If you’re raising a child today, chances are he or she will start to learn to use a mobile device within the first few years of their life. In fact, a recent survey from the Journal of Pediatrics found that three-fourths of children surveyed owned their own mobile device by age 4. The same survey also reported that 20% of 1-year-olds own a tablet computer and 28% of 2-year-olds can navigate a mobile device with no help.
With device use now almost a near certainty in childhood, experts say a digital contract — an agreement between parent and child on appropriate device use — is key to safe, healthy computing.
“Today’s kids are digital natives,” said Amy Lupold Blair, owner of Resourceful Mommy Media and author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies. “Unlike their parents, they’ve been exposed to technology since birth. Because of that, children tend to be on the cutting edge of new media and devices. Screen time often begins when they wake in the morning, continues throughout their school day, and picks up again when they return home. It’s easy for kids to be overexposed to screen time and at risk for inappropriate use of technology because of the amount of access they have, combined with an intuitive knowledge of how technology works. Creating a family digital contract provides clear, specific, age-appropriate boundaries so that kids can safely enjoy and utilize technology.”
Tom Ahern, a father of five who lives in Wellesley, said he and his wife knew early on they would be putting a contract or agreement in place for their kids’ device use.
Ahern said details of his contracts include amount of time on the computer, iPad or iPhones, allowable Websites and apps, allowable locations for using devices and, most importantly, password access for the parents.
“It was always a question of when we would allow access to devices and how stringent the rules would be,” Ahern said. “We also felt that it was important for our kids to earn additional privileges, such as access to social media accounts and Instagram. It also helped to sit down and have straight-up discussions with the kids about our concerns and the dangers that come from putting your life out online for all to see. That’s an ongoing conversation that does not stop after the permission is granted.”
Putting Together the Contract
What goes into a digital contract will vary from family to family, but Marti Weston, author of the MediaTechParenting digital parenting blog, believes a good one outlines clear expectations about limits for the young user and spells out potential problems.
“A contract clarifies that the parents own the device, not the child,” Weston said. “It specifies where charging will occur and sets any time limits, text limits, and where the device can be used. Spelling out a clear family app downloading policy is another important part. Going over the family values and describing how a person relates to other people via the device is another important part of the contract. Parents may also want to consider specifying when the family will have device-free times.”
And, of course, if rules are violated, there needs to be consequences clearly outlined in the contract, as well.
“Parents should not only list consequences for the breaking of specific policy rules, but they should also include guidelines for when a device is damaged, lost, or a child incurs overage charges,” Lupold Blair added.
Including consequences for agreement violations means there aren’t any surprises for his kids if the rules are broken, Ahern noted.
“By setting the foundation for what is OK and not OK, it also has allowed us to have very honest discussions when there are slip ups or, shall we say, ‘deviations’ from the rules,” he said. “We are fortunate in that our kids are pretty good at respecting the line — not perfect, but pretty good. Having that agreement started us down the road on the right path. It also has made the eventual discussions about penalties a lot easier. When there have been a breaking of rules, there’s really not much of a debate about why their iPhone is sitting in a drawer for the next week or two.”
But just as technology use changes frequently, so, too, must a digital contract evolve with your child. What is applicable to the technology habits of a 10-year-old might not be relevant to a 16-year-old. Parents must make a digital contract a living document that can be modified and updated as needed.
“Pointing out that a contract can be revisited and revised when life changes is reassuring to children, so they know that they can prove that they can live by the contract but also propose changes,” Weston said.
“Parents have to stay on top of what is becoming popular with kids, what is potentially damaging; Snapchat, Poof, Kik, YikYak, Omegle, to name a few,” Ahern said. “Have ongoing discussions about their use of phones, tablets, and computers. The toughest part is accepting that this is the medium by which most kids communicate today; whereas we would pick up the phone or wait to talk to our friends at school, today kids having running text chats all day and into the evening. So, accept that this is a part of how a 13-year-old communicates, but help them build a fence around the places we don’t want them to go.”
Lupold Blair believes having a contract in place with her children has helped them to clearly understand what is appropriate and what isn’t, thereby taking the guesswork out of navigating devices each day.
“The kids don’t feel like they need to ask constantly regarding use of devices such as iPads, the Wii, and the computer because it’s very clear to them what is and is not allowed,” she said. “We also felt safe providing our middle school daughter with her first smartphone because she clearly understood the rules before receiving the phone. Our hope is that we’re laying the groundwork for future responsible and safe use of technology as our children grow older and are given more digital freedom.”
4 Tips For Creating A Digital Contract next page
4 Tips For Creating A Digital Contract
1. Include limits, allowances, and clear rules
Amy Lupold Bair, owner of Resourceful Mommy Media and author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies, said a digital contract should include:
• Screen time limits by device
• A list of devices included in screen time limits
• Rules regarding screen time out side of the home
• Mobile phone use limits and guidelines, including approved contact lists for the youngest users
• App purchase and use guidelines
• Email use rules
• A list of approved/banned Websites
• Rules regarding social media use
• Guidelines for gaming, including participation in online multi-player games
• Specific guidelines for use of devices in private locations such as bedrooms
• Consequences for breaking any rules
2. Set clear consequences
“The part that addresses consequences should be a joint parent/child endeavor so that a child plays a part in decisions about what might happen,” said Marti Weston, author of the MediaTechParenting digital parenting blog. “And consequences should be more creative than just taking away a device when something goes wrong — kids live in fear of this. Giving some thought to this is better for everyone. Kids make mistakes, that’s how they learn. By working together parents, and children can address potential problems and then together figure out and agree to a set of possible consequences.”
3. Be consistent
“You have an agreement, and if the rules are broken, then you need to be consistent with all the kids the same way,” said Tom Ahern, a father of five from Wellesley who uses digital contracts with his kids.
4. Evolve and update as needed
Technology is always changing — and so should your parent/child digital contract.
“There are as many challenges as there are new social networking and texting apps that come out every week. Parents have to stay on top of what is becoming popular with kids, and what is potentially damaging — Snapchat, Poof, Kik, YikYak, Omegle, to name a few,” Ahern said.
“Pointing out that a contract can be revisited and revised when life changes is reassuring to children, so they know that they can prove that they can live by the contract but also propose changes,” Weston added.
— Joan Goodchild