This is a guest post from Sarah Gilbert.
We’ll call my friend’s daughter “Sophie.” She’s 12, and like many of today’s families there is no land line phone at home. Because she was getting home from school first, her parents gave her a cell phone, with lots of restrictions: keep it at home, first, and only use it to text mom and dad or for emergencies.
The cautionary tale of a tween texter
Even though Sophie and her parents have a great and usually trusting relationship, inevitably, the siren song of communicating with her friends was too much to resist. She started bringing her phone to school, texting before and after the bell, and between classes. She hid out in her room “reading” — but, really, texting and downloading games and ring tones. Everything seemed fine and her parents didn’t have any idea this was going on; they’d set the bill to autopay a fixed amount each month.
You can see where this is going, right? One day Sophie’s mom surprised her by picking her up at school. There she was, walking down the sidewalk, phone in hand. (This is the phone that was supposed to be in a kitchen drawer.) A heart-to-heart seemed effective, until that weekend, when her now-more-suspicious mom discovered her in the hot middle of a texting session.
That’s when dad logged onto the mobile company’s web site to see their account, which had climbed to several hundred dollars. Oh, and also, he discovered this: his phone was suspended due to non-payment of that enormous overage Sophie had racked up chatting and downloading. Pulling money out of savings for this was painful.
Tweens and the great app seduction
I could have felt superior but I had a similar story with my own nine-year-old. As a way to occupy him when I have a deadline or a lot of housework, I’d let my oldest boy have the iTunes password, just so he could download free games and buy 99-cent and $1.99 games with my permission. (My excuse here is that my husband has been overseas for most of the past two years on military duty. OK?) If I had my hands immersed in soap suds or covered in strawberry juice, I could just let him type it in.
This was great… Until I got a $39 bill for a few days’ worth of downloads, which was automatically deducted from my bank account. There were a bunch of in-app purchases, in addition to a $6.99 game and a $4.99 game. “Did I authorize this?” I got a frank apology and an explanation — he didn’t know this one would be so expensive, he didn’t remember buying that one, he couldn’t help the other one due to terrific frustration. I said, ok, I get it: you’re sorry. Don’t do it again.
Yep. You predicted it again! The next week, after a $36 bill, the same conversation occurred. Oops, messed up, couldn’t resist. I changed the password to something impossible to guess, and now most of our big bills are all my fault (and are lots less big). Now when he can’t resist buying an in-app purchase, he can, because he has to come to me first. He rarely does.
Avoid this! Here’s how
You don’t have to suffer our fate; I came up with a couple of fail-safe methods to avoid this kind of temptation (and the resultant punishing bills):
1. Accept that your kids are powerless. Both of these kids have great parent-child relationships and no history of lying or sneaking around. But, around the social pressures of middle school and the clever psychological tricks of the app games, they were easy marks. Know this will likely be true no matter how awesome your tween or teen. (If it’s not, you’re really lucky. Still follow the rest of my rules.)
2. Set natural limits before the overage begins. I should never have given my son the password; it was too easy. Sophie should never have had a cell phone without restrictions. I plan to do what I’ve done for me when it’s time to get our oldest a mobile; buy a phone that allows us to pre-pay. When his minutes are gone, he’s done, until the next re-load.
3. Check your account frequently. Even if you’re sure your tween or teen is using his privilege responsibly, it can’t hurt to check your account a couple of times a month. If you’re more concerned, check every day. It should just take a minute and isn’t a minute a day worth saving you $40 or $100 or $500?
4. Apply this logic to extended family too. We bought my sister-in-law a third line on our cell plan one year for Christmas. What a sweet gift! We were happy to pay an extra $10 a month, and we never even came close to using our many hundreds of minutes. She still owes us $1200 for all those extra minutes she evidently couldn’t resist using (and we can’t use that company until we pay that last $109 we owe, still).
We should have just gotten her a GoPhone (or maybe a nice pair of fuzzy slippers). Unless your in-laws or siblings have a history of frugality and honesty — unless they are absolute, tested, paragons of virtue and even the other side of the family says so — protect yourself.
Let this be one of the first lessons your tween has about money: you don’t want to let go of it! The psychology of having a wise parent or responsible family member footing the bill entirely is difficult even for adults to have fealty to. When it comes to children who are only entering the world of virtual, intangible mobile delights, great restraint and some serious barriers to brokeness are required.