The Positive Side of Pre-Teen Smartphone Use

Third in a series of blogs about children and divorce. The first was “Helping Toddlers Cope with Divorce.” The second was “Pets can help children cope with divorce.”

In most families, the goals for parenting pre-teens are building independence, maintaining positive three students surround a smartphone in awe at schoolfriendships, joining fulfilling activities, perhaps deepening a spiritual commitment, getting good grades and developing personal responsibility. These are some pretty lofty goals for a short time period with a lot of hormones thrown in.

The pre-teen changes are tough, confusing, scary, lonely, and thrilling. Any parent looking back at seventh grade will either remember fondly or horrifyingly, the first school dance, the first time you rode your bike to the library without an adult or perhaps the first time you tried out for a travel team. Whether those memories induce silent smiles or shudders, they are part of the American pre-teen coming-of-age experience.

In addition to all this personal growth, the current generation of pre-teens is also sorting out the role of technology in their lives. There is a lot of bad press regarding the 13-and-under set abusing smartphone privileges. We hear about cyber-bullying and the death of face-to-face conversation. Smartphones are not for every pre-teen.

  • They are expensive – both the initial purchase price and the service plan.
  • They are fragile – broken screens, dusty earphone jacks, and water damage are common with young users.
  • They are a theft hazard – being both fiscally valuable and socially valuable, a smartphone is an easy theft target. They are also pocket-sized and easy for a thief to conceal in a backpack or purse.
  • Misuse can be dangerous – between cyber-bullying and inappropriate use of the camera and social media, a smartphone holds dangers that can affect a child’s future. There are plenty of cases of kids (and adults for that matter) uber-texting to the exclusion of other social interactions.

Co-Parenting Pre-Teens

There are also plenty of less-publicized instances of responsible youths utilizing their phones respectfully and appropriately. These instances may not be news-worthy but for many families, 10-13 is a critical age for teaching responsible, practical and respectful use of electronics. In the case of divorce, some technological advances may even make co-parenting a pre-teen a little easier. The first step is respecting just how important a cellphone or iPod is to accomplishing the goals spelled out above. Although Instagram and Subway Surfer may seem like many kids’ primary interests, if used appropriately, the phone holds many practical applications, especially for divorced parents.

A map app can allow your pre-teen the confidence to ride his/her bike to the grocery store or give carpool-driver directions to pick him/her up.

Whether it’s setting limits on X-Box time or practicing for a timed test, the timer allows a pre-teen the independence to adhere to limits without parental nagging.

Alarm Clock
Getting up for school on his or her own is easier when the phone plays a favorite song.

If the child is visiting the other parent for a weekend, he or she can check the weather app to see whether to pack a raincoat or sunglasses.

Airline apps
Speaking of visiting parents for a weekend, if the child is traveling by air as an unaccompanied minor, the airline apps allow him or her to keep boarding passes online instead of as printouts that can get lost. A smartphone, tablet or Kindle is also great for staying entertained onboard.

As middle-schoolers mature, parents are looking for ways to broaden their children’s world-views. One easy way is by giving them access to the news on a smartphone. Besides the big newspaper agencies, there are many specialized sites with the latest in science, sports, finance, and entertainment.

The phone is likely your pre-teen’s electronic planner. Bouncing between two households can be confusing for a child, especially if plans change at the last minute. An online family calendar allows the middle-schooler to have up-to-the-minute access to his/her schedule. An online, shared calendar also gives a 12-year-old a chance to plan ahead when they can see their week’s worth of activities laid out before them.

Starting in middle school, some teachers send out text reminders or Twitter posts about assignments or study sessions. Your son or daughter may subscribe to a team calendar that automatically updates as practices or game times are altered. Some clubs form group texts or email chains for planning events. There are also To-Do lists with optional alarms.

With GPS locator apps, like Find My iPhone/Friends, you always know where your children are (as long as they have their phones with them). This can provide a single parent the peace of mind to allow a maturing son or daughter to gain new experiences and explore his or her growing independence.

Parental Blocks
On most smartphones, there are password-protected “Parental Block” options that allow parents to disallow the purchase of apps, songs, movies, or downloading content. Often these blocks can be activated remotely. On an iPhone, go to General -> Restrictions -> Enable Restrictions and select Safari, Camera, FaceTime, Siri & Dictation, AirDrop and CarPlay. On an iPhone, you can also control purchases according to their rating.

