On Becoming a “Tech-Healthy” Family

Do you remember getting your first driver’s license? What I remember, beyond the long line at the DMV, was the steady stream of advice from my father: wear your seatbelt, keep your windshield clean, turn the wheel into an icy slide, steer clear of aggressive drivers, never ever drink and drive. These conversations did not end when I slipped that glossy new license into my wallet. Thirty years later, he still likes to remind me to adjust my mirrors, and sometimes I have to remind him to use his blinker. Healthy families have these kinds of conversations – it’s one way we demonstrate that we care and that we take responsibility for each other. Technology affords a similar opportunity.

On Tuesday, Janell Burley Hofmann spoke to our students in a special assembly. Hofmann is the author of the book iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up. She was wonderful. I know some of you had the opportunity to hear her that evening, but for those who missed it, let me share some highlights.

Hofmann believes that children are more likely to develop positive tech skills when parents model healthy habits and engage in direct, open conversation with their children. For example, when Hofmann gave her 13-year-old son an iPhone for Christmas, she also gave him a “contract” with 18 line items. Let me share a few with you – I guarantee you’ll want to read the rest.

  • It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren’t I the greatest?
  • I will always know the password.
  • Hand the phone to one of your parents promptly at 7:30 p.m. every school night and every weekend night at 9:00 p.m. It will be shut off for the night and turned on again at 7:30 a.m.
  • Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public. Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human being. You are not a rude person; do not allow the iPhone to change that.
  • Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.
  • Play a game with words or puzzles or brain teasers every now and then.
  • Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you. Stare out a window. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. Talk to a stranger. Wonder without googling.
  • You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You and I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together.

It’s a refreshing contract – a mixture of humor and gravity, standards and aspirations. She has high expectations for her child, she provides boundary lines, and she knows that it won’t be entirely smooth sailing.

It reminds me – on a family level – of what we are trying to do with our Responsible Use Policy. As I wrote in October, when we created the Responsible Use Policy (RUP) this year, we made a deliberate decision to focus more on “DO’s” than on “DON’Ts.” Our children need guidance as they navigate digital social spaces; they need regular conversations with parents and teachers; they need safe places to take their questions and concerns; they need to know our expectations for digital citizenship; and they need help when they – inevitably — make mistakes or stumble upon something upsetting.

Hofmann’s message is vital: We don’t need to be afraid of technology; rather we need to have open and direct conversations with our kids about technology, including how it can enhance our lives when used properly.

One year after giving her son this contract, she wrote a follow-up article “What I Know One Year After Giving My Teenager An iPhone Contract.” Among other things, she notes that this contract kept the lines of communication open: “If I don’t know the latest app or social networking site, I go right to the source and say, ‘Show me.’ I learn about what he’s using and how he’s using it. Then I use it too. I don’t feel so overwhelmed, but empowered. And G knows that our family understands technology, so it’s not a secret or underground, but front and center.” Just as it should be.

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