Guide your children into the digital world

Janell Burley Hofmann honoured her 13-year-old son's "maturity and growth" at Christmas with his first iPhone, but it came with strings attached.

Eighteen strings, to be exact, in a written code of conduct that placed the mummy blogger at the centre of the debate over how parents should handle technology in the hands of their teens, especially younger ones just entering the frenetic world of social networks and smartphones.

Thousands of people, including those bemoaning too much helicopter parenting, commented and shared the funny, heartfelt agreement posted by the American mum of five. The interest crashed her website and led her to appear with her eldest, Gregory, on morning television.

Hofmann's first order of business: "1. It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren't I the greatest?"

She included caveats that some parenting and tech addiction experts consider crucial in easing new entrants onto Facebook, Instagram and shiny new mobile devices: You must share passwords with a parent, answer their calls, hand over the device early on school nights and a little later on weekends. You must avoid hurtful texts and porn.

Hofmann said in an interview that she decided on the contract as she pondered the power of the technology she and her husband were about to plop into their son's world. She was looking for a way to be present in his phone use without being a "creeper," his word for stalky, spying parents.

She wasn't surprised that her list, which Greg agreed to, resonates with other parents. It also resonates with psychologist David Greenfield, a US technology addiction specialist.

"We have ritualised the gift of the smartphone," he said, yet many parents don't have the know-how, stomach, time or interest in actively guiding kids when they first jump into digital life. For some parents, he said, it's only when things go horribly wrong that attention is paid.

Greenfield recommends contracts like Hofmann's. Others "creep" using apps and monitoring software. He thinks that's fine, too.

A report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project says parents are being more proactive, not just relying on parental-control tools such as browser filters. An increasing number are joining their kids on social media, but older parents may be approaching their kids' lives there with the wrong emotional filters.

"We see it as a separation from social behaviour. They see it as social behaviour," Greenfield said. "I'm not sure we're going to be able to bridge that difference generationally."

Hofmann gets inspirational towards the bottom of the contract: "Leave your phone home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision. It is not alive or an extension of you. Learn to live without it. Be bigger and more powerful than FOMO - fear of missing out."

And her final word: "You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You & I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together."AAP


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