Amy Jussel On Kids’ Media Management and Childhood Matters

Why ‘Amy Jussel’ instead of ‘Shaping Youth’ in the headline today?

Because this time it’s personal…That’s mama code for ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ on the media management front from my own tween experience regarding familial cellphone contracts, texting and mobile media.

I was on the radio with talk show host Nurse Rona Renner (podcast to be archived here) who runs the excellent weekly show Childhood Matters. (98.1 KISS-FM) this morning.

We were discussing cellphones for preteens and social development and limit-setting on media, along with Common Sense Media and guest Erika Padilla-Morales, a digital teacher’s coach from Streetside Stories (a literacy arts nonprofit cultivating young people’s voices through the power of storytelling– an exciting new ‘find’ for me!)

As promised, I mentioned on the air that I’d share new developments in mobile media, as well as parental controls like “smart limits,” kids’ media management and youth mobile trends but there are no quick fixes or absolutes here…Just parental truths, ‘been there done that’ tips, familial contracts for household peace, and ‘to each his own’ centrist suggestions for navigating parental whitewater surfing the ‘media controls’ issue.

Yes, it’s humbling to be a media literacy queen bitten in the backside by the very bug she knows so well…but frankly, that’s part of preteen parenting and life lessons that make Shaping Youth authentic, raw, and real!

Regular readers will get a kick out of knowing my “oh-so media-literate-family-contract-signing-I’ll-pay-for-texting-myself-soon-to-be-8th grader” zinged me out of the blue after two years of limited but responsible use with a mambo wireless bill, reducing me to a bug-eyed, flabbergasted mumble-fest.

To me, this is proof positive there are still nuances that need red-flagged in the name of learning refinement and youth empowerment, over ‘oops, I did it again’ Britney-esque trial and error…

This is actually a strong point of differentiation for Shaping Youth between ‘expert guidelines and policy ideals of what SHOULD occur’, versus analysis of what’s REALLY going on with parents and kids…Since I’m not shy about sharing my blindsided blunders, I’ll jump in boldly and quote poet Eli Siegel,

“If a mistake is not a stepping stone, it is a mistake.”

Yep, I’m big on stepping stones, experiential learning, and, well…falling in the river now and then.

So with that…Let’s start with the basics:

Mobile Youthreports a BILLION CONSUMERS in a $250 billion mobile youth market according to their latest worldwide research.

Humor me for sounding “quaint” as I toss out this little conceptual retro-nugget…But with cell phones’ inconclusive health risks for wee ones, the very first question I’d ask is:

Should there even BE a cellphone? And if so, at what age and why?

Evaluate age, purpose, pros and cons, GPS safety issues, comparison plans. The works.

As for Wired Safety and texting…

I’d already decided to ‘opt out of texting’ for the stripped down phone I handed over to my middle schooler, figuring I just didn’t need the hassle of literally ‘putting the whole world in her hands.’ Simplify was my motto.

But in an ever-evolving techno-state, new media surges into prominence faster than twitchy Cnet trends can even report the Rising Cost of Texting or Cell Phone As Mom Avoidance Device, and, well…things change…kids grow…time flies.

In fact, when I attended the YPulse mashup last month, C&R Research (43 pp pdf here) reported that nearly one out of every two U.S. 10-13 year olds and 83% of teens owned a phone, with the average teen generating about 50-70 text messages a day.

So yes, I KNOW I should’ve seen this onslaught coming with my own daughter long ago.

I’ve read our own Gen Y specialist Vanessa VanPetten’s “7 Tips for Parents: Should Your Child Have a Cell Phone?” (Vanessa’s one of our newest Shaping Youth Correspondents that you’ll hear much more from soon!) and I’m still in awe of her opening line about 13-year old Morgan Pozgar (at left) winner of the LG National Texting Championship who pecked out the word in 42 seconds of turbo-texting, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” eek.

Though right now my daughter could probably give her some competition…gee, I could sure use that $25K prize to pay for some of our media work here… 😉

Seriously though…I guess I’m just taken aback at being lulled into complacency with “dead calm” on the cellphone front for almost two years sans any ‘issues.’ No problemo. Not a one.

