Saturday, July 6, 2013

Kid cell phone update

On July 17 of last year, I bought my teenage boys their first cell phones.  As I did so, I carefully communicated (and firmly laid down) lots of rules.  I should add that, in anticipation of getting real phones (!!!!), these rules were very readily agreed to.

It took only one day to learn our first important lessons of cell phone usage [to wit: ring tones cost a lot].
 (I owe a big thank-you to Kelly for warning me about potential reactivation fees!)

Two weeks later, we had our next serious talk about cell phone moderation, with a few new rules added in, to enhance "information and immediacy".

Now, a year later, the lessons are coming more slowly.  But the lessons are still coming.  For those of you contemplating some version of the maiden voyage of a cell phone plan, I thought I'd spin some tales of some of the rough waters we've encountered plus some of the yarns about smooth sailing.  With as many nautical metaphors as I could muster, here is my version of knowing the ropes and keeping the whole cell phone practice ship-shape.
The cell phones, one year later

The cut of her jib:
We got a pre-paid plan so that my boys couldn't possibly go over their limit by 1000 minutes in just one month (oog---as actually happened a few years earlier with one of my step-daughters on our family plan).  Our current plan costs the boys 99¢ for the first call of the day and then 10¢ per minute for any call to a non-Verizon phone.  I pay $10/month (usually several months at a time) and expect the boys to make up the rest.  This has put an upper limit on any damage the boys can do, and I highly recommend this for a first-time plan for exuberant users.

Taking the helm:
I set up electronic account monitoring two days after the boys got the phones, but I wish I'd done this before they had the phones.  For any novice sailor (or cell phone user), there are unexpected obstacles in those unchartered waters.  It's really incredibly helpful to be able to watch in nearly real-time what's going on.

Early on, I checked usage daily.  Even now,  a year later, I check the e-records somewhere between weekly and monthly.  I can give the boys feedback ("that *86 dialing is costing you a bunch of money!", "You keep dialing a number that is not on the Verizon plan, and you've paid 30¢ for that this week.")   E-monitoring gives us much more immediate feedback than we'd get any other way.

Testing the waters:
I set up the phones initially (I thought) so they'd be for voice only.  I explained to the rep who was selling me the phones and setting them up that I wanted voice only, and I had her turn off texting.  It was one day later that we learned that the rep hadn't also turned off picture messaging.  Bleah!  By that I mean, an expensive bleah!  We fixed that via annoying phone calls back to Verizon after the boys spent a pile o' dough sending each other silly pictures of themselves, not knowing that each picture had its own cost.

In for some rough weather:
Even after that, though, we discovered that there were all sorts of ways  that the boys were either knowingly or unknowingly (we're still not sure) blowing money on crazy non-voice things.  Ring tones ate up a bunch of their funds.  N-son blew through almost $50 in games one week when I wasn't monitoring the e-records closely.  As we said, we're not entirely sure whether he knew they cost money or not -- he said he hadn't realized it.

Batten down the hatches:
If you do want voice (and only voice), you need to push much harder on the rep than I did when you're setting up the phone.  Be persistent, and keep asking about ways that a kid might do anything that is not actually talking.  Do not trust the rep to actually turn off any feature that is potentially money-generating (for them) and money-wasting (for you).

Close Quarters:
From the start, I gave the boys the rule that they MUST leave their phone with me overnight:  I have physical control of the phone from 9 p.m to 9 a.m.   This has turned out to be an invaluable help, both for reasons that I expected (it keeps them from playing on their phones all night or calling people at crazy hours), but also for reasons that I hadn't anticipated (they tend to lose their phones, and this way I learn about it quickly and put pressure on them to find them quickly.  Also, they tend to damage anything in their reach, including phones: more on that below).

Under their own steam:
As the year has moved forward, the boys have indeed learned a lot about basic phone usage.  There are shoals and reefs we still have to steer away from, but generally they've learned quite a bit.  Overall, I'm glad with how far they've come in responsible phone usage this year.  The phones have lost some of their novelty, and so the boys aren't constantly using (or mis-using) them.

Keeping things ship-shape:
Phones are things.  And things break.  Things are especially likely to break if they come too close to my highly active sons.  And these phones have spent a lot of time with my bouncy boys.
The screen on J-son's phone is not supposed to look like this, but now it does.  N-son's phone is not supposed to have its battery exposed, but (as you can see from the first photo above), now it does.  Neither phone works quite as well as it used to.  That wear-and-tear is part of the reason that the boys leave their phones high and dry on my shelf nowadays, instead of carting the phones with them wherever they go.  I'm still trying to decide to what extent I should enforce my early rule that they pay for breakage of phones.   At any rate, it looks like these phone are nearly on the rocks.  

Has the tide turned?
N-son has managed to save $86 on his meager, Miser-Mom allowance toward a new phone.  [This $86 is on top of the $200 I require each boy to have in "emergency savings" so they can repair the inevitable things they break.]  He's planning to put it toward a Republic Wireless smart phone, for which I promised I'd pay half.  I'm figuring that once he gets his new phone, we'll have many more battles over time spent playing games than we had this year --- but also many fewer battles than if we hadn't had a year of voice-only learning.

(I'm also hoping he'll realize the importance of caring for that phone when he gets it, now that he's seen that my urgings to be careful with the old phone together with the broken status of the old phone seem to have some bearing upon one another.  But I might be too optimistic here.)

Stay the course:
J-son also has plans to purchase a smart phone some day.  His plans were blown a bit off-course when, in his words, a tennis racquet "got broke" (meaning, someone who looks a lot like him repeatedly bashed it into the ground until the wooden frame smashed into pieces).   The resulting hole in the emergency fund is just now being refilled, so the future phone upgrades are still that -- a hope for the future.

So, the voyage of the S.S. Cell-Phone continues.  I'm sure I'll have more lessons for us all in the future. Anchors, aweigh!


  1. We had similar problems when my parents first got us phones. This was in 2000, so I don't think I knew what text messaging was. This was before the days of free phone-to-phone calling or even free evenings. I definitely had to pay my mom a time or two (or three) when I went over my minutes (once it was $70!!! ouch).

    I figured out text messaging later. I was pretty good with it, but my little brother ended up paying my mom a lot for his text messages. She figured out quickly it was better to have a package for text messages than to pay by the message. I suppose, in retrospect, she could have said no, but I don't think she realized she could turn off texting. All my brother's friends texted a lot. On the bright side, texting did mean that he used considerably less minutes.

    On the whole, glad to see you're teaching your boys about responsible phone use. The pre-paid plan looks like the way to go. When the boys waste their money on games or other things, do they then have to wait to get minutes again?

    1. Ah, so you're one of those modern people who have figured out texting, eh? Someday I'll catch up with you!

      Nowadays, when the boys waste money on games or excessive calls, they pay it back to me out of their allowance/savings. If they don't have enough money in their regular savings, then it comes out of "emergency funds", and they lose their phones until they've topped off the emergency account again.

      Early on in the process, though, we had a stricter system (that the boys gladly agreed to, surprisingly enough). If they used, say, three days' worth of minutes in one day, then they lost the phone for three days. They had such problems with self-control early on that they seemed to prefer having that very direct feedback, at least at first. But as time went by and the phones became more ordinary to them, we haven't had to implement that strict, immediate accounting (thank goodness). -MM