The trouble typically begins when a teen’s cellphone use is out of control, leading to poor grades, family conflict or lack of sleep.
The parent will try to take the phone away, said Victoria Perisee-Johns, a police crisis worker at several police departments. By then, the teen may feel he has the right to the phone. He’ll hoard it — taking it everywhere with him, including the bathroom. Or he’ll give it to a friend for safekeeping. Or he’ll hide it.
He may become verbally aggressive if the parent tries to take the phone, or he may attack: hitting, punching or pulling hair.
And that, said Perisee-Johns, is when some parents call the police.
“It is happening at an alarming rate,” said Perisee-Johns, who provides advice and support to parents in these cases. “We’re seeing aggression; we’re seeing agitation; we’re seeing kids run away — all of it over things like cellphones and video games.”
Local police departments say they don’t track cellphone disputes between parents and children, and their assessments of the problem vary. In Evanston, Illinois, it’s fairly common for calls to police regarding parent-child disputes to involve cellphones, but Evanston police Cmdr. Ryan Glew said that, in these cases, cellphone disputes appear to be symptoms of family problems rather than root causes.
Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” pointed out that the vast majority of families are not calling the police about cellphone disputes.
“This is extreme,” she said of calls to the police. “But it does give you a sense of how desperate and helpless parents can feel in the face of a very strong, immersive relationship with tech.”
Battles over cellphones or video games are at the root of about 20 percent of the parent-child disputes that are referred to Perisee-Johns by police. Perisee-Johns, who has a master’s degree in forensic psychology, offers affected families brief problem-focused support, which includes a combination of family therapy and parenting support services.
In these cases, she recommends that parents come up with very clear rules, for example: “I expect you to hand in your phone at 9 p.m.; I expect you to maintain a B average; I expect you to wash the dishes every night.” If the child doesn’t comply, the punishment is specific and predetermined, for instance, losing the cellphone for a set amount of time. And — this is important, Perisee-Johns said — the rules must be enforced consistently.
Heitner said parents should be on the lookout for signs of phone trouble. If device use is leading to daily conflict, academic problems, loss of sleep, risky communication with strangers, coercion or harassment, it may be time to get some outside help in the form of mental health services, support from other parents or an app that limits screen time.
“A lot of parents are looking — whether it’s in early childhood or the tween years — for some support on ‘How do I get my kid on board (with family rules)? If I’m not going to threaten them, if I’m not going to hit them, if I’m not going to deprive them of things, then what is the plan?’ And I think those are good questions,” she said.
“There are parenting classes in many communities — some are offered through schools and community organizations — and sometimes they’re free or very affordable, and that is a resource that parents should never feel ashamed of taking advantage of.”
She recommends talking to other parents about what you’re going through.
“A lot of us feel isolated as parents, and we don’t know what to do. Obviously with tech, it’s easier if we’re on top of it from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fix it if our 12-year-old seems a little out of control or suddenly they’re streaming games 24/7.”
With her own teenage son, Perisee-Johns deploys a point-based discipline system. When a cellphone rule is broken, a punishment is assigned, say, 400 points, and her 14-year-old son can work off those points (and earn back phone or video game time) by doing set tasks: reading to his little brother, writing thank-you cards, helping with dinner. Perisee-Johns said her son has control over how fast he earns back his privileges, and he accepts the system without conflict.