Technology Contracts Help Keep Kids Safe Online

Families generally run more smoothly with effective rules, so it’s no surprise parents want to establish rules about how kids use technology. Unfortunately, rules don’t last long online. A rule that seemed perfectly reasonable yesterday may be outdated (and easy to ignore) tomorrow. In such a rapidly evolving environment, many parents are turning to something more flexible: contracts they write — and rewrite — with their children.

The “technology contract” likely to work best in your household will, of course, depend on the ages and inclinations of your kids. Regardless of age, here are some potential questions to consider:

What interactive devices are used? You’ll want different rules for cellphones, tablets, computers and gaming systems. If family members share equipment, you may need to establish priorities. Homework, for example, should take precedence over games and social media. Your contract can also specify how you will share interactive experiences. Will you play games together? Share videos? Create a shared album of favorite digital photos?

What kind of supervision makes sense? The right kind of supervision makes kids feel safer and reinforces a sense of conscience. Will you check phone bills for calls to numbers you don’t recognize? Will you use monitoring software that alerts you if your child strays onto an adult website or sends out too much personal information? Be open about what you plan to do and why.

How much time should be spent online? Think about when it’s OK or even necessary to be connected. When is important to be offline? As individuals? As a family?

What information are you willing to share online? What one person posts on a social media site often has implications for other family members, so it’s important to discuss what can be shared online. Is it ever appropriate to post an address or phone number? How much are you willing to divulge about where you live, what you are doing and where your family vacations? When is it OK for parents to post pictures of kids and kids to post pictures of parents?

How will you keep your online system secure? You have rules about locking the door when you leave the house. Establish similar policies about online security. Is it ever OK to share passwords with anyone except parents? What are your house rules about downloading games, music and videos?

Who is allowed to purchase items online? Consider rules related to purchasing clothing, posters, virtual goods, games, music and books. Younger children should ask for permission to make any purchase. An online allowance may be appropriate for teens.

What kinds of online activity should kids report to parents? Being online involves trust since parents can’t supervise kids the way they can in other settings. Establish the expectation that your child should come to you immediately if he or she encounters bullying, sexting or any kind of invitation from online strangers.

What are the penalties for breaking the contract? Losing access to a device is an obvious consequence (for adults as well as kids). Your contract might also include the possibility of additional monitoring for family members who don’t follow the rules.

When will we renegotiate the contract? As kids demonstrate online responsibility, they should be able to earn new technology privileges.

Your kids (or spouse) might roll their eyes if you suggest drawing up a technology contract. But remember, the point of this exercise isn’t necessarily to get something in writing. Instead, you want to have ongoing conversations that help you understand how your children are using technology. Only then can you make rules that will help your kids become as safe and responsible online as they are in the real world.

Sample Technology Contracts

Check templates available online if you’d like additional help creating a technology contract.  One of the documents at the following websites likely will prompt the conversations you need to customize your own contract.

American Academy of Pediatrics – Guidelines incorporate AAP policy.

Common Sense Media – Three concise, easy-to-understand contracts designed for elementary, middle and high school students.

Family Online Safety Institute – Two parallel contracts, one for kids and one for parents.

Internet Safety Game Plan – A starter contract suitable for younger children.

Modern Parent – A simple one-page contract, written in plain language. – Pledges for teens, younger children and parents.

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. She has been writing a column about technology for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict.

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