For 99% of teenagers, a cell phone is the primary window into their social worlds. Not for calling friends like we used to “back in the day,” but for texting and social media. But are cell phones a privilege or a right? Can (or should) co-parents control them or limit children’s access to them during parenting time? It’s a common battleground between parents and teens as well as between co-parents. Here’s some thoughts about how to handle the cell phone, peacefully.
“I bought the cell phone, so I can take it away / block my co-parent’s number / read all the texts between Susie and her mom . . .”
Certainly, if one parent purchased the cell phone and pays the monthly charges, there is a level of control he/she may assert over the cell phone. However, blocking access to the other parent is absolutely unreasonable. The Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines (“IPTG”) provide that both parents shall have “reasonable phone access” with a child, further stating that turning off a phone, not allowing a child to answer a phone, or using a call blocking feature are all examples of “unacceptable interference” with communication. It is fine to limit screen time and access to friends, either as a punishment or for setting acceptable boundaries, such as no phones in bedrooms after 10pm. But cutting off access to the other parent, or allowing access but reading all the texts between the child and the co-parent is unacceptable. The IPTG provide for private conversations between parents and children, and to be free from parental conflict. Remember that your co-parent isn’t the only one getting hurt; your child is part of the conflict when you take away access to the other parent.
Parents should be going through a child’s cell phone to make sure there are no “hidden” apps which may invite predators into the child’s life, no sexting, no bullying, and the like. However, communications between a child and the other parent need to remain private and the child should be allowed to have a healthy and independent relationship with the other parent.
“I don’t think our child is ready for a cell phone and I will not allow it in my house during parenting time.”
The purchase of a cell phone for a child should be a decision made between co-parents, and not unilaterally made by either parent. Until a child is old enough to be left on his/her own for significant lengths of time, or is old enough to ride the bus home to an empty house, a cell phone may not be necessary, as most likely, the child will be with a responsible adult who will either have a cell phone and/or a landline during parenting time. For example, an elementary school child who is dropped off and picked up by a responsible adult from school or put on and off of a bus by an adult probably does not “need” a cell phone, in which case it would be appropriate to tell a co-parent that it is not permitted in the other parent’s home during parenting time. However, the child must continue to have access to their other parent through the use of the parent’s cell phone or a landline.
“She is constantly calling or texting the child on the cell phone and interrupting my parenting time.”
The IPTG require “reasonable” access to the child. Do all parents want to see and talk with their children many times a day? Sure. But constant calls and texts from the “missing” parent can create anxiety for the child who may end up feeling torn. The child who is normally fine at both parents’ homes can suddenly have trouble transitioning and start resisting parenting time when he/she knows that the missing parent will make them feel guilty about being away, even if that was not that parent’s intention. Reasonable access can mean a couple times a week or once a day, depending on the family. It does not mean a text conversation all day, every day. Give your child and your co-parent the space to enjoy parenting time, without you.