kids someday.

Of course I will keep this archival gem. Clearly, I don’t throw anything away.  

And for the record, my son says he does remember the cleaning schedule tacked to the refrigerator – but not doing any of the actual chores. Hmmm. Is it too late for consequences?

The good news is that my children, now young adults, handled the responsibility of owning a cellphone remarkably well. No phones went through the wash or into the toilet. No surprise multi-thousand-dollar texting bills arrived in the mail, and only one phone between them disappeared permanently (knock on wood). I suspect I upgraded to unlimited texting in the nick of time – right as texting became the primary mode of communication for people of a certain age. Forget about emailing or calling Millennials; texting is the only way to get their attention, at least electronically.

I had resisted getting them phones for a long time, as I had for myself. Cellphones are for disorganized people who don’t know how to plan ahead, I argued. Then I had to get one for work, and I began jotting down the cellphone numbers of my kids’ friends, so I could track down my kids after school. Eventually, I realized it was unfair to mooch off my kids’ friends’ minutes, so off to the Verizon store we went and got two very basic LG phones.

If I had a younger child today, say age 10 or 11, I think I would play it by ear. How responsible is this child? Will they obey the rules at school governing cellphones? Will they mind their minutes? Will she become one of those annoying people who hangs out with her friends but ignores them while she texts with others?

I would probably start with just a basic cellphone, then graduate to a smart phone (if I could afford it) when she had demonstrated she could handle the responsibility – the apps, the minutes, the data plan. Maybe I’d even try a chore chart again. Ha! 

My kids got smart phones only after they were in college, and were among the last of their peers to do so. (I detect a pattern.) My son, now a year out of college, is still on his father’s plan, which is cheaper than having his own plan, but reimburses him for the cost.

Aside from the question of when my kids will have children of their own – no pressure! – I do wonder what the norm will be for children and cellphones when the time comes. Or maybe I’m not imagining the future creatively enough. When I posted on Facebook about the “Cell Phone Contract,” and Becca’s request that I save it to show her own children someday, one friend had this response: They – my future grandchildren – will say, “What’s a cellphone?”


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