Building strong “digital citizens” does not begin with a smartphone contract.
You (nervously) just gave your teen his first smartphone. Now you are on a strategic mission to build a responsible “digital citizen,” although you’re not exactly sure what that means. You have done your homework and have decided to meet on neutral ground with a well-thought-out plan to ensure a safe, positive phone experience: a smartphone contract.
Like an ancient rite of passage, the signing of this important document by you and your teen will prove their maturity and your responsibility as a good “digital parent.” The contract seems to be the perfect solution to increase the understanding and seriousness of smartphone ownership, plus it will build good habits, character, and responsibility. Your nerves are starting to calm down, this is a brilliant idea!
Not so fast…
After trying this incredibly popular tool, many parents have discovered that the family smartphone contract is just not worth the paper it is printed on, nor is it worth the high hopes and emotional energy invested in it. Building good “digital citizens” does not begin with a smartphone contract. So, before you print off that contract and call your teen out of bed, off the video game, or away from Snapchat to sign it, you may want to read on.
Red flags everywhere!
Before we dive in, let’s state the obvious: the fact that we are allowing our children to use a tech tool that is questionable enough to require them to sign a written contract should raise a huge “parent” red flag! What are we thinking? Configured with built-in distractions, temptations, and traps to gather personal data, smartphones are not intended for kids. In addition, smartphone contracts establish a dangerous mindset, giving parents a false sense of security and giving teens a false sense of “power.”
1. You are dealing with a teen brain.
Contracts are not for kids. The frontal cortex (executive control judgment center in the human brain) is not fully developed till approximately age 25. Scientifically and practically, teens may be really smart, but intelligence has nothing to do with maturity. Their lack of maturity shows as they plead with you and chip away at your leadership through utilizing the following “wear down” skills:
- Overreacting: “Are you kidding? No phones during homework? I am going to die!”
- Exaggerating: “I am the only kid in the world with a 15-page (really four-page) contract!”
- Comparison: “Matt’s mom would never give him a contract because she trusts him.”
- Guilt: “I guess you just don’t want me to have any friends!”
Some will even spend hours writing “legal briefs” to negotiate their position. You will be impressed, but don’t give in to that underdeveloped frontal cortex! Simply smile, and encourage them to pursue a law career instead. Your brain is mature, theirs is not.
2. You can’t trust them–and that is okay.
Most tweens will be eager to blindly sign the smartphone contract so they can get their hands on the prize, but they will not follow it. Older teens not only think they are smarter than their parents but, while the ink is still wet on the signatures, they will be calculating the loopholes. Remember, it is their job right now to test the boundaries, bend the rules, take risks, seek novelty, seek low-effort-high-reward activities, and have fun at all costs! Would you really trust them with the keys to your shiny new sports car because they signed a contract not to go over the speed limit? Your car insurance company doesn’t, and neither should you!
3. We don’t make deals with our kids.
A contract is like “making a deal” to a teen: “You (the teen) do this (behave well on social media) and we (the parents) will do this (keep paying for your phone). Deals seemed to work when they were little (“Eat your green beans and you can have your dessert”), but that stage has passed. You are the parent, you do not make deals with your tweens and teens now, you lead them instead with reason and logic. Don’t believe that deals are working for other parents either, according to the emails filling my inbox, parents who are making “phone deals” are waving a white flag over failed contracts. As one mom put it, “The contract experiment was a failure at our house. Our daughter is being seen by a psychologist for social media anxiety now. The only thing that works is me being more involved, receiving her texts on my phone, checking her apps and content every night, and physically taking her phone when we gets home from school. She has proven that she can’t manage it on her own.”
4. Teens are not your equal; you are the parent.
A contract implies that both parties have an equal say and there will be compromise on both sides. Your teen will mistakenly think that they are your equal if you give her a contract and then begin the negotiation process; they may even think that because they know more than you about how to operate the phone, they can renegotiate the contract at any time.
