Janell Burley Hofmann was trying to set some ground rules when she drew up a contract before giving her son a smartphone for Christmas.
She was candid and caring, yet clear, writing, “You are a good and responsible 13-year-old boy and you deserve this gift. But with the acceptance of this present come rules and obligations.”
No. 1: “It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren’t I the greatest?”
That’s followed closely by, “If it rings, answer it. It is a phone. Say hello, use your manners. Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ Not ever.”
The contract hit Huffington Post (where Burley Hofmann writes about parenting and technology), and the Internet ate it up.
“It just ignited this global conversation, which I think everybody was eager to have,” she said.
Now, Burley Hofmann, a parent coach from Massachusetts, has expanded on that original contract in her recently released book, “iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up.”
As parents continue to clamor for answers, she offered this advice when we spoke by phone last week. Some excerpts from our conversation:
Q: What’s the biggest concern you hear from parents?
A: What I hear from parents most of the time is the attachment to devices. Kids and teens, in particular, are spending a lot of time with the devices within reach and it’s constant. At the root of this, it’s a wellness and health conversation that a lot of families want to have.
Q: How do parents get their kids to put the devices down?
A: [Parents] need to model that. I’m hearing from a lot of teenagers that they’re looking to their parents to say, “Devices away at dinner time.” Their parents are having trouble doing that. Because of the convenience of technology, we can be at work and at home at the same time. When we start to set boundaries that tech can’t invade every corner of our lives, it becomes something that our kids are more comfortable with. They see it can be done.
Q: What about scary topics like sexting and cyberbullying?
A: There’s a certain level of risk-taking, and in adolescence, the risk is the reward. We can have a certain level of tolerance for our children trying to figure out what that means online. But [we should] also still keep the dialogue alive at home about what our expectations are and our values are. Just like the preventative conversations about drinking and coming home for curfew, I think there are a lot of very traditional parent talks we can have with kids around technology.
Q: Your son got his smartphone at 13. Is there a magic age for kids to get that first device?
A: I don’t have a recipe. I am an advocate of delaying. So many parents I talk to say, “I got it too quickly” or “I got it because it was the only thing he was asking for.” We want our children to have success with the technology. I didn’t want to be taking it away from my son. I didn’t want to be constantly nagging him. I definitely tell families, be ready to parent it. If that means you need to delay it, that’s perfectly acceptable.
(As for her son, Gregory, he’s now 14 and still has his smartphone. iRules success.)