Nada. No obsessions. No gaming/data/ringtone downloads. No cyberbullying. No sweat.

Not even any distracted texters bumping into lampposts. (yes, Ryan Jussel, dear nephew-o-mine, it IS a hilariously real Monty Python-ish YouTube video, so send me a Skype Vid of you in London on this street, ‘k?)

I even remember thinking, “this texting bit must be typical teen media hype, moral panic and journalistic overkill.”

As middle school marched on, we segued from ‘should there even BE a phone’ in the early years to new issues about who/when/how the phone should be used.

“Experts” and parent peers either sniffed and scoffed that there was ‘no need’ for texting whatsoever in middle school (implying judgmental permissiveness and ‘affluenza’ in play) or conversely, they went the other route with full tilt texting and unlimited everything to safeguard against kids going over their limits from the get go. Go figure.

Ironically, some of those hovering “helicopter parents” that were absolutists on ‘anti-texting’ are the same ones micro-managing via fancy GPS cells monitoring their offspring, which frankly gives me the creeps, and feels just plain sad. (though I DO hear there’s a very cool new GPS locator device that can track Fido in the woods or anything else that moves for that matter!)

Anyway, to each his own, I reasoned.

There’ll always be hysteria about big bad media bills and detrimental social reverb, but thinking back to this pithy article Vanessa wrote called The Mommy Mob, written from a youth perspective, I realize ’twas ever thus.’

I’m pre-disposed to challenge fear-mongering inclinations as well as the myth of cellphones as ‘safety saviors and lifelines’ strong polarities always seems bogus to me, as “Question Authority” is inherent in my journalistic DNA.

I asked around. Did some interviews. Talked to lots of texters.

The reality? Some kids were as addicted to their thumb as Linus to his blanket, using texting as a ‘friendship tether’ to communicate with pals without missing a thing…

Others were texting in flurries that bleeped and zinged in a cacophony of chaos, silencing to a hush fast (plan-making no doubt), some kids were just goofin’ around seeing who was available to chat and bide their time.

Oddly enough, one noticeably absent value that’s overlooked as a texting/parental positive is when kids use texting as a method of discreet communication in awkward scenarios. (that goes for interactions with parents AND peers!)

In middle school, “can you come get me out of this dance” or “can so & so sleepover” is a great way to save face among peers without broadcasting intent or wounding feelings.

In high school? Consider ‘dating bailouts,’ rescue routines, DUI dodges sans intended rides home, and all sorts of handy ‘on the sly’ social engineering given media literacy training.

The silence of texting is a polite plus for coordinating plans for pick-ups without interrupting after-school activities, from band practice to team sports too…

That said, there are plenty of social negatives and marketing concerns, with texting. Overall, I’ve warmed up to it in ‘when in Rome’ mode, by expanding my own media literacy hoops to jump through adjusting to upgrades and usage…From camera cautions to contact lists, awareness of SMS ringtone offers, data-mining, privacy protection, ditching cheesy banner ads, and call-blocking a cyberbully.

I didn’t see the big deal when she asked to ‘pay $5/mo.from her dogsitting money’ to add MORE texting, since I was holding firm on the basic ten bucks/mo addition to the family plan…seemed like she’d earned the trust. Fair is fair.

So, I once again adapted our own version of Vanessa Van Petten’s cellphone contract (w/a few extra tweaks tied to chores and built-in school work incentives, which I should’ve added from the get-go) got full ‘buy-in’ from all parties, slated periodic reviews, spelled out consequences for overages, and with beaming smiles, it was signed, stuck to the fridge, and even copied as a keepsake.

I must’ve been pretty smug NOT to monitor the finite details, since monthly bills were about the same, and all was ‘quiet on the western front.’ Because suddenly?

WHAMMO! Puberty…a ‘mini-crush’ and the ‘who likes who’ gal pal prattle with each “sup?, lol or hey” counting as a message.

