On Christmas Eve three years ago, as she was wrapping a present for her 13-year-old son, Janell Burley Hofmann found herself overwhelmed by anxieties that come with giving a child a device that provides them with the freedom to connect to and roam the internet.
Would he still wonder and think for himself without turning to Google for quick answers about everything? Would he continue to value personal relationships as much as virtual friends on social media?
“I wanted him to have the freedom and the positives that go with technology, but also to make sure it was not central to his life,” says Hofmann, who works as a parenting coach.
“We, as parents, are trailblazing here. We can’t ask ourselves, ‘What did my mum do when I wanted to go on Instagram?’ There is a lot of pressure on us and on our kids, being the first generation to go through this.”
The making of iRules
Hofmann resolved to write her son an 18-point contract, which she called “iRules”, outlining her fears as well as her rules for using technology.
“It was firm but also mixed with my deep love for him,” she says. “Having boundaries wasn’t because I didn’t trust him, but because I wanted to support him.”
The contract begins with a heartfelt message: “I love you madly and look forward to sharing several million text messages with you in the days to come.”
Then the iRules get stern but fair. “It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you,” is one. “I will always know the password,” is another.
Just like in real life, it is important to always have good “iManners”. For example: “Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’.”
Also: “Turn the phone off, or silence it and 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.”
Devices also have to be put away during mealtimes and turned off at night.
A global phenomenon
Hofmann, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts, shared the contract on her blog, not expecting the reception that it would receive.
The American media quickly picked up it, and she was invited on to the television show Good Morning America the next day. Within a week, the contract had been translated into 12 languages.
“I realised this was now a global conversation,” she says.
The interest encouraged her to expand the blog into a self-help book for parents, iRules. Last week, she visited Abu Dhabi to conduct a series of workshops on her iRules at the Sheikh Zayed Private Academy.
The right time for children to get connected
Hofmann says determining the right age is specific to each family, but warns that youngsters taking out their phones while waiting in a supermarket queue can quickly turn into a habit parents wish they could break.
“Then they’re asking for the phone all the time,” she says. “Its important that we’re making sure our children still know how to wait, how to make eye contact and introduce themselves.”
The safety of children online is also a worry for parents. Hofmann advises them to impress on the child the importance of not giving out personal information, such as date of birth, age or location, and to let their parents know if they are playing a game or interacting with someone they don’t know.
“Just as we would ask ‘Who will you be with?’ when they go out, we want to ask those same questions on the screens,” she says.
Navigating social media
When children are ready to start using social media, Hofmann advises parents to make sure they don’t become obsessed with acquiring a large number of followers.
“It’s really about the quality, right?” says Hofmann. “When we were growing up, when our school day ended, we didn’t bring home 300 schoolmates to interact with.”
Hoffman acknowledges that teenagers today often feel as if their online social world is their real world.
“It’s nice for them to have at least an hour of screen-free time at the beginning and end of each day,” she says.
The same advice goes for parents. “In the workshops, when I ask kids, ‘Do you think your parents overuse technology?’ 100 per cent of the hands go up,” says Hoffman. “What boundaries do we need to set for ourselves?”
She points out that this is where parents can share common ground with their kids.
“We can say to them, ‘I find it hard to put down my phone, too.’ Or ‘I like getting “likes” on social networks.’ “Those are really good places where we can bond with them, to try to come up with solutions.”
• For a free contract builder to create a technology agreement, visit www.irules.co/builder