In general, families run better with good rules, so it’s not surprising that parents want to make rules about how kids use technology. Lots of organizations offer well-intended versions of online do’s and don’ts, and many parents have written about their efforts to create guidelines governing what kids can and can’t do with computers, video games and cellphones. (Perhaps the most celebrated attempt was a list of iPhone rules, written by Janel Hoffman, that went viral.)
Although rules have their place, they don’t last long online. A rule that seemed perfectly reasonable yesterday may be outdated (and easy to ignore) tomorrow. In such a rapidly evolving environment, many parents are turning to something more flexible—contracts that they write—and rewrite—with their children. One particularly engaging example of this kind of contract was written by Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark, author of The Parenting App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age.
Clark says her goal was to “put learning first,” by encouraging her kids to think for themselves about what kinds of online experiences were good for their family. She was also open to the possibility that her kids would want to make rules about her use of technology. Although her approach might not work in every family, it does lay the groundwork for open conversations, making it more likely that children will turn to parents if they encounter online situations that are confusing or risky.
The kind of Technology Contract likely to work in your household will, of course, depend upon the ages and inclinations of your kids. Regardless of age, here are some questions that need to be considered:
What interactive devices are being used in our family?
You’ll want different rules for cellphones, tablets, computers and gaming systems. If family members share equipment, you may need to establish priorities—for example, homework takes precedence over games and social media. Your contract can also specify how you will share interactive experiences. Will you play games together? Share videos? Create a shared album of favorite digital photos?
What kind of supervision makes sense?
The right kind of supervision makes kids feel safer and reinforces a sense of conscience. Will you check phone bill for calls to numbers you don’t recognize? Will you use monitoring software that alerts you if your child strays onto an adult website or sends too much personal information? Be open about what you plan to do and why.
How much time should we spend online?
Think about when it’s OK or even necessary to be connected. When is it important to be offline? As individuals? As a family? Some parents set up a docking station for cellphones in the kitchen or family room. At agreed upon times, all devices go to sleep.
What information are we willing to share online?
What one person posts on a social media site often has implications for other family members, so it’s important to discuss what can be shared online. Is it ever appropriate to post an address or phone number? How much are you willing to divulge about where you live, what you are doing and family activities including vacations? When is it OK for parents to post pictures of kids and vice versa?
How will we keep our family Internet system secure?
You have rules about locking the door when you leave the house. Establish similar policies about online security. Is it ever OK to share passwords with anyone except parents? What are house rules about downloads including games, music and videos? Kids need to know that these often carry malware, which can compromise family security.
Who is allowed to purchase things online?
Think about physical items—clothing, posters—as well as virtual goods—games, music, books. Younger children should get permission for any purchase. For teens, an online allowance may be appropriate. Like any allowance, agree in advance on terms—is the money contingent on behavior, chores, grades?
What kinds of online activity should kids report to parents?
Being online involves trust because parents can’t supervise the way they can in other settings. Establish the expectation that your children will come to you immediately if they encounter bullying, sexting or any kind of invitation from online strangers.
What are the penalties for breaking the contract?
Losing access to a device is an obvious consequence (for adults as well as kids). Your contract might also include the possibility of additional monitoring for family members who don’t follow the rules.
When will we renegotiate the contract?
As kids demonstrate online responsibility, they should be able to earn new technology privileges.
To be honest, in many families, your kids (or your spouse) will roll their eyes if you suggest drawing up an actual contract. Remember that the point of this exercise isn’t necessarily to get something in writing. Instead, you want to have ongoing conversations that help you understand how your children are using technology. Only then can you make rules that will help your kids become as safe and responsible online as they are in the real world.
If you aren’t inclined to write your own Technology Contract, you may find a template that works for your family on these websites. More likely, one of these documents will prompt the conversations you need to customize your own contract.
American Academy of Pediatrics: Guidelines that incorporate AAP policy
Safekids.com: Pledges for teens, younger children and parents
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs.
Published: August 2013