One of the most challenging decisions for parents raising children today is how much access to technology and exposure to social media, the internet, chat rooms and online gaming they will allow their children to have.
You may be surprised at how two of the trailblazers who built the highway to access the world wide web managed their own families’ exposure to online media. A recent article published by Yahoo! Finance¹ reported some insights into the tech geniuses personal decisions:
Microsoft Corp. Co-Founder Bill Gates shared that he and his former wife Melinda limited their kids’ screen time to 45 minutes for games during the week, with an extra hour on weekends. “My kids get limited computer time. Just because you’re the daughter of Bill Gates does not mean you get to play on your computer all day long,” said Gates. ‘(I’m) always looking at how it can be used in a great way – homework and staying in touch with friends – and also where it has gotten to excess.” To note, the Gates children were given their first mobile phones when they turned 14, respectively.
The late Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, held similar reservations about technology’s impact on his own family. He went as far as banning his kids from using the newly released iPad in 2011. “We don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it’s too dangerous for them in effect.”
Real World Parental Decisions
In a recent survey 65% of parents reported that their child in grade K-12 had their own mobile phone. The top reasons the parents chose to provide their child with a phone included being safe when away from their parent (63%), giving the child access to connect with them (60%) and connect with their other parent (53%). Once the child had the phone, 65% of respondents said they use the phone to track where their child is.²
Frequently in mediation, parents who are already working through combative issues have conflicting and unwavering opinions about giving their child a phone. Strong arguments can be made for and against, including:
- A child may feel more secure going back and forth between parents because they know the parent they are not with is only a phone call or video chat away. Parents often find comfort in the same knowledge.
- Co-parents can share calendars with each other and their child so everyone is on the same page as to who is dropping and picking the child up where and when. And a parent who is running late can contact the child to let them know and make a safe plan when necessary.
- The child can be in regular communication with a parent who has limited visitation due to a time sharing agreement, a long distance move or frequent travel. Staying in touch via real time calls and texting can help the child and co-parent maintain a close relationship while they are apart. A simple text with a photo of the child holding an award certificate, diving off a high board or scoring the winning goal can strengthen the bond between the child and the absent parent.
Many co-parents I’ve met who are against their child having a phone say they feel the phone can be used by their ex as an invasion of their privacy. Reasons stated include:
- They don’t want their ex seeing pictures of them and their child with a new partner or doing anything else they may find compromising.
- They don’t want their ex judging their every decision, i.e., the ex receiving a text from their child at midnight when the child’s agreed upon bedtime is 9 PM. And, they don’t want the child sending messages such as, “Dad said I can watch a rated R movie, but you say I can’t. What should I do, Mom?”
- They don’t want their child “tattling” on them, such as having the child send messages to the ex because they forgot to pack their child’s lunch or were late to pick them up from school.
- They don’t want their child secretly recording them and sending the video to their ex.
- They are concerned that if the child has a phone and immediate access to the other parent, then the child is not fully engaged or present with them.
Tracking Devices – Dos and Don’ts
Perhaps the greatest bone of contention I hear in mediation about providing a child with a phone is that one co-parent does not want their ex tracking their location via their child’s smartphone. 2023 Florida Statute Section 934.425 – Installation of tracking devices or tracking applications; exceptions; penalties³ addresses the legality of using tracking devices. Following are the relevant portions of the statute:
(3) For purposes of this section, a person’s consent is presumed to be revoked if:
(a) The consenting person and the person to whom consent was given are lawfully married and one person files a petition for dissolution of marriage from the other; or
(b) The consenting person or the person to whom consent was given files an injunction for protection against the other person pursuant to s. 741.30, s. 741.315, s. 784.046, or s. 784.0485.
(4) This section does not apply to:
(b) A parent or legal guardian of a minor child who installs a tracking device or tracking application on the minor child’s property if:
1. The parents or legal guardians are lawfully married to each other and are not separated or otherwise living apart, and either parent or legal guardian consents to the installation of the tracking device or tracking application; …
3. The parent or legal guardian has sole custody of the minor child; or
4. The parents or legal guardians are divorced, separated, or otherwise living apart and both consent to the installation of the tracking device or tracking application.
Parental Consensus on Mobile Phones
It is understandable that part of the frustration co-parents feel once they split into two households is that neither can ultimately control the other’s parenting style and daily decision making processes. While a child’s use of a phone may increase those concerns, it may also provide both parents with a greater degree of comfort when their child is not with them. Once the decision has been made to give the child a phone, it is important for the co-parents to agree on how the phone is to be used and include those details in a parenting plan.
Questions co-parents should address include but are not limited to:
- What type of phone should the child have – a flip phone for basic calls and emergencies or a smartphone?
- What age or in which grade will the child receive the phone?
- Will both parents have usernames, passwords and full access to their child’s phone and should one or both parents be responsible for monitoring the child’s phone usage and activities?
- Can a co-parent take the phone away at their discretion while the child is with them, particularly as a punishment? And if yes, does the other parent agree to respect and see the punishment through once the child is with them?
- What social media sites, games and apps can the child have on their phone?
- Can the child have a credit card linked to their phone?
- Do the parents agree to both have access to track their child via their phone?
Even in instances where parents cannot agree on phone usage, each parent needs to respect the rules of the other’s home. Further, it should be explained to the child that while the co-parents have different rules, neither is right or wrong, but both will be implemented and enforced, respectively and mutually.
While smartphones have changed the way we live, co-parents should be even smarter when creating a well thought out and detailed plan for their child’s safe use of technology.
My nine years of exclusively practicing family mediations following my 18-year career in litigation has made me uniquely qualified to help you and your clients develop a parenting plan that represents the wishes of both parents down to the last detail.
Did You Know: Ban on Phones in Florida Schools
The State of Florida has made its own controversial decision on students using phones in school, regardless of parents’ wishes. On July 1st of this year, 2023 Florida Statute 1006.07(3) – District school board duties relating to student discipline and school safety, went into effect. Under section (2) CODE OF STUDENT CONDUCT, students are prohibited from using a non-school issued wireless device during instructional time. Students who are found breaking the rules are subject to disciplinary action. The relevant portion of the Statute reads:
(f) Notice that use of a wireless communications device includes the possibility of the imposition of disciplinary action by the school or criminal penalties if the device is used in a criminal act. A student may possess a wireless communications device while the student is on school property or in attendance at a school function; however, a student may not use a wireless communications device during instructional time, except when expressly directed by a teacher solely for educational purposes. A teacher shall designate an area for wireless communications devices during instructional time. Each district school board shall adopt rules governing the use of a wireless communications device by a student while the student is on school property or in attendance at a school function.