With so many kids receiving new devices over the holidays, you may have noticed that you now see more of your young techie online than you do in person. After all, so much of how tweens and teens interact these days is done in a digital environment: texting, social media, or video chats are much preferred to talking IRL (tween speak for In Real Life).
But just because your kid is a digital native doesn’t mean that she or he possesses the knowledge or maturity to navigate this online environment in a way that is healthy. Parents need to set expectations and guidelines for acceptable online behavior. A contract can be the best way to establish those boundaries.
Why Technology Contracts?
You may refer to it as a tech contract, a media contract, an electronics contract – feel free to call it whatever you like. What matters most is that the contract serves as a tool that both informs and educates your child, while also providing the freedom that comes with knowing upfront what is and isn’t permissible.
Why contracts? They serve as a collaborative approach to help your child have autonomy over self-regulation, a technique that is more effective than the traditional “do as I say” method. This article sums up the benefits of contracts by pointing out how culture has shifted for this generation: “Today’s children tend to roam the world as independent contractors…they are growing up in a culture of democracy and equality and they feel that.”
If you’re ready to create a contract for you and your child, the internet is chock full of examples and templates to use. The most effective ones, however, focus on a few key elements that will help your kid (and you!) stick to the agreed-upon guidelines.
Incorporate Social Skills
This contract is a great way to underscore the importance of maintaining or even deepening real social skills. In other words, use this contract upfront to balance how much communication is happening online vs. offline.
For example, the contract we use with our tween clearly outlines that she put down her device and be immediately responsive when being addressed and that she interacts verbally with her friends when they are together.
You may also consider including a clause that requires one hour of social activity for every hour that your child is online, or the joining of a club, group, or sport that aligns with their interest.
Lastly, make sure your child knows what you consider unacceptable social behavior in the online world, too. We give our daughter a version of the golden rule: don’t text, email or say anything through your devices that you wouldn’t say to their face, or in front of us. Be polite. NO bullying.
Make Safety a Rule
While kids can know what they should do to be safe online, remember that they lack impulse control in those still-forming brains. For them, the leap between knowing the path and walking the path may prove to be one they are not yet capable of making.
Build safety into the contract by making it clear that all downloads and purchases must be approved by you. Encourage them to build their case for these items by researching them first on sites like Common Sense Media or Smart Social.
Talk about the ramifications of sharing personal information and photos, whether their own or that of others. Review this article from Parent.com or this one from McAfee for talking points, and strategies teens can use to step away from the selfie culture.
Define the When & Where of Technology
Should devices be off-limits during meals? Accessible up to a certain time in the evening? In common areas only, or also in their rooms? And what happens when the rules are different at their friend’s house?
Every judgment call is different based on your child and your family. But there should be clear expectations for when and where built into your contract.
For us, we feel it’s appropriate to limit screen time during the week, but extend it on the weekends. And no screens during homework time (unless it’s to aid in homework completion).
Allow the Contract to Grow
As your child grows, so might their trustworthiness with their devices or their need to access more apps or features. For that reason, it’s important to review the contract regularly. This will give your child the structure of knowing that as they behave responsibly, more responsibility will be granted.
Be Accountable and Role Model Good Behavior
As part of your contract, your responsibilities to your child should also be outlined. For us, that means putting it in writing that our child can share anything that she deems alarming or unsafe and we’ll support her. It also outlines the penalty system if she breaks the contract.
You may also document any ground rules you want to set for yourself about tech usage, like putting your screens away during drop-off and pick-up or meal times. Modeling the expectations you have for your child can go a long way in strengthening your contract.
As I mentioned, there are plenty of contract templates available online that you can modify to suit your needs. If you need help learning more about this timely topic, start here for a good round-up from various sites.