Tagged Text Messaging

Living with a Teenage Data Hog

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After children reach a certain age, most parents give in to their desire for a mobile phone. We like being able to find them at any moment, and they risk being left out if their friends can’t ping them. A Pew Research Center report from last year found that 88 percent of American teenagers now have phones.

But today’s smartphones have earned that name because of their ability to suck in and spit out data at ever-faster rates. That gets expensive, quickly, and figuring out who should pay for the data, how much, and according to what rules, can be a giant headache.

So first, an opening proposition: The ability to access the internet via a cellular signal, in those passing moments when Wi-Fi is not available, is a want and not a need for most teenagers. And if they want it, they should pay for it themselves.

But when I share that assertion with many parents I know, they often respond by patting me on the head and telling me to get back to them when my 10-year-old has a phone and all her friends do, too. To those parents, a data plan is no indulgence. Their kids are busy — constantly on the way to an athletic event or rehearsal. They don’t want to deprive their kids of the ability to stream music or stay connected with their friends on data-draining apps like Snapchat. So a data plan is a given, and the parents are willing to pay.

But just how high a bill is reasonable? I suggest the budgeting approach: Parents pay for a certain amount of data each month, the children track how much they’ve used, and then they pay for anything beyond that allotted amount.

It’s simple enough in theory. Carriers lets customers check to see how much data each person in a family plan has used so far during the month, and the privilege of having a phone should come with the responsibility of keeping track.

That approach does, however, require you to sit down with your teenager and identify the sources of data drain and perhaps set rules for when those apps ought to go off. The Times’s Wired Well columnist, Jennifer Jolly, lives with a data-draining teenager. She suggests turning off any features on a teen’s phone that drain data automatically in the background. Also, track the apps that use the most data and limit data hogs like Spotify or Snapchat to times when the teenager has Wi-Fi access. One additional hint: The more video an app records, transmits and receives, the higher the data bill is likely to be. Call your carrier or consult online forums if you need more help.

In an ideal world, this approach teaches patience, self-control and restraint. Your kids can always watch a video a little later over Wi-Fi, after all. And many messages – most, even – can wait a bit.

But in a less than ideal world, teenagers tend to go over their caps, especially if their friends send lots of videos back and forth via Snapchat. Some parents have enough money to simply pay for the overages. But discussions about those bills are useful. If we don’t set limits, after all, who will? And isn’t our job to get our kids ready for the moment when they really will be paying their own bills?

A few years ago, I wrote about the Russell Plan, named after Mary Kay Russell, a mother of four sons in Naperville, Ill. She added her sons to the family’s cellphone plan when they were ready for their first phones, and the cheap devices they received came with unlimited calls and texting. The boys were welcome to burn data to their hearts’ content on an upgraded phone, but if they wanted to do that, they would have to pay for the device and prepay $360 for a year’s worth of data. The oldest waited until age 21 to get his first fancy phone.

Perhaps his response to the family’s strategy was not such a big surprise. The cost of a smartphone plus data is a big pile of cash to a middle school student who may not have many ways to earn money. Parents who can afford it might consider raising a child’s allowance some to put the decision just within their reach – and make the possibility of waiting on an upgraded phone more enticing.

How much more allowance might they get? It depends on whether you’re asking them to use allowance to cover lunch, snacks, transportation and clothing, too. But you could increase the allowance enough to pay for 50 or 75 percent of a basic data plan, so that the choice to purchase it would involve some sacrifices elsewhere.

Yes, you’re technically “paying” for the data plan in this instance, but that’s true with allowance in general. Once your children have it, the money will feel like it’s their own, and the trade-off will feel real, too.

The Russell children could have asked for upgraded mobile devices and money toward data for birthdays or Christmas, but they often had other priorities. Which is great: We want our children making financial trade-offs, since that is what they’ll have to do as grownups just about every day of their adult lives.

Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times and the author of “The Opposite of Spoiled,” about parenting, money and values.

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Phone-Sick at Camp

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A camper writing a letter at Camp Walden in Diamond Point, N.Y.

