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If a Teen Buys a Cell Phone With His Own Money, Do Parents Still Have Control Over it?


Oh, what’s a parent to do? Your teen saves his money and buys his own cell phone — and now he wants full control over using it.

It depends what you mean by the word “control.” Do the parents have the authority to confiscate it (for example, as a punishment)? I would say yes. Do they have control over what the teen does on it? I would say to some degree. That’s where the gray area starts, though, since different families will have different rules regarding device usage (some more lenient, some more strict).

I think this is much less about who bought the phone and more so about the child’s autonomy versus the parent’s authority. It’s not always easy to strike the ideal balance, but we’re all working at it every day. Lean too far toward your child, and they may become addicted to their phone, lose necessary sleep, forgo real conversation and family time as opposed to online hobbies, and so on. Lean too far toward your parental authority, and your child may feel frustrated, micromanaged, try to hide what they’re doing and go behind your back (not necessarily because they’re doing something bad but because they want some privacy). You’ll generally hear things along the lines of: “Mom, I’m not a kid anymore, stop treating me like one!” “Please just leave me alone!” cue door slam and “Don’t you trust me?”

Yeah, none of those sound ideal, do they?

Raising a teen in the digital age

As a parent, when you give your child a phone, you are (to some degree) allowing them digital freedom. They can choose what social media to use, what games to play, what things to search on Google, etc. Of course, the issue (and danger) is that there is just so much information out there, and so many hidden digital alleys where scammers, hackers, and online predators lurk. Seventy-nine percent of youth unwanted exposure to pornography occurs in the home, and 15 percent of children between ages 10 and 17 has had at least one person contact them with sexual intent.

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Teens often think they know enough about the world to protect themselves (I sure did back when I was 16), but it’s frightening just how easily they can fall into traps set by online predators. Kids: If your parents are setting phone rules with you, it’s to protect you, not just from online predators and inappropriate content, but also from becoming too engrossed in the digital world that you can’t take your eyes off the screen. You’re also under their authority, so despite the fact that you might not agree with everything they do, you should respect their rules and parental authority. (Of course, this is always dependent on the situation, but for the most part it holds true.)

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When we first decided to give our eldest a phone, we originally decided on a low-cost text and call-focused cell phone. However, he made a fair argument for a smartphone, and we agreed to it under the condition he would pay whatever was more than what we originally agreed to (it was a difference of a little less than $200). Two years later, he asked for a larger data plan, and told us he would pay for it with his part-time job. (Of course, we agreed. We did remind him to regulate how much time he spent on his phone though.)

Establishing trust

In essence, my son did pay (at least in part) for his cell phone; but, we (my husband and I) retained the authority to manage his phone usage. This meant no phones at the dinner table, no staying up past 12 a.m. on his phone (although we became a lot more lenient with this in the following years), and the final condition that if there was ever any issue, he communicate it with us directly.

My husband and I never really asked to see his phone because we never felt the need to. But, my son knew that if we had legitimate suspicions about his online activity (for example, if he seemed visibly depressed or was clearly hiding something) that we had the authority to ask to see his phone/social media/etc. And we promised to always ask him for access and to never, ever snoop. Secretly snooping is a harmful to any relationship, and it will absolutely destroy the trust you have with your child. How can you tell your child not to go behind your back if you go behind theirs? So, do her parents have control over it? Yes, to some degree. They are the parents, and until the child leaves their care, they will have some kind of authority over what their child does on their phone.

This story was written by Emily Thompson, a cyber-safety consultant at KidGuard Services. It originally appeared on

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