Depending on your family’s privacy understandings, the pre-teen phone privileges may come with a set of conditions. One of those conditions might be the parent’s prerogative to check the child’s texting, web surfing or YouTube histories at any time. As a child is developing responsible judgment during the pre-teen years, some parents’ find it helpful to be able to look over their 13-year-old’s shoulder occasionally as he or she explores the bounds of appropriate, tasteful, and legal Internet usage. A smartphone contains a complete record of the child’s interactions, searches, interests, contacts, and schedules.

The phone provides a private means for a pre-teen to contact each parent. Naturally, each parent has a different relationship with each child. Some moms are the nurturers and some dads are challengers. In other families, dad is the source of comfort and calm while mom is the go-getter, confidence-builder. Both are essential to the role of parenting a pre-teen, but whether mother or father, one parent is usually more equipped to speak privately about relationships, puberty, emotions, successes, and failures. After divorce, the child splits time between two households and may not always be at the home of the “right fit” parent for a given situation. Don’t be jealous if the pre-teen asks to call the other parent. It just means at that moment, the child needs what the other parent provides. “Ensure that the children are available to speak to the other parent on the telephone up until their actual bedtimes,” according to a DivorceNet article “30 Tips for Divorcing Parents.”

A pre-teen is emerging from the immature acquaintanceships of elementary school to stronger, more influential bonds with peers in middle school. For younger kids, the friendships are circumstantial – as much based on geography and parental preferences as anything else. For elementary school children, their BFF may last only as long as the school year or swim season before out-of-sight, becomes out-of-mind.
Come middle school, a child’s personality is emerging independent of parents’ or siblings’. They begin stating their own preferences, declaring their fears, needs and wants. They are also exposed to a broader pool of classmates to pick friends from. When this occurs, they may buck the next-door-neighbor in favor of a like-minded classmate who may live far away. In order for a middle-schooler to keep in touch with his or her chosen friends, they need access to a phone or computer.
This is especially true for children of divorce who may have moved away from their former home during the divorce. Even if they are still living in the family home, visitation periods with the other parent may take them geographically away from their friends. Texting allows them to stay connected and still concentrate on their studies, activities and family life.

Fitting In
Divorce is common enough in our society now that there isn’t the stigma attached to having divorced parents that there was maybe 60 or even 40 years ago, but it can still be awkward and uncomfortable for a pre-teen as he or she adjusts to his or her parents’ visitation schedules, separate houses and possibly dating. Having newly divorced parents sets a pre-teen apart in some ways.
Having a phone, unlike just about any other pre-teen possession, earns him or her a sense of belonging. There’s a commercial out right now with two pre-teen girls screeching in celebration because one got a smartphone. Now she can text, FaceTime, download music, share files and photos and access Instagram. “Now she fits in” is the message the phone companies are sending pre-teens. Apparently it’s being heard loudly and clearly. According to Growing Wireless, 56 percent of 8 to 12 year olds in America have a cellphone. On average, children are 12 years old when they receive their first mobile device.

As with any good pre-teen discipline plan, the smartphone is ideal for punishing the bad and rewarding the good. Taking the phone away entirely is drastic. For some parents, it may seem like the only way to get through to misbehaving kids. Remember, though, all that’s wrapped up in the phone, especially in a divorced family. By removing the phone, you may be removing a link to their support system – the other parent and friends. Without that, a pre-teen loses the chance to work-through the problems that may have led to the misbehavior. Denying a pre-teen his or her phone, also cuts him or her off from the positive influences of clubs, teams and study groups that do the majority of their planning electronically.
Unless the offending behavior involved breaking the law (or a major law of your house), or endangers your child’s health or safety or that of others, perhaps start with removing phone functions. The Parental Blocks allow you to tailor the punishment to the crime. If the child was caught texting during class, take away the text option. Downloading YouTube videos instead of doing chores? Shut down YouTube. Bad grade on a test? Make him or her practice math problems on one of the many educational apps that will shoot you a performance report on your phone.
On the flip side, a smartphone is a strong motivator for good. iTunes has an option for loading a child’s account with an allowance. It can either be reoccurring or a special one-time reward for going above and beyond. So if your child was struggling in a class and showed resourcefulness in getting help and improving grades, gift her a movie she’d been wanting. It’s also great for rewarding initiative around the house. If he noticed the trash needed emptying and took it to the curb without being asked, show him you noticed and you’re proud of his maturity by letting him download a game he’s asked for.

When appropriate, pre-teen smartphone use can be a valuable tool for co-parents raising a well-adjusted, mature, and responsible young man or woman.


DivorceNet, “30 Tips for Divorcing Parents,” Lina Guillen.