5. A phone contract may damage your relationship with your teen.
Choosing phone rules written by loving parents who care enough to set limits and healthy boundaries will be a much better choice than a contract. Your teens’ greatest need is to be unconditionally loved by their family, and the very nature of contracts may make them feel like they are an outsider (you against them). Family conflict increases when rules are not clear and concise and when contracts are broken.
6. Remember how well those chore charts worked?
If you are still convinced that your smartphone contract will work, let’s talk about that chore chart from years ago. How did that work out? If you are like many families, that well-crafted chore chart is under a magnet on the fridge behind the pizza take-out menu–at least that is where ours is. It got used for almost a week and then it lost all of its power. This will happen to your cell phone contract, too. You can’t expect your children to follow a phone contract when they can’t consistently follow simple directions to floss their teeth, unload the dishwasher or empty the litter box without your constant prompting.
7. Smartphone contracts are impossible to enforce.
In a recent survey of teen drivers (1), more than 80 percent admitted to using their smartphones while driving, I’m pretty sure that clause to not text and drive is in every teen smartphone contract. Most weary, exhausted parents, unable to track all cell phone activity, have no idea what their kids are even doing on their phone or social media for eight hours a day. How can parents enforce the contract? A lot can go wrong. And quickly.
Eric Goldfield, a Charlotte, NC Counselor says: “I never recommend contracts for screen management. There is a level of parental naivety if they think contracts will keep their kids on track; they are hoping for accountability but are getting avoidance of consequence instead. Kids know that they don’t have to follow the contract because there is no way to enforce it. There is no investment on their end because they know that their parents can’t keep track of their phone activity. The parent is giving all the power back to the child with a contract.”
Sure! Your teens don’t need a contract to be good “digital citizens”. Instead, try the following:
- Start with a basic phone to see how they do with text and time limits. Many mental health professionals are suggesting that basic cell phones are a great choice for teens. Dr. Michael Rubin, a San Francisco Bay area psychotherapist who has worked with teens for more than 19 years, recommends that teens have a basic cell phone, not a smartphone.
- Develop manners, etiquette, and responsibility in real life first, before phone ownership.
- Care enough to put the brakes on for them and delay the use of social media, they will have the rest of their life (with a more fully developed frontal cortex) to use social media well.
- Spend more non-screen time with them in person explaining life from your perspective with your family values. 24/7 access to smartphones will further compromise your already limited time with your kids while they are under your roof.
- Give them a chance to grow up and fine-tune real-life social skills, that will prepare them better for the world ahead. Those critical life skills don’t include four pages of instructions on how to stay safe, but they do include a lot of hard work, grit, and determination.
- Establish clear, enforceable rules (with clear consequences) once they do get a phone. Simply write down the rules, and smile when you hand them to your teen. Explain that this is a new day, let them respectfully give their opinion, thank them for sharing bits of their budding wisdom but don’t argue with them; just keep smiling. After you are done (less than 30 minutes because there will be no arguing), don’t sign anything; instead do something fun with the family (outing, bike ride, hike, or dinner–with no phones of course!). The goal is to set healthy boundaries and priorities and not let the “phone rule” discussion take all the power and ruin your day or your relationship. The other goal is to give them a glimpse into what real life is like: there are lots of rules out there to follow when they grow up and accountability, transparency, and balance are good things. They say they don’t like the rules? Then they are not quite ready for a smartphone; a basic phone is perfect for most teens.
The idea that a “magical” smartphone contract will protect your kids and keep them responsible is a myth. These powerful devices are designed to capture our kids’ attention, their time, their innocence, and, unfortunately, their childhoods. Parents, keep in mind that you are in charge! You have permission to rethink this phone decision and the responsibilities and stress that it brings. Stop worrying over raising good “digital citizens” and focus on raising good kids first; you won’t need a contract for that.
For more tips on how to manage cell phones, including setting rules instead of signing contracts, visit us at https://screenstrong.org//cell-phones/. Check out the ScreenStrong approved, Gabb phone. If you’re looking for encouragement and support from other parents who are concerned about screen use, join the ScreenStrong Families Facebook Group.