Then there’s the summer absence of school year friendships, fueling a desperate desire to remain “connected.” Understandable, really.

First it was a mini-increase of overages, warranting a warning, a debit/pay out and minor privilege loss. Then the very next month, she got in over her head chatting with tweens who have limitless plans, and limitless freedoms (affectionately known as the ‘raised by wolves’ packs of kids)

Then…she lost use of it altogether.

Her incredulousness at the ‘unfairness’ was accompanied by all kinds of drama/trauma, including the über-flawed logic,

“See? I TOLD you I should’ve gotten unlimited text! I NEVER even talk ON the phone!” (um, that’s precisely why I purposely did NOT get you unlimited text, dear one, so that you could learn HOW to self-limit and THEN step up that ladder rung with confidence)

You just want to take my friends away!” (yah, that’s why we always have a house full, you betcha, that’s my goal, uh-huh, yup)—and the time-honored classic:

“You just don’t understand!” (insert door slam, power pout, and self-imposed cold turkey media management huff) Sigh.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be glib.

Developmentally, this is preteen 101…Anger, denial, angst when mistakes are made, wishing they’d just all go away sans consequences…’Deflect, block and bury’ like a prizefighter in the ring…ugh. Painful.

And it’s GOTTA sting seeing the contract inked in her OWN signature, “Any overages of text/data/downloads paid by user…(blahdeeblah)” I feel for her. Deeply. But I can’t make it go away.

She’s STILL paying the price. Quite literally.

She solemnly handed over ALL of her birthday money when she turned 13 this summer…she depleted her entire savings account of dogsitting funds, and moped around as if I were Mommy Dearest herself for awhile…

We compromised. Bent back and forth. I credited her for the megabyte of ‘accidental data overages’ from friends sending her photos, because she ‘didn’t know she had to pay’ for receiving them (I’m not a total ogre) she added extra chores to accelerate the payoff.

She’ll start school without her regular phone number, using a ‘prepaid’ instead.

To her credit, she convincingly negotiated up from ‘no phone at all’ status to ‘prove she can use the countdown tally of minutes without going over’–a logical way to prove restraint, restore trust.

If all goes well and she replaces debts and boundaries, she’ll earn her old phone and number back by the end of the first quarter which is Halloween…

Am I being a wicked witch?

Does this story spook you? Or speak to you? What do you say, readers? Vanessa? Youth advisors? Parents? Your ‘terms’ please? Help me out here.

Related Resources

More Than One Third of U.S. Preteens 8-12 Have a Mobile Phone (Media Post)

Mobiles For Kids: Cell Phones & Services For the Preteen Market (CBC News, Canada)

Teach Your Kids Good Cell Phone Etiquette/Preteens (OC Family)

Teens Tap Into Text Messaging Craze (Baylor College of Medicine)

Text Messaging Behind the Wheel (Time Magazine)

Parenting Forum: Preteens/Teens on Cell Phones, An 11 Year Old Query (WebMD)

Parents Connect Forum; Question on 11 Year Old Texting (Nickelodeon)

Texting Versus Writing: The Problem With Instant Messaging (Oxford Learning)

Tasteless Texting by Suzette Valle/Mamarazzi on Preteen Texting Behavior (BlogHer)

Visual Credits: 13-year old Morgan Pozgar, from Getty Images via BBC News article, Texting hands close-up-Alton at Wikimedia Commons

Shaping Youth Correspondent Vanessa VanPetten’s Cell Phone Contract

Vanessa and I both stress ‘buy-in’ so that kids ‘have a say’ and feel like the ‘own’ the rules. (see Getting to Yes, a good read for negotiation jujitsu and all persuasive difficulties)

Don’t miss Vanessa’s own fab Gen Y perspective book, “You’re Grounded” (How to Stop Fighting and Make the Teenager Years Easier) which she wrote her senior year in high school! For more from Vanessa, check out: On Teens Today.

Remember: “Discuss the rules before the contract, build in incentives, have a one-month trial period so they appreciate the privilege of having a phone, and sign/date for that very official feeling.”

