The internet is both fun and educational but left unchecked, children are capable of disappearing down a rabbit hole, watching presents being un-boxed on YouTube while they are sitting on the toilet. You might think I say that in jest, but without boundaries placed upon the use of internet enabled devices in the home, this is exactly what can happen.
Enter the Family Technology Contract. You may have heard them called Internet Contracts, Family Media Agreements, Cell Phone Contracts or iPad contracts but essentially, they all outline ground rules on how devices are allowed to be used by family members.
Family Technology Contracts help children to create a healthy, balanced relationship with technology. Similar to a lifestyle with a healthy, balanced eating plan – consuming sugar all day is not good for anyone.
Simply defined, a Family Technology Contract is a way to establish when, what, how and where technology is used in the family home. “Technology” captures all screens – laptops, desktops, iPads, smart tablets, iphones, smart phones and gaming consoles. I would recommend including the TV as well.
My number one tip when it comes to creating a Family Technology Contract is to make sure that the kids are involved.
Of course, you (and your spouse/partner) should have already had a discussion about how you would like the contract to look and then guide the children in that direction. In any event, be sure not to disregard the suggestions your child makes. Quite often they have a valid point and with a little bit of tweaking, you might be able to come up with a ground rule that suits everybody. When it comes down to it though, Mum and Dad have the final say.
Although most families will have similar headings on their Family Technology Contract, it is likely that their rules will differ. This is because no two families are exactly alike. There could be a different combination of devices in homes, different parenting styles, moral values, number of children and hobbies or sporting commitments.
The Family Technology Contract will be individual to each family.
Family situations and commitments can change regularly, children get older and new devices introduced to the home. If the current Family Technology Contract is no longer working, then it is time to sit down as a family and review it together.
The very best place for devices to be used in the home is in common areas like the lounge room where there are quite often other people present or frequently walking by. This means that screen are difficult to hide and others can hear what is being watched.
The places in your home are called ‘Tech Free Zones’ and it is important to spell these zones out so that everyone on the same page. At a minimum, the following areas in your home should be Tech Free Zones:
It is very important to make it clear where devices should be kept overnight. Agree on a time that the device should be placed on charge until the next morning. This should not be a location in your child’s room. Many will argue that they need to use the phone’s alarm to wake up. If you cannot wake your child in the mornings, then purchase a simple, cheap alarm clock that will do the trick.
I highly recommend creating a central charging station in your home. You do not need to spend money, nor does it need to look fancy. You simply require a designated space in your home (part of the kitchen bench, or a table in a hallway for example) where all devices are placed on charge at an agreed time of night (I suggest at least 1 hour prior to bedtime). Device Charging cables do not leave this space. No more playing ‘find the charger’ or even better ‘who took my charger?!’
This is one area in particular where families will have different rules. Some families may allocate a time per day (1 hour for example) when the child may use their device. Other families, will prefer to use a system where the child is required to complete a number of activities (homework & chores) before using their device.
Usually, our week day screen time routines are different from our weekends and school holidays. You may wish to have rules that apply no matter the day or holiday or you might decide that your child can have more access on a particular day over the weekend.
I like to state times in our home that are what I call ‘Total Tech Blackouts.’ This means that, no questions asked, technology will not be used during these times. They include meals (anytime at the dinner table), when we have visitors (family or otherwise), during play dates or sleepovers or when we are in the car. Why the car? It is the perfect place to have those more difficult conversations. Everyone is in one spot and no-one needs to make eye contact!
It is really important that we be clear with our children about how they are allowed to use their devices. They need to know that they are only allowed to use apps and websites that are age appropriate. That just because their older sibling has Instagram doesn’t mean that they should. If you have used the restrictions available on Apple products, then your child needs to come to you with a password.
You might like to distinguish with your child, exactly how they may use their device within given time restraints. There are two loose consumption categories: Educational and Passive.
As the heading suggests, educational consumption is using the device for learning purposes. This includes educational apps they may use at school. You may bookmark specific educational websites for them to use or apps that you have downloaded. Reading a book on the device would also fall into this category as would creating digital artwork.
Passive consumption means that they using the device for activities that require little interaction such as watching movies, YouTube or mindlessly scrolling through social media.
It is a great idea to include some rules around Privacy and Sharing on the Family Technology contract. Spell out that we don’t post photos in school uniforms, share our address or tell strangers when no-one will be home. I find it helpful to use the stranger danger rules they already know and use in the local playground and transfer them to what I call the ‘digital playground.’
Even if you have filtering software configured at home, it is no longer a matter of if your child will see inappropriate material, it is when. Before school, on the school bus or at a sleepover, children have access to other screens and will potentially come across something that makes them feel uncomfortable. The best thing we can do is give them a strategy plan for when this happens. Tell them to take the screen (without showing other children) straight to a trusted adult where they can talk about what they have seen. Include this strategy plan on your Family Technology Contract.
A set of boundaries or rules are useless if there are no consequences for not following them. I personally believe in natural consequences. For example, if the device was used before the agreed chores had been completed, I would have the child return the device, complete the chore and then miss out on using the device afterward. I would probably add an extra chore tomorrow that needs to be completed before device use.
I feel the natural consequences method works well with children up until the age of approximately 13. There are many studies that indicate that once a teen is using their device to communicate socially, that it can actually be a detriment to just take the device away as a punishment. I can see situations where taking the device away for a period of time would be warranted and effective but if you are creating your Family Technology Contract with a teen then I would suggest some real discussion go into creating consequences.
Once everything has been decided and agreed to, it’s time for everyone to sign the contract. This avoids the ‘I don’t remember us talking about that’ situation!