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Here's Real Proof That a Cellphone Contract Works

Clear rules, buy-in, and mutual respect helped this mom get her teen to sign on the dotted line.

The decision to give our eighth-grade daughter an iPhone was not a hard one. She was already using my old flip phone responsibly, checking in and responding to my calls and texts. She hadn't damaged or lost it.

Still, I was hesitant about switching to an iPhone. Her friends couldn't put their phones down. After school, the first thing they did was go online. It pained me to see them staring at screens instead of looking at each other.

But it was time. I'd gotten remarried when my daughter was 10, and now I had another baby. My now-13-year-old wanted to be more independent. She was already using public transportation, and her friends helped her navigate with their map and transit apps. I wanted my daughter to have those tools, too.

When another parent offered to send me the iPhone contract he'd used with his own teens, I said yes. But our daughter didn't sign it right away. She balked at a couple points, such as needing to charge her phone outside her room and letting us track her. It wasn't an easy parenting stretch for me that week. No meant no with my baby, but with my teen, I needed to keep the door open and encourage dialogue.

She talked about the rules she didn't like as I listened. Then she listened to me, and she came back to us two days later with a signed contract. Clearly, she was highly motivated by the promise of her own phone, and she also understood why we wanted these rules. In the end, we'd given her some time to reflect and we'd also given her a say in the process. Maybe the two-way conversation led us to a place of compliance as well as understanding.

If you're thinking about letting your child have an iPhone, you know what will work best for your family. You can either create a device contract entirely based on your family's situation, or use Common Sense Media's device contract templates. For our family, here are three of the most important takeaways from our experience:

No phones at the table. Clear and simple. We don't use phones when we're eating. Preferably, they're turned off and not in sight. It can get complicated when our daughter's friends come for dinner, and they don't have the same rules at home.

For example, one night over baked potatoes, I smiled at the 14-year-old across the table: "It's so great to have you over for dinner, but just so you know, we don't use phones during dinner." Our daughter slid down her chair, mortified.

Log into life. Be a role model. Follow the rules you set. Both of our daughters watch us to learn how to balance technology, so we try our best. Full disclaimer: I'm known in our family for setting reminders on my phone, which sometimes go off during dinner. And we often scold my husband for not taking off his Apple watch during dinner. (In my mind, it's no different from a phone!)

Talk. Check in. Communicating means talking to my daughter to ask for her permission before posting a photo of her. It also means that she's open with us about any red flags she might see. For example, when she was a junior in high school, a handful of boys in her class were suspended for harassing some of her friends on Instagram. This was so painful; we had many emotional conversations for months.

Today, our daughter is a freshman in college. While working on this article, I texted her, and she said that she'd just come back from a long hike and was about to dive into homework. I asked her how she maintains such healthy boundaries with her phone (when I'm not there to monitor her!)

"As long as I'm busy with other activities that interest me, I never feel the need to go on my phone," she wrote. "Sometimes, I start to feel left out on social media but I enjoy myself so much more when I'm spending time face to face with people." So there you have it: real-life proof and one proud mama.

This article is part of Common Sense Media's Parent Voices series, which provides a platform for opinions about parenting in the digital age. All ideas expressed are the writer's own.

Rachel Sarah
Rachel is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Family Circle, and American Baby. Her first book, Single Mom Seeking, was optioned by 20th Century Fox for a TV comedy show. She reads constantly, especially contemporary novels about love and family. She also teaches a writing class at Left Margin LIT in Berkeley, California, and she's the mother of two daughters who are 12 years apart.