November 05, 2015 —

One of the challenges of parenting teens is keeping up with them. I wish I had magical parenting crystal ball, so I could gaze into the future see what problems will arise and map my course of action. Since I do not have a crystal ball, I often find myself scrambling to figure out how to best counsel and support my teen. One of the areas many parents are trying to get ahead of is teens and their use of technology. What are they doing all the time on those devices?

Many are simply talking and connecting with their classmates and friends. They are hanging out together after school in a group chat and sharing pictures with each other on social networks. However, with all this time spent online, teens can run into trouble. One sarcastic comment on a Facebook photo can ignite school drama. The Snapchat picture someone posted thinking it would quickly disappear can be saved and passed around. The pressure to be constantly available online to chat with friends can cause teens to push off homework into the wee hours.

Although there is no parenting crystal ball, a device contract can help families talk about managing technology before a problem arises. The goal of such a contract is not to create a legally binding agreement. The contract is a way to bring a family together and begin a conversation. This is an opportunity for everyone to share their ideas, their expectations as well as outline consequences of certain behaviors. It helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page and understands what is expected.

Building a Contract With Your Teen
To start, you’ll want to pick a time when your teen is more open to a discussion. A fantastic time is when your teen receives a new device or an upgraded device. Before your teen downloads Instagram or sends a Snap, you should sit together and talk about rules, expectations and consequences.

With older teens, try to avoid a long list of “do not” rules. These may work for younger kids, but not a tech-savvy teenager. Contracts shouldn’t just include what not to do online – they should also include what to do. A good example is, “do not share personal information online.” By now, teenagers know that personal information is required to open accounts. As they prepare for college and working, they may want to set up a public profile highlighting their accomplishments. Consequently, you may want to discuss a more nuanced rule about how to limit private information shared online.

Contracts are not one size fits all. Each one is unique and reflects a particular family’s values. Typically, these contracts include expectations around privacy, security, time and conduct. For ideas, I have a template for a contract on KidsPrivacy as well as other examples on Pinterest. To get started, here are a few suggestions:

  • Utilizing available privacy settings to limit personal information online
  • Asking friends and family for permission before posting pictures or videos
  • Keeping all software updated
  • Setting unique passwords and codes for all accounts as well as the device itself
  • Creating time away from the phone – no devices during dinner
  • Charging devices in a designated areas  - not in bedrooms

For conduct, it’s important to not only set rules but also create a space to have ongoing conversations. A great way to keep these conversations going is by sharing real world examples with your teen. A quick search online will yield lots of examples of the risks associated with digital activities such as:

  • Sending/receiving inappropriate pictures
  • Posting or liking mean or sarcastic comments
  • Pirating online content
  • Texting while driving
  • Hiding behind anonymity

Remember, these contracts do not need to include every possible thing your teen may encounter from now until they graduate. Families should continue to review these contracts and make updates to them as appropriate. A good idea is to sit down and update them every September as school starts back up.

To make sure teens are meeting the expectations set, it’s smart to have check ins. For older teens that have shown they are responsible online, you may feel comfortable simply following or friending them. For younger teens or teens that need extra support, you may want to conduct random spot checks of the phone or use parental control software.

Finally, you will need to discuss what will happen if your teen misuses his or her device(s). For a minor misstep, you may choose to increase your oversight for a period of time. For major transgressions, you may opt for digital grounding. Digital grounding is the teen version of a time out where your teen loses some or all of his or her digital privileges.

Digital grounding is a popular discipline tool for parents. Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of parents had disciplined their teens by taking away their phone. Digital grounding may sound easier than it is. Parents sometimes do not anticipate the challenges of their child not having a phone. This is something to consider in your contract. It might be a good idea to work out the parameters for digital grounding in advance as well as how your teen can earn back his or her digital privileges.

Building a contract is also a good time for some personal reflection. It is not just what we say as parents – what we do is also important. Children and teens learn by observing adults in their life. This is same with technology. We need to be strong role models. Remember to put away your device at dinner and never text while driving. In a nutshell: adopt the online habits you want to see in your teen.

Anne Livingston works with Familoop as their Digital Parenting Expert. She is also the founder of KidsPrivacy. Here, she writes about her own digital family and shares ideas for managing technology. Anne also speaks to PTAs and parents about online privacy and offers parenting tutorials about social media. Her book, Talking Digital: A Parent’s Guide for Teaching Kids How to Share Smart and Stay Safe Online, is available on Amazon.