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Does Your Teen Have a Burner Phone?

A number of years ago, we started to hear from parents that some teens were now using what they called “throwaway” phones, or what are now called “burner” phones, as a secondary device to connect to the internet. Often these are older phones that have been discarded by parents, or a teen’s friend, that can still be used to connect with the internet via Wi-Fi and not data. However, we also know of cases where teens will purchase a cheap secondary data burner phone.


A few stories Brandon remembers when he worked in retail during his undergraduate degree are those of parents asking to return a phone their child had purchased that they found out about. One time while he was working, a parent came in asking why a staff member allowed a “kid” (teen) to purchase a phone in the first place. There was a heated argument between the customer and staff member and eventually management got involved to explain there are no industry or legal age restrictions to purchasing a phone off the shelf. From his time working in technology retail, these situations were rare.


As an internet safety, digital literacy, and self-protection company, we decided to ask teens who follow us on Instagram the following two questions:


#1) Do you use a “burner phone” or a secondary phone that your parents don’t know about?


#2) Do you know someone your age who uses a burner phone?


Here are their answers:


In discussions with teens, we have found that there are three main reasons why they will use a burner phone:


1. To replace their primary phone when taken by a parent as punishment so that they can stay digitally connected with their friends


2. To replace their primary phone that is not allowed in a bedroom at night so that they can still access the internet in their bedroom and connect with friends, or


3. To escape parental monitoring of their internet activities via software monitoring that have been placed on their primary phone.


Although it appears that the use of a burner phone is rare, according to our Instagram questionnaire, it is still a reality that some parents should be aware of. What are some strategies that parents can use to specifically cope with the challenges posed by a burner phone?

  • Open up the lines of communication with your child. There is no doubt that kids whose parents are engaged with them, especially when it comes to the onlife (digital) world, are far less likely to do things covertly behind a parent’s back.


  • Don’t always take cellphones away as a form of punishment. Yes, there are times where it is justified to take a child’s phone as a form of punishment, but this should only be considered in the most serious situations. Don’t treat every incident like a nail and hit it with a hammer. The hammer is taking a phone. Maybe think about other progressive and incremental forms of consequences to action approaches, such as doing dishes for a week and taking out the garbage as an alternative.


  • Given that most burner phones use Wi-fi only, there are many products out now, like Shaw’s Blue Curve [1] or Circle [2] router that will let you know if any device is attempting to connect to your home’s Wi-fi—including a burner phone. You just have to hope that your next-door neighbour doesn’t have an open Wi-Fi that your child is now accessing and if they are, you need to ask your neighbour to lock it down.


  • If your child was really upset about their phone being taken and are now showing disinterest in this fact, maybe it’s because they are now using a burner phone.


  • If you are monitoring their social media feeds and you still see that they are accessing and producing content while they are at home, even though you have their phone and have limited access via a home computer, this may be a clue that they are using a burner phone. Just be aware that your child may also be using what they call a “spam” or “finsta” account that parents may not know about. These are for friends only and not parents.


  • Again, we must emphasize that the use of a burner phone, although a reality, is still a rarity, but it should be something that all parents are aware of, especially those who are parenting high-risk youth.


Digital Food for Thought

Darren Laur


[1] https://www.shaw.ca/bluecurve

[2] https://www.thewhitehatter.ca/monitoring-and-filtering-tools

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