My son knows he’s getting a used iPhone for his 12th birthday.
He’s also getting a contract from his parents with rules, conditions and consequences.
Yes, I know it sounds harsh; after all, we want him to be happy about his present, and we worry the contract tells him that he is under new, extra scrutiny.
But that’s part of smartphone parenting, a relatively new aspect of modern life.
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“You are putting a lot of power in your kids’ hands,” said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media. “You never know what ingenuous ways kids can use this device.”
Let’s address the obvious question – why would I do this? Suffice it to say, an 11-year-old can be adept at campaigning and lobbying, with the help of Apple’s marketing.
While not all my son’s friends have a smartphone, he won’t be an outlier either. In fact, teens are the fastest-growing population of smartphone users. A 2013 Nielsen survey found that 70 percent of teens ages 13-17 owned smartphones; there was no data for kids my son’s age.
And, besides, I tell myself, figuring out how to use, enjoy and manage our relationship to technology is part of life today.
Creating a contract, of course, is more about my own reservations and fears than any particular concern about my son.
Chief among my worries is that by giving him an iPhone, I’m taking away something fundamental that I enjoyed as a kid growing up in the pre-Internet era: What it’s like to be unconnected from others.
“Solitude does not come naturally anymore,” said Michael Harris, author of “The End of Absence,” who said the average U.S. teen manages 4,000 texts a month. “It’s beholden on us to engineer periods of absences for our children.”
Just a few years ago, parents mostly worried about what room the family computer lived in. But the shift to mobile technology has changed family dynamics.
“There’s no one ahead of us modeling how to parent kids with this portable technology,” said Janell Burley Hofmann, author of “iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up.”
Two years ago, Hofmann created a smartphone contract for her son, Greg, when he was 13.
“I didn’t want the technology to rob him of being a child,” she said. “I wanted to set up boundaries so that technology is a piece of his life, not his whole life.”
That concern led my husband and me to create one firm technical boundary – my son’s phone is part of the family plan, but we turned off his ability to have data on his phone. That means he can’t hang at the park with friends and watch YouTube videos endlessly. For Internet access, he has to find Wi-Fi hotspots, like our home.
Hofmann said her contract was tailored to her parenting values and her child’s age.
I modified her contract to fit my family. I didn’t include some ways that teens are using their phones in troublesome ways, like sexting. I hope we are a few years off from that conversation. Like the U.S. Constitution, this is a living document, subject to change.
Here it is:
1. We own the phone. We know the security password or unlock pattern. If you want to download an app, come talk to us.
2. Always respond to texts/calls from us. If a friend calls, answer it. Be polite.
3. The phone lives in the main room. It is turned off during the evenings. It qualifies as “screen time,” and its use follows our screen time rules, which is limited use on the weekends.
4. Don’t record audio or video people without their knowledge.
5. We can read your texts and check your photos and videos.
6. Know that sharing photos and videos, as well as anything written, can be saved and shared without your knowledge.
7. If the phone is lost, damaged or destroyed, you will have to go without or save up to repair or replace it.
8. Don’t give out any personally identifiable information, such as full name, date of birth, address, or phone number without our permission. Let us know if someone is asking for it.
9. Do not use the technology to deceive or lie to others. It’s not a prankster’s tool. Do not text or use apps to be a bully. Assume that all parents are checking.
10. Silence the phone at obvious times – the dinner table, school, movies, restaurants and especially while conversing with others.
And, of course, what we really want to say is remember to enjoy life, nature, people, books, music, as well as technology. We will make sure you do.