Parenting in a Digital Age

Insights from the latest research into parents, young people, and digital and mobile media

Designing Family Contracts For Technology Use

A mom's contract with her 13-year-old about cell phone use goes viral

It's the post-holiday season, when children return to school to discuss their holiday haul and parents compare notes about how they're going to deal with all the new and unanticipated dilemmas that the holiday haul has introduced into their lives together.  Lots of these new gifts to children were technological this year.  And thanks to digital and mobile media, now we parents can now share with our friends our stories about how we're dealing with these things.  So it's no suprise, I guess, that one mom's blog about how she dealt with her 13-year-old son's brand-new iPhone went viral this week.

I love the contract that Janell Burley Hoffman drafted for her son. It's clear about parental expectations and it's also got a touch of lightheartedness that conveys her love and respect for her son.  I do have a suggestion that I'd like to offer based on my research into parenting and technology, but first, in case you haven't seen it, here are some of the 18 items on her list.  She writes: 

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1. It is my phone.  I bought it.  I pay for it.  I am loaning it to you.  Aren’t I the greatest?

7.  Do not use this technology to lie, fool, or deceive another human being.  Do not involve yourself in conversations that are hurtful to others.  Be a good friend first or stay the hell out of the crossfire. 

11.  Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public.  Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human being.  You are not a rude person; do not allow the iPhone to change that.

Hoffman also lists expectations that are more generally about avoiding the temptation we all face of becoming immersed in our mobile phones and missing out on Real Life:

13.  Don’t take a zillion pictures and videos.  There is no need to document everything.  Live your experiences.  They will be stored in your memory for eternity.

14.  Leave your phone home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision.  It is not alive or an extension of you.  Learn to live without it.  Be bigger and more powerful than FOMO – fear of missing out.

17.  Keep your eyes up.  See the world happening around you.  Stare out a window.  Listen to the birds.  Take a walk.  Talk to a stranger.  Wonder without googling.

And she concludes with this:

18.  You will mess up.  I will take away your phone.  We will sit down and talk about it.  We will start over again.  You & I, we are always learning.  I am on your team.  We are in this together.

When I heard Hoffman discuss her contract on NPR, she conveyed real warmth as she reminded listeners that none of what was in the contract was "new" to her son.  They'd discussed all of these things before.  Writing up a contract just solidified expectations and helped her son to take seriously not only the responsibilities he has today, but also those that will emerge later on.  And most of all, she wanted to convey to him that she would remain available for guidance and direction in relation to his use of technology.

As I discuss in my book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age, it's important for young people to know that their parents have high expectations for them regarding how they will use digital, mobile, and social media, and that their parents want to use these new media to build warm connections among family members.  However, it's also important for parents to recognize that their children have high expectations for them, too. 

So, I have one suggestion to add based on my own research into parent and teen/tween uses of technology: If we want to make a contract with our children that addresses our concerns about technology, then we have to also address what our children expect of us as technology users.  

Here's why I think this is important. 

In my interviews, young people described to me the frustrations they had with fathers who check their mobile phone for texts either throughout dinner or when they're supposed to be watching their children perform.  I heard about mothers who upload photos of their children to Facebook pages without asking permission, and about fathers who unquestioningly dominate the use of the family iPad without discussion.  Young people talked about what went wrong when parents secretly read and misinterpreted their texts and complained that a parent sometimes snapped at them when they tried to engage the parent in conversation while he or she was looking at a laptop or a mobile phone.

Here's my takeaway from this: 

Our children learn more about technology use from their parents than from anywhere else. If we want to raise children who can use technology responsibly and respectfully, then we need to take a look at our own practices and make sure that we're modeling respectful and responsible technological behaviors.

Any contract, then, should include sentences like the following:

1. I will not check my phone during dinner or during any family time that we have agreed to spend together (this includes movies and certain times during vacations). 

2. If I'm going to devote some time on a weekend or vacation to individualized mediated leisure (and this includes reading), I'm going to allow my son/daughter to enjoy approximately the same amount of time engaging in the mediated leisure of his/her choice without criticism or interruption. 

3. I will ask my son/daughter to teach me how to play Minecraft and I will enthusiastically spend 15 minutes straight experimenting with the game under his/her supervision (fill in another favorite game if you wish; that just happens to be the favorite of my own 12- and 14-year-old right now and I'm trying to work up the will to do this, as they know) 

4. I will ask my son/daughter to show me what they think is fun to view on YouTube and I will devote 15 minutes to doing nothing else but listening to them describe why they like what they've chosen to show me. 

5. I will not talk on the phone when I'm driving or when they are in the car and I will absolutely never text in the car. 

These are a few of my ideas, and I'll write the next blog on what I learned from Minecrafting.  Do you have other ideas to share? 

Lynn Schofield Clark, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the University of Denver who studies the choices we face as digital and mobile media change our relationships and our societies.

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