Yellow highlighter circling the words Once you’ve decided that your child is mature enough to handle the responsibilities of a cellphone, it’s time to establish some rules. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when creating rules around cellphone usage.

1. Focus on parenting, not monitoring

Remember that this is your child’s first cellphone and, probably, your child’s first exposure to social media. The purpose of setting boundaries and expectations about this new device is not punishment, but preparation. The rules and practices you establish now can equip your child with guidelines for a lifetime of responsible technology use, a deeper understanding of the uses and abuses of social media, and a set of healthy habits around screentime. Your child will make mistakes. Be firm and consistent in your expectations, but also provide them with the support they need to recover from these errors.

2. Establish financial rules

What happens if your child loses or breaks a device? Or if they exceed the minutes or data they’re given, or incur extra spending on videogames or online shopping? Establish ahead of time who will pay for the damage and what the consequences will be. Remember, you are the adult in charge, which means you have the right to take away the cellphone, or to wait to replace it, for as long as you feel necessary.

3. Establish rules around time

Teenage girl lying on the sofa at home in the living room using smartphone, close up, low angle, close upWhen your child starts going out independently, most families establish a curfew. Use the same idea when creating rules about cellphone usage. Are young people allowed to take their phones to school? Do they get their phones back after school, or after homework? Are cellphones allowed at the dinner table? What time do they have to put phones away at night?

In designing these timings, think about why you believe your child should have a cellphone in the first place. If you want them to be able to get in touch with you, you might want to allow them to take it to school. If they use it primarily to contact friends and family, you might want to increase the time on the weekends and decrease time on the weekdays. Remember that your child will change, and, based on their needs and level of maturity, your time allotments can change as well.

4. Establish privacy rules.

Is your child allowed on social media? What are they allowed to post? Do you want access to their passwords? Do you want to check their phones at the end of the day? Again, consider these rules in the context of preparing a child for eventually using the device more and more independently. Your restrictions can loosen or tighten as events arise and as your child matures. Additionally, make sure to talk to your child about the permanence of the internet, the risks of talking to strangers, and the kinds of things that they should and should not post. You may want to look through social media feeds and discuss what you both like and dislike about them. Use this discussion to talk about what your child wants their feed to look like, and how they want it to make others feel.

5. Establish how to handle mistakes.

Middle schoolers’ brains are bursting, but their senses of logic and judgment are still developing. Assume that they will make mistakes. Some of these might be costly. Some might be frightening. Establish ahead of time with your child what you will do if these mistakes occur. Additionally, have a conversation with a coparent or anyone else in your child’s life about strategies for major issues. If your child posts something damaging, for example, think about you would trust to help you handle the consequences of this. No matter how intense these mistakes are, try your best to show your child that you love and support them no matter what, and that the two of you will get through the issue together.


Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.