Sample Contract:

Vanessa will be given a cell phone for her birthday and will be used with the discussed following rules:

___All Contacts in the Phone Book must be approved by Mom or Dad
___No Phone calls after 9pm weekdays, 10pm weekends unless they are to Mom and Dad, or pre-approved by us.
___Our Plan allows maximum of 50 text messages a month.
___No Cell Phone at any meal table or during family time (may ask permission if school related).
___Web Surfing has been disabled.
___If asked to turn off/stop playing/get off cell phone, must do so immediately.
___When at home, will only use the regular phone instead of cell phone to make calls.
___When out with friends will always have cell phone with you and ‘on’ so mom and dad can reach you if needed.

If the following rules have not been met, we will have to implement the following discussed consequences:

___If you go over in texts, you must pay the difference (the phone company charges 10 cents per text)
___If you go over in minutes, you must pay the difference for that month, if it happens again, then hour usage will decrease (8pm weekdays, no cell phone on Sundays).
___If asked more than twice to turn off/put down cell phone, or the phone is used during meal or family time, personal phone privileges will be removed for a day (only may be used to call mom and dad).
___This is a one-month trial period, if all rules are followed for thirty days, mom and dad will increase hours on weekends.
___This contract will be reevaluated every six months as Vanessa gets older to possibly receive more texts, web surfing or extra money for ring tones etc.

Signed:   ______________________     ____________________
Date:      ____________



  1. Rona Renner says

    Such great info on your blog. I really like the idea of a contract for cell phone use and other media use. It helps parents work out their differences before they try and set limits with their children. It also helps parents who may not remember what rules they’ve set. I did a contract for my teens when they got their drivers license. It was a great way to make sure we went over the rules, and also a way for them to know that if they broke a rule there would be a consequence.
    Thanks for all your great work.

  2. Rona, thank YOU for all YOUR great work! Your podcast archive alone is a treasure trove of info…In fact, we should do a post grouping some shows together to point readers in that direction!

    As for the driver’s license idea…yep. That’s a definite, here.

    I know Vanessa also mentioned contracts for ‘partying’ consequences/dating curfews/school work and all kinds of ‘terms’ to lay out expectations…

    That said, I constantly walk a fine line in the ‘if this/then this’ arena because I have to pick my battles. (my daughter’s got my own defiant streak, so if I veer into TOO many terms, she’ll rebel and pushback even if she’s in complete agreement!) 😉

    e.g. If something’s completely ‘forbidden fruit’ she’ll probably ‘take a bite of it’ just to be ornery, so I have to tred with trust, and make sure rules aren’t ‘overkill.’

  3. By the way, folks, Rona’s podcasts were linked in the article, but here they are again, for the last few years on Childhood Matters:

    She has all her shows from 2002-2008 archived, just click on “listen to past shows”…great stuff. (They’re all sourced in logline blurbs by topic and guest appearances too!)

  4. I am new to your site and, have to say, a bit overwhelmed at the moment, but intrigued and looking forward to reading more.

    As a single parent of two pre-teen girls, I have found early tweenhood to be…a challenge. My ten-year-old and I have been engaged in the Great Cell Phone Conflict for a year now, and I have simply repeatedly said “No way” – mostly because I couldn’t get my head around a way to ensure she would use it responsibly. Not that I amgoing to now run out and get her a phone, but I can at least chew on the concept of using a contract for a while…

    I write a column called “Tween Us Girls” for a local magazine here in NH – there is a link to it in my blog – from my vantage point as a “mother who was once a girl herself.” Would love if you stopped by!

  5. This is an excellent and very informative article regarding phones/texting and youth today.

    Now, on to tackle the latest issue with my 13 year old, “My cell phone is personal, mom”. Yeah, right!

    Thank you so much for listing my post as a resource.
    Keep up the good work!

  6. Thanks for the Great Blog post! I found your post very interesting, your a great writer. I’ll make sure to bookmark your blog and return in the future. Keep up the great work, I found you on Yahoo. Thanks for now, Have a great day.

Speak Your Mind