Most teenagers have cell phones these days, and parenting is changing as a result. We asked CSUMB Professor of Human Development Rob Weisskirch how cell phone use affects the dynamic of the parent-child relationship.

Poor communication is a common complaint when it comes to parents and teenagers. What happens when you throw a cell phone into the mix?

Don't "throw" a cell phone into the mix. Parents may assume that teens know the expectations of behavior when parents give them a cell phone, but, as growing teens, they need to know what the expectations are of having a cell phone. And, they need to be reminded.

Teens are not always good at recognizing and predicting the outcomes of their behavior, so parents need to be the ones to spell out the consequences. A parent might say at the outset that the child must respond to text messages or voicemails within a half hour or cell phone privileges will be suspended. Parents may also need to remind teens about unacceptable behaviors such as cyberbullying or sending and receiving sexually suggestive images or text.

Is it an overstatement to say that parenting is changing as a consequence of cell phone use?

Yes and no. No, in that parents still have to provide good guidance, discipline and support. Nothing substitutes for good parenting. Yes, in that teens have more access to the outside world without the filter of parents, so parents have to work harder to have kids disclose what is happening in their cyber world as well as their everyday lives.

Parents who foster a good relationship with their teens, in general, will be able to use the cell phone to extend their relationship, stay informed and support one another. Parents should not anticipate better tracking and connecting with their teens just because they have a cell phone. Parents should also not assume kids will be safer going into risky situations because "they can always call."

Does it matter who initiates the call – the parent or the child?

My research has indicated that there are more positive outcomes when the child initiates the communication. A teen initiating communication with a parent may be demonstrating a better overall relationship in that he or she is reaching out to the parent. It may seem intuitive, but when teens call seeking social support or asking advice or permission, they report that parental knowledge about what is happening in their lives increases. When teens report that parents regularly call when upset, parents know less. Parents calling when upset, in particular, has been associated with lower self-esteem for both teens and their parents.

How can parents minimize conflict over the issue?

Parents should tell their teens of their expectations and norms of behavior about owning a cell phone and what the consequences will be of violating those expectations and norms, and of course, follow through with those consequences. Despite the potential protests, I believe strongly that teens will survive without cell phones for a day or more. Given the merging of technologies like the cell phone, computers, video game consoles and the Internet, this pattern should be followed across the technologies.

The best advice I’ve heard is that just like parents know their children's face-to-face friends, they should know their "virtual" friends too, including where they go and where they are hanging out online. Separate from the issue of safety, knowing is just good parenting. Parents know more when they foster a relationship in which kids are willing to disclose their activities. Kids are willing to disclose when parents communicate expectations of behavior clearly.

How young is too young to give a child a cell phone?

Since cell phones cost several hundred dollars, I would not want to put something that expensive in a child's hands, unmonitored, until they demonstrate sufficient responsibility. Some parents want to give their child a cell phone "in case of an emergency." My larger concern is the idea that parents are permitting young children to be somewhere where there aren't responsible adults around to whom a child could turn in case of a problem.

Dr. Weisskirch is regularly looking for adolescents and their parents willing to participate in similar research studies. Please contact him directly with your interest.

Some of Dr. Weisskirch's recent scholarship on technology and relationships:

Weisskirch, R. S. & Delevi, R. (2012). Its ovr b/n u n me: Technology use, attachment styles, and gender roles in relationship dissolution. Cyberpsychology, Behavior,and Social Networking, 15(9), 486-490.

Weisskirch, R. S. (2012). Women’s adult romantic attachment style and communication by cell phone with romantic partners. Psychological Reports, 111 (1), 281-288.

Weisskirch, R. S. (2011). No crossed wires: Cell phone use and the parenting of adolescents. CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14(7-8), 447-451.

Weisskirch, R. S. & Delevi, R. (2011). “Sexting” and adult romantic attachment. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 1697-1701.

Weisskirch, R. S. (2009). Parenting by Cell Phone: Parental Monitoring of Adolescents and Family Relations. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 1123-1139.