A camper writing a letter at Camp Walden in Diamond Point, N.Y.Credit

Leaving for sleepaway camp is, for many children, a major step toward independence. Today, when cellphones keep parents and children in nearly constant contact, the fact that most camps have phone-free policies makes breaking away even more of a challenge.

“Camp-age kids, by even 10 or 11, are used to texting and being in frequent contact with their parents,” said Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist who focuses on youth development and summer camp. “How we communicate has changed the nature of attachment, and it complicates the separation that kids and parents go through,” he said.

According to a Pew Research Center study, teenagers send and receive an average of 67 texts per day. Kids are on their phones in school, in restaurants, on vacations and even in bed. For many, sleepaway camp remains one of the last oases, largely untouched by technology.

Yalda T. Uhls, author of “Media Moms & Digital Dads” and a child development expert with Common Sense Media, conducted a study showing that sixth graders who spent just five days at a tech-free sleepaway camp developed greater understanding of real-world interpersonal communication cues, including a better ability to read facial expressions, make eye contact, and interpret tone of voice and other prompts, such as posture and keeping an appropriate spatial distance with others.

“Camp is a sacred space to unplug and be able to learn independence and social skills,” Dr. Uhls said. “It’s really important to put devices down and practice the art of face-to-face communication.”

Putting down the phone can be at least as hard for the parents, who are often anxious about separating from their children and are used to constant check-ins, whether they are in the next state or the next room. We may complain that our children are always on the phone but “the reality is that we want that instant access to our children,” Dr. Uhls said.

Corey Dockswell, the director of Camp Wicosuta, a girls’ camp in Hebron, N.H., said the no-phone rule can be tough for parents. “They’ll say, ‘I’m used to talking to her all the time,’” she said. “It’s a steep learning curve for them.”

When Carrie Irvin, president of a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., decided to send her two daughters to Wicosuta, it was a difficult transition. “I have a really hard time dialing it back but I needed it. It was so important for them and our relationship, and I’m grateful that camp made me do it,” she said.

With this constant communication, children seek their parents’ guidance and emotional support even when they are not together, leaving fewer opportunities to develop their own confidence and internal compass for decision-making. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of the parenting book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” tells the story of a college student at a salad bar who texted her mother to ask if she liked ranch dressing, rather than testing it herself. Such dependent relationships can rob children of the chance to trust and believe in someone else besides their parents. Creating bonds with others is one of the most important benefits of camp, and it is more likely to happen without the electronic connection to home.

At Camp Walden in Diamond Point, N.Y., “we talk about phones all the time. It’s a huge change in their life,” said Lauren Bernstein, the owner and director. And campers aren’t the only ones unplugging. Counselors and staff members are allowed to use phones only during their time off, so campers rarely even see a cellphone. “It’s important that our entire team live like the kids do,” she said. “Camp is a different world, and we want to keep it that way.”

But many camps are using workarounds, sending a daily email blast and photos of children engaging in camp activities, for example. Some also allow parents to email campers daily – printing out the messages and distributing them to campers at mail time.

To prepare to detach for camp, Dr. Thurber recommends families try one tech-free day per week over the month before camp, with no recreational screen time. “It’s good to practice some withholding from real-time digital communication and learn to not reflexively reach for cellphones,” he said.

Children and parents can get ready by drafting practice letters or journal entries with a bit more of a narrative than the brief, immediate social media contact they are used to. Counsel your child on using an appropriate greeting and sign-off and writing with adjectives that actually describe how they’re feeling rather than using emojis. The goal is to arrive at camp with those new skills in place.

Some kids say unplugging from social media is a relief. Sofia Jacobson, 12, who attends Camp Walden, said, “I love having a break from it. It’s nice to let go and not have to think about what anyone else is doing.”

Finally, parents can help their children and themselves by shifting their mind-set and creating positive expectations for cutting the electronic umbilical cord. Rather than seeing a break from technology as some sort of punishment, view it as an opportunity to be present, nurture relationships and be creative.

“The single most important fact about sleepaway camp is that children are away from their parents, where they experience their camp as their own, their camp friends as their own, and the experience as their own,” said Michael Thompson, the author of “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.”

He added, “You cannot ever fully experience things as your own when your mother is looking over your shoulder, actually or electronically.”


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