“The contract experiment was a failure at our house… She has proven that she can’t manage it on her own; the contract made it worse.”
—Mom of a teen girl
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. Having done your homework, you’ve decided to meet on neutral ground with a well-thought-out plan to ensure a safe, positive phone experience: a smartphone contract.
Like a rite of passage, the signing of this important document by you and your teen will demonstrate their maturity and your responsibility as a good digital parent. The contract seems to be the perfect solution to increase his understanding of the seriousness of smartphone ownership, plus it will build good habits, character and responsibility. You’re 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 not worth the paper it is printed on, nor the high hopes and emotional energy invested in it. In fact, it can do more harm than you realize. 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 first state the obvious: Allowing our children to use a tech tool that is fraught with enough danger to require them to sign a written contract should raise a huge red flag for parents. What are we thinking? The current smartphone culture is making our teens more stressed and anxious than they have ever been1 and a contract will not help ease the stress.
Configured with built-in distractions, temptations, and traps to gather personal data, smartphones were not designed with a teen’s well-being in mind. (Even two major investors in Apple say that the technology giant should do more to curb growing cellphone addiction.) In addition, smartphone contracts establish a dangerous mindset, giving parents a false sense of security and giving teens a false sense of power.
What do smartphone contracts promise? And what do they actually deliver? They promise that because you have a signed agreement, your kids will use their smartphones in a balanced way and will know how to keep themselves safe online. But in my experience contracts aren’t delivering any of this safety and balance. Let’s talk about why.
7 Reasons Smartphone Contracts May Not Be the Best Plan for Your Family
You are dealing with a teen brain.
Contracts are not intended for kids. That’s one reason why no businesses—including the smartphone companies—let kids sign them. Your teen has a remarkable capacity for achieving great accomplishments, but managing a phone is not one of them. Unfortunately, the executive function judgment area of the brain is the last to mature, and that’s what smartphone management requires.
“In fact, the teen brain is only about 80 percent of the way to maturity,” writes neurologist Dr. Frances Jensen in her book The Teenage Brain. “That 20 percent gap, where the wiring is thinnest, is crucial and goes a long way toward explaining why teenagers behave in such puzzling ways—their mood swings, irritability, impulsiveness, and explosiveness, their inability to focus, to follow through, and to connect with adults; and their temptations to engage in risky behavior…. They are not firing on all cylinders.”2 Your adult brain is mature; the teen brain is not.
You may be impressed with the hours they spent writing that elegant “legal brief” to convince you why they are mature enough for a smartphone, but don’t be fooled. IQ has nothing to do with the essentials needed for smartphone use: maturity, impulse control, and the ability to withstand temptations and manage risks, to name a few.
Additional signs of immaturity show up, especially when you are introducing phone limits:
- 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: “None of my friends have contracts because their parents trust them.”
- Guilt: “I guess you just don’t want me to have any friends, because you didn’t have any friends when you were a teenager.”
You can’t trust your teen—and that is normal, prudent, and perfectly 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 understand it. Older teens not only think they are smarter than their parents, but also, while the ink is still wet on the signatures, they will be calculating the loopholes.
The scientific reasons for pushing the boundaries include the constant craving for dopamine rewards and their inability to exert cognitive control over exciting risk. Testing the limits, as it turns out, is actually a brain issue, not a heart issue. Neurologist Jensen reminds us that this “age of exhilaration” also comes with “impulsivity, risk-taking, mood swings, lack of insight, and poor judgment.”3 These long-recognized characteristics of adolescence are now coupled with “the breathtaking range of dangers” teens are exposed to today through social media and the internet, she adds.
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 trust them to sign and keep a contract, and neither should you. Hiding their actions and lying are also common behaviors during this stage as ultimately, believe it or not, they don’t want to hurt their parents with disappointment. Do not expect a tween or a teen to act like an adult.
We don’t make deals with our teens.
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 younger (“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. Instead, lead them with confidence, love, and reason. 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. We took the data off her phone (no more social media) and she checks texts only a few times a day now when I allow her to do so. She has proven that she can’t manage it on her own; the contract made it worse.”
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 she is your equal if you give her a contract and then begin the negotiation process. Teens may even think that because they may know more than you about how to operate the phone, they have power over the device. They have an inflated opinion of their “knowledge” in most every area of life; again, this is a natural characteristic of adolescence.
