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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

What Do You Want to Protect?: Designing a Family Tech Strategy

When Janell Burley Hofmann visited Rivers Middle School to talk to parents about screens and teens, she began by surveying the landscape: “The internet is part of modern life and modern parenting. Once we accept that, it allows us to parent better.”

Why? Because when we stop fighting technology’s very existence—either dreaming nostalgically of the past or turning a blind eye to our children’s online habits—we can actively look for ways to integrate it into our parenting. “Part of the education we have to provide is about the Internet,” said Hofmann.

As parents, it’s our job to “outline boundaries and expectations,” said Hofmann, author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know about Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up. “We talk about character development all the time. We have to think about how it applies to the screen.”

Students’ digital lives are contextual, and not distinct from other parts of themselves. Technology often amplifies existing behaviors. So “our expectations for when they are away from the screen need to be the same as when they are at the screen,” said Hofmann. In other words, we expect them to be kind, responsible, and honest offline and online.

Not every family is going to have the exact same rules, because every family’s situation is a little different. Hofmann created a delightful, instructive contract for her child when he got a smartphone—and believe me, you want to read it—but she doesn’t suggest that other families adopt this contract word-for-word.

As you work to set family boundaries and expectations around tech use, start by asking, “What do we stand for? What are our family’s goals?” Clear, articulated values can serve as a reference point. When faced with an online dilemma, you can ask, “How does this align with who we are and who we hope to become?”

Next, ask the question, “What do you want to protect?” As Hofmann shared, “You name the things you want to protect so that you can then set up boundaries.” For example, if you value playing outside as a family every day, you have to factor that into device use. If you value creativity—on or offline—you want to actively build in time for that. If you value face-to-face social relationships, you will want to create guidelines that protect that. (Hofmann offers this wonderful online tool for parents who want to design their own values-driven contract.)

We brought in Ms. Hofmann to work with parents, faculty, and students because we know that middle schoolers need ongoing, open conversations with caring adults. In March, I sent a letter home to middle school families with a few additional thoughts about how to engage in these conversations about tech use, including:

Talk To Your Child

If you haven’t had a conversation with your child about technology and social media recently, here are some topics you might consider:

  • Do they know what to do if they come across scary or sexually explicit material?

  • Do they know about digital footprints—that nothing sent digitally is truly private and that something posted online can sometimes take on a life of its own?

  • Do they know when (and why) it is better to resolve conflicts in person rather than online?

  • What do they love/hate about social media? How does it make them feel?

  • Do they know what to do if they make a mistake online?

Students often have confusing feelings about online social interactions. They have questions—lots of questions—and we want to be one of the places they go to get answers.

Check In With Their Devices

Check in with how your middle schoolers are using their phone (if they have one) and other mobile devices. What social media apps do they use? Do you know their passwords? How are they conducting themselves online or on chats—and what are they encountering? Do they know what your expectations are—particularly expectations about treating others with dignity?

Make a Plan for Technology Breaks

Middle school kids need breaks—from both technology and from their social world—and they may need our help to take those breaks. Where does your child keep her/his phone at night? What time is it turned off and put away?

Adolescent psychologist Lisa Damour encourages teens to turn off social media notifications well before going to sleep. As she said, “Technology is very hard on sleep. I’m not anti-social media, but it makes a tremendous difference for teens to not have a phone and computer in the bedroom at night. Teenagers have texts waking them up . . . [They will] often see something on social media that will keep them up at night—and if you ask them, they’ll usually admit this.”

The final item in Hofmann’s smartphone contract offers a wonderful vision. As she writes to her son, “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 is my hope that you can agree to these terms. Most of the lessons listed here do not just apply to the iPhone, but to life. You are growing up in a fast and ever-changing world. It is exciting and enticing. Keep it simple every chance you get. Trust your powerful mind and giant heart above any machine.”

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