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Want Them Off Their Phones? Get It In Writing

Draft up a family tech contract before summer break begins

Published on: May 21, 2018

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Kids on screens

Have you heard the one about the kid whose parents think that they’re tracking her via her smartphone? She leaves the phone where she’s supposed to be and instead carries her laptop to field communication with her mom and dad while she’s off on non-approved adventures. 

There are plenty of stories like this that prove our kids are digital natives who can outsmart us in tech. That’s why the time is now to create a family technology agreement, says Sarina Behar Natkin, a family therapist and parenting coach in Seattle. 

“Over the course of childhood, we’re slowly moving from parent-based to kid-based decisions with our support,” Natkin says. “Eventually, our kids have ownership of how they solve problems. Think of technology in the same way.”

Kids need baby steps to learn, says Natkin. “We don’t stay out of vehicles until we turn 16 and then get in and drive away. Nor do we want our children completely off the internet until one day they have all the freedom in the world,” she says.

No matter where you’re at in this journey, the first step to creating a family technology agreement is to check out family media contracts online. Natkin suggests examples found on Safekids.com, healthychildren.org and Verywell Family (this last one is best for teenagers, she notes).

What to look for:

  • How much time your kid can be on each device on a daily or weekly basis including where said device can be used and what your child can use it for (e.g. active play with Xbox, passive watching of a TV Show, homework or chatting with friends).
  • Who owns devices. Natkin and her husband own their daughter’s iPhone, which frames how as parents they control it and their daughter “gets to” use it.
  • What happens if said device is lost, broken and/or stolen. In Natkin’s family, parents split the cost one time for a replacement of a broken, stolen or lost phone or computer.
  • How mistakes will be handled. Natkin suggests: “My family agrees to make some mistakes and help me learn from them, no freak-outs allowed.”

Depending on your child's age, have them read and mark up the contracts, too. What rules aren’t to their liking? What would they add? 

As you decide on the right contract, it’s good to remember that this is for the whole family. Parents are the model for how to use media daily (darn it!) and there are rules for parents in family tech agreements, too. 

Once you and your child have both reviewed the draft, set a time to discuss it more thoroughly. If that feels too formal, slide contract negotiations into an informal family meal (and joke that a notary will be by to make the contracts legal and binding). No matter what, make sure to get your kids’ buy-in, which adds to the likelihood of them sticking to the agreement. They are contract creators and co-signors, just like you.

Remember that this contract is a living document, says Natkin. Her family reviews theirs every six months and her kids have a say in how their responsibility and freedom increase over time.

That trust comes from a deep sense that “we are a family and we love each other no matter what,” says Natkin. “This comes from spending quality time together, sharing the fun and hard parts of life. It also comes from our kids seeing us own our mistakes and us loving them and being there for them even when they screw up.”

Also, “make room for real life,” says Natkin. Think of the contract as a recipe rather than a hard-and-fast policy. “A recipe says we value conversation at dinner time and know having phones at the table is distracting. We also know situations will arise where one answer an urgent call or text. When that happens, we’ll mindfully inform the family and limit the disruption as much as possible,” she says. 

Then, be a leader. As hard as it may be to avoid the pull of Instagram over the call of dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned after that family meal, leading by example will show that you're serious about the agreement.

Still doubtful that your kid will follow any kind of tech-related agreement? “Trust that they can,” Natkin says. “Don’t wait for them to screw up and then pounce immediately. That makes people less cooperative next time and it breaks trust in the safety of your relationship.”  

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