Like a good coach you must keep the lines of authority clear. In our culture of disrespect, the new normal of a “a phone in the lap of every teen” has not helped our teens practice respect for their elders, their parents, or authority. The phone contract transfers power from the parent to the teen, further eroding this line of leadership. Rules and limits are needed, not a contract.
On a practical level, smartphone contracts work about as well as those chore charts did.
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 was used for almost a week and then lost all of its power. This will happen to your cellphone 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. Consistency around life skills works well as an indicator for smartphone readiness.
Smartphone contracts are impossible to enforce.
In a recent survey of teen drivers,4 more than 80 percent admitted to using their smartphones while driving. Yet I’m pretty sure that clause “to not text and drive” is in every teen smartphone contract. When you read the statistics about teen car wrecks related to distracted driving or hear about the daily drama of cyberbullying, do you think that none of the teens involved had signed smartphone contracts? Is your child the one tween or teen who can withstand all the temptations and keep the contract? The lure of smartphone interactions and distractions is too great for most teens to control.
Most weary, exhausted parents, unable to track all cellphone activity, have no idea what their kids are even doing on their phone or social media for nine hours a day. How can parents enforce the contract? In short, they can’t. 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.”
Yes, I know hundreds of recently developed apps now enable parents to monitor a child’s mobile use—such apps can report how many times she checks her phone or if he looks at his phone when he’s behind the wheel; they can send you all texts she receives (or just those with a list of offensive words) and every site he surfs. But the management of these monitoring apps or software programs consume hours of a parents’ day, not counting the time you spend dealing with your child for infractions. It’s like taking on another exhausting job. Spending more time with our teens face to face or doing a family-oriented activity is a much better choice in the limited time we have with them outside of school hours.
A phone contract may damage your relationship with your teen.
Family conflict increases when phone contracts are broken. I have heard too many heartbreaking stories of how the failed phone contract has caused alienation, lying, mistrust, and deep-rooted pain between teen and parent. For some, the damage seems irreparable.
Your teens’ greatest need is to be unconditionally loved by and accepted by their family; the very nature of a phone contract may make them feel like they are an adversary (you vs. them) or that you are not on the same team. This can weaken family attachment and encourage an over-reliance on peer attachment. Because peer relationships are fragile by nature, an unhealthy level of peer attachment leads to poor outcomes, according to Leonard Sax, MD.
“That’s one reason why there has been an explosion in the prevalence of anxiety and depression among American teenagers, as they frantically try to secure their attachment to other teens, as they try to gain unconditional love and acceptance from sources that are unable to provide it,” Sax explains. 5 Parents and loving adults remain the best source of unconditional love for children and teens.
Choosing phone rules offered by loving parents who care enough to set limits and healthy boundaries will be much better than negotiating a contract. Jensen urges parents to be in charge of their teen’s virtual worlds (internet and texting): “Perhaps most important of all, set limits—with everything. This is what their over-exuberant brains can’t do for themselves.”6
Is there a better option?
Sure! Your teens don’t need a contract to be good digital citizens. Instead try the following ideas:
- Delay smartphone use for teens. I know it sounds hard to do, but delaying the smartphone is much easier than a contract or removing it later. One general rule is to allow the phone when the teen actually has a real reason to use it that doesn’t include just keeping up with friends they see every day in school. Socializing in person is much better for their brain development and doesn’t run the risk of addiction. When the phone is used as a tool to assist a mature need (like a job, for example), your teen will be more balanced with its use. Never get a phone just because “everyone else has one.” See Can Your Teen Survive and Thrive Without A Smartphone.
- Start with a basic phone to see how they do with text and time limits. We at Families Managing Media, along with many mental health professionals, suggest that basic non-data cellphones are a great choice for teens if you feel that they need to communicate with you during the day. Dr. Michael Rubino, a San Francisco Bay area psychotherapist who has worked with teens for more than 19 years, recommends that teens have a basic cellphone (without a camera), not a smartphone.7 “There is no reason that a teenager really needs a smartphone. They are not taking care of a family, nor are they running a business. Therefore, a basic cellphone should be adequate for their needs,” Rubino writes.
- Develop manners, etiquette, and responsibility in real life first, before allowing phone ownership. In fact you can determine your teen’s phone readiness by how they act in real life. But be sure to subtract a few years because their phone behavior is usually more immature than their real-life behavior.
- Don’t mix the phone decision with the social media decision; they are two separate decisions. Care enough to put the brakes on their social media because, through no fault of their own, they are not able to. More than half of American teens are stressed over their attachment to their smartphones.8 They need your help.
