Although parents often facilitate the initial purchase of a mobile phone, they seldom obtain a phone for their teen and then step out of the picture. Phones are regulated by parents and used as parenting tools. Parents often place limits on the times of day their teen can use his or her phone, as well as the numbers of minutes they can use or texts they may send. Parents look at the contents of their teen’s phone, use the phone to monitor their child’s location and take the phone away as punishment.
About two-thirds (64%) of parents say that they look at the contents of their child’s phone, including looking at the address book, call log, text messages or pictures. Another two-thirds (62%) have taken away their teen’s phone as a punishment. Many focus group teens reported parents looking through their phones and the loss of the phone as a punishment. "I’ll be, like, my mom goes through my text messages, and stuff like that, she’ll be checking how many numbers that I got and my minutes," explained a middle school boy. Another middle school boy said, "She’ll be like, ‘Let me see your phone so I can see your text messages.’ She goes through everything: minutes, texts, and, one time I was texting this girl, and things happened with that." Other teens detailed their punishments: "…I got in trouble," said one middle school girl, "and I ruined my records, so my mom took my phone away from me." Other parents work in concert with the schools: "She was like, ‘If you get your phone taken away [at school], I’ll get it, but I won’t give it back to you,’" said one middle school boy.
About half of parents (52%) say they have set limits on the times of day when their child can use the phone and a similar number (48%) say that they use the cell phone to monitor their teen’s location. A middle school boy describes his mother’s limits on his phone use: "Yeah my mom set it so it will get deactivated at eleven on school nights. So when I’m going to sleep I’ll keep getting texts and I’ll be like, ‘I’m going to bed,’ and people will be like, ‘What?’"
One high school boy narrates some of the conflict between him and his mother over location monitoring. "Yeah, she’s like, ‘The reason why I got you a cell phone is that you can call me when you get home or when you get to this place,’ and if I don’t call she like flips. ‘Why do you have a cell phone if you can’t call me?’ Like, ‘I got caught up.’ She’ll be like, ‘No, no excuses.’ So, having the cell phone is a pro and con."
Parents also limit the number of minutes their child may talk on the phone – 46% of parents report setting these types of limits, possibly in response to the fact that many family plans – used by 69% of teens – have a set number of minutes shared across the family. "It’s all about the minutes. Because I don’t know, my mom and dad, I go over my minutes sometimes, and they started yelling at me or something, they said pay for this, stuff like that," said one high school-age boy.
Parents are least likely to report limiting the number of text messages or other messages their child sends or receives on their phone – a bit more than a quarter (28%) of parents say they set text message limits. Most teens have unlimited text messaging plans, which for many families may make these limits unnecessary.
The flip side of parental regulation and monitoring is that teens report feeling suffocated by the constant contact with parents. "The worst thing is, I guess, like, when you don’t want to get in touch with your mom, but she can always get in touch with you," said one younger high school girl. "Sometimes you want your space. But when you have your phone you can’t have your space."
Girls, particularly younger girls, are much more likely to be the object of parental regulation around the cell phone than boys or older teens. Girls are more likely to have parents looking at the contents of their cell phones, have limits on the times of day they can use the phone and are more likely than boys to have their cell phone taken away as punishment for misdeeds.
Nearly 7 in 10 girls (69%) have parents who say they have taken the phone away as punishment. A similar percentage (69%) of parents of girls report looking at the contents of their daughter’s phone, compared with 55% and 59% of boys’ parents, respectively. Fully 56% of parents of girls say they limit the times of day when their daughter can use her cell phone compared with 48% of boys’ parents. Parents of girls and boys are just as likely to engage in other monitoring behaviors like limiting the number of minutes a teen may talk, limiting the number texts a teen may send or monitoring his or her location via the phone.
A teen’s age is also a significant factor in whether or not a parent reports regulating his or her phone. Younger teens, particularly younger teen girls, are the primary targets of parental phone regulation. Teens 12 to 14 are the primary focus of parent regulation that involves looking at the content of the teen’s phone – between 72% and 80% of teens in this age range have parents who say they look through their child’s phone. The 12-to-14 age range is also the age when parents are most likely to limit text messaging — 35% of parents of teens with cell phones in this age range report doing this, compared with 23% of parents of older teens. Teens 12 to 15 years old are the primary recipients of limits around the times of day they may use their cell phone. Some 60% of parents of 12-to-15 year-olds report limiting the times of day when their teen’s phone may be used, as do 39% of parents of 16-17 year-olds.
Teens ages 13-14 are more likely to have parents who report limiting the number of minutes they may talk on the phone and are the age group most likely to have parents who say they’ve taken their child’s phone away as punishment. Parents of younger girls ages 12-13 are the most likely to report engaging in multiple forms of regulation of their daughter’s cell phone. These parents are more likely than parents of sons or of older teens to say they’ve limited the number of minutes their daughter may talk on the phone. They are also more likely to report going through the contents of their child’s cell phone, taking away her phone as punishment and limiting the number of text messages she may receive than parents of other teens.
African-American parents are more likely to report regulating their child’s cell phone than white parents. African American parents are more likely than white parents to look at the contents of their child’s cell phone, take the phone away as punishment, limit the times of day their teen may use the phone, and limit the number of minutes or text messages their child may send, receive or use.
Parents are more likely to report limiting the number of minutes their child can talk if their child does not send or receive text messages. Six in 10 parents of non-texters limit the number of minutes their teen can talk on the mobile phone compared with 44% of parents of texting teens.
A small number of teens report that their parents monitor their location through their cell phone. A bit more than one in six teens (17%) say that their parents have monitored where they were through the cell phone. A little less than half (48%) of parents report monitoring their teen’s location through the cell phone. Not surprisingly, teens see this as an unwelcome intrusion into their lives. One participant in the focus groups had a monitoring service enabled on her phone and was very curt in her feelings toward it. Younger teens, particularly girls, are the most likely to report parental monitoring of their location. Among 12-13 year-olds, 25% report having their whereabouts monitored by their parents through their phone compared with 14% of older teens. As with other forms of control, younger girls are the most likely to report location monitoring through their cell phones, with one-third (33%) saying their parents engage in this behavior, more so than all older teens and younger boys. There is no difference in teen-reported monitoring by race or socio-economic status.
About 10% of teens and parents both acknowledge that the parent is monitoring the teen’s location with the phone. Another third (37%) of teens have parents who say they monitor their whereabouts with the phone, but the teens themselves are not aware of such surveillance. On the flip side, there is another small group of teens (7%) who report being monitored via their cell phone, but whose parents do not report such monitoring behavior. Finally, the remaining 43% of parent-teen pairs represent cases where both parties say there is no monitoring of the teen’s whereabouts with his or her mobile phone.