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5 questions: How to teach teens about cell phone smarts

Lessons taught in an Atlantic County school program cover etiquette and bullying, physical safety, and the long legacy — and consequences — of what the teens post online now.


When it comes to driving a car, parents make sure that their kids have plenty of instruction and a lot of practice.

When it comes to using a cell phone? Not so much.

So experts at AtlantiCare Behavioral Health, southeast New Jersey's largest provider of mental health, addiction, and family care services, decided to step in. Funded by a state Department of Children and Families grant, it provides youth programs at Atlantic City High School, Buena Regional High and Middle Schools, and Oakcrest High School, all in Atlantic County.

The program has many components. We spoke recently with Cathleen Morris, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the AtlantiCare youth programs at Buena's high school and middle school.

What are your biggest concerns about teen cell phone use?

Cell phone etiquette is always a concern. If you're sitting at the dinner table, you don't use your cell phone. Parents need to model it. I know that life happens. Your phone rings, and you want to look at it. But there should be screen-free time.

In communicating so much through screens, people are losing social skills. In a text, things can be misinterpreted. I've seen more than my share of drama because someone read a text and didn't know how it was intended.

So I tell students that tone is important, body language is important, eye contact is important. All this is important through adulthood, as well. When you go to a job interview, they're not going to talk to you through texts.

Texting and driving is another huge concern. Students think they can do it quickly. But studies have found that even with a quick text, you take your eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. That's a lot of time. We actually have kids pledge that they won't text and drive. And we've sent the pledges home to have their parents sign it, as well.

Bullying is a huge concern. In texting — without having that face-to-face conversation — it's a lot easier to say something mean and hurtful. It goes back to socialization. They think they're anonymous. But they're texting a real person, and that person has feelings.

What is the purpose of your program?  When and why did it start? 

The teen center has been at Buena High School since 2000. A sister program at the middle school was funded in 2005. We're here to provide free and voluntary services to any student in our building to help them navigate their adolescent years, finish their education, obtain skills leading to employment or continued education, and help them to graduate healthy and drug-free.

Our services are open to any student in the building. One of the large components of our program is recreation. Through that, we get to know the kids, and they get to know us and feel comfortable with us.

As for the cell phone part, think about when kids are starting to drive: We give them driving lessons; they get practice behind the wheel. Kids are getting phones as young as age 9. And we're giving them phones without giving them lessons on how to appropriately use them.

At the school, we see kids all the time who are sitting next to each other, and they're texting rather than talking. We realized that if phones and other similar devices and social media are such a large part of their lives, that it has to be part of the conversation. It has to be part of the work that we do with them.

What are some of the primary messages you try to get across to teens?

I always talk to students about posting pictures. Once you put something out there, it no longer belongs to you. If you post a picture of yourself in a jersey, it might identify the high school. It might indicate the sport and the number of the player. So a predator already knows a lot about you. Or if you post a picture of your new car, that car has a license plate on it. You've just given away so much information about yourself. I tell them, "Remember, it's the World Wide Web. You're sharing it with the world."

Also, we caution them about friending only people that they know in the real world. We're told as children not to talk to strangers. But kids go on Snapchat and other sites and connect with people they don't know.

Physical safety is part of the discussion. They're walking around texting with their heads down. You could walk into someone, you could fall. There's a viral video of someone in a mall walking right into a display fountain.

Kids get angry when their parents say, "Let me see your phone." I tell the students that when your parents do that, they are doing it out of concern, not to violate your privacy. If you have something on your phone that you don't want your parents to see, do you really want the world to know it? We all do dumb things when we're kids, but there wasn't always the same lasting evidence that there is now.

I share with the students that they are creating their own legacies. The internet is not going away, so one day your children or grandchildren may Google you. What do you want them to see?

We also talk about New Jersey's law against harassment, intimidation, and bullying. Related to that, we encourage students to tell an adult if someone has posted something that they know is inappropriate, or if they have a friend who seems to be depressed or contemplating suicide. Even if you're wrong, you'd rather have a mad friend than a dead friend. Get that person help.

We also work with parents, but less directly. We encourage parents to be involved, to ask questions, to monitor the use of screen time, to know who your child is spending time with online. Tell them that you love them every day. Learn the apps your kids are using. Have your kids teach you the apps. Know what your kids are doing.

What tells you that it’s working, that you’re making a difference?

AtlantiCare has customer-satisfaction surveys, including student surveys. Based on those results, we know we're making a difference.

We bring in speakers, and we'll do follow-up discussions. I always start with, "What did you learn?" They're always able to tell me something. One student talked about knowing someone who went to a college interview and the college officials shared that they had seen posts on Facebook, and the student was shocked.

Now, when we're doing a group activity with students, they're not looking at their phones. They're listening to each other. Which is huge. When we ask them questions, we can see that we're getting them to think. We can see them learning.

In talking to the students, are you learning anything that has really surprised you?

I'm surprised every day. One thing that really surprised me: I was waiting with a student for her mother to pick her up. The student told me her mother was only a few minutes away.  I said, "How do you know?" She was tracking her mother's cell phone. I never thought about that. The kids are so savvy with any technology. As an adult, you need to be aware of what's going on. You think you've blocked something or put a parental control on it, and the kids know six different ways to get around it.

I'm seeing more of a new service some phone carriers have: When the phone is in the car, it automatically responds to any new text with something like "I'm driving now; I'll respond when I park." It's really important for parents to know that's available.

Contact Sandy Bauers at