- Spend more non-screen time with them in person explaining life from your perspective with your family values. Allowing 24/7 access to smartphones will further compromise your already limited time with your kids while they are under your roof.
- Focus on building real social skills. Give them a chance to fine tune real-life social skills that will better prepare them for the world ahead. Instead of spending time using apps to monitor their smartphones and social media, spend more time planning frequent social gatherings at your home to include in-person (non-tech) time with their friends. Don’t wait for them to take the lead on this. It will be awkward at first, but the best gift you can give your teen is the opportunity to develop a depth of valuable in-person people skills.
- Establish enforceable rules (with clear-cut consequences) once they do get a phone. Simply write down the rules (View Sample Here), and smile when you hand them to your teen. Explain that this is a new day. Let them respectfully give their opinions and thank them for sharing bits of their budding wisdom. Don’t argue with them, just be happy and confident. After you are done (a less than 30-minute process 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 and model healthy boundaries and priorities and not let the “phone rule” discussion take all the power and ruin your day or your relationship. This approach will help keep the phone in its proper place in your family, at the bottom of the totem pole. The other goal is to give them a glimpse into what real life is like: When they grow up, they’ll still have to follow rules and have to demonstrate accountability, transparency, and balance, as well. They say they don’t like the rules? Then they are not quite ready for a phone. That was easy!
The idea that a “magical” smartphone contract will protect your kids and keep them responsible is a myth that our culture is promoting. When we lay the template of teen brain science on top of the smartphone contract decision, things just don’t add up. Unfortunately, these powerful devices are designed to capture our kids’ attention, their time, their innocence and, according to medical science, some of the best years of their lives. What they need more than a phone contract is more connections with you and more time to build in-person relationships with their peers; you won’t need a contract for that.
For more tips on how to manage cellphones, including setting rules instead of signing phone contracts, reclaiming your kids from their screen overuse habits, and reconnecting your family visit us at https://screenstrong.org//cell-phones/
* Based on current research regarding the adolescent brain and social/emotional development (1,4), Families Managing Media recommends delaying smartphone use (i.e. data phones) until late adolescence. Neurology tells us that teens are not “little adults” as we once thought. The executive function area of their brain is not developed enough to withstand the emotional trauma of social media (smartphone) use that is nearly impossible to avoid . You can also take the cue from your teens. They are ready for social media when they exhibit maturity in the areas of in-person communication skills, self control, independent decision-making, time management, and good judgment—just to name a few areas that must be developed during adolescence. Giving them a smartphone (that you feel needs a contract) early will not build these life skills; rather it may put them further behind.
- Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, and Gabrielle N. Martin, “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes,and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” htbp://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2167702617723376, (Nov. 14, 2017).
- Frances E. Jensen, MD, and Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: a Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. (New York: HarperCollins, 2015.) p. 37. In this book Dr. Jensen discusses the new science and research that confirms the underdeveloped stages of the teen brain. This book is full of data that explains why the “uneven tool kit” called the teen brain is not mature enough to take on the adult responsibility of a powerful smartphone or to withstand the temptations to take risks on social media. While the teen years are arguably the best decade of life, this age is coupled with dangers including risk taking, lack of insight and judgment, and impulsivity that can cause permanent damage for a lifetime.
- Jensen, p. 6.
- July 2016 State Farm survey of teen drivers ages 16-19, more than 80 percent of the teens admitted to using their smartphones while driving. State Farm also found that “the majority of teens understand that using their cellphone while driving is dangerous, and they also know that it is illegal. When asked why they still participate in these behaviors, top reasons included wanting to stay in touch with family and friends at all times and it’s a habit.’”
- Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, The Collapse of Parenting. How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups. (New York:Basic Books, 2016.) p. 105.
- Jensen, p. 81.
- Teens, Tweens and Cellphones. ”Dr. Michael Rubino recommends that teens have a basic cellphone (without a camera), not a smartphone. Among the reasons he cites? “It is not uncommon for teens to send their boyfriend/girlfriend nude photos of themselves. What they don’t understand is they are under the age of 18 years old. Therefore, if they have a nude picture of their 15-year-old girlfriend, they can be charged with possession of child pornography. Many may say this won’t happen to me, but I have had a number of teens in psychotherapy because they were charged with having child pornography.”
- “How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions,” Pew Research Center, Internet and Technology.