Your Teen Wants A Smartphone? Here's The Fine Print

Jan 8, 2013
Originally published on January 15, 2013 11:57 am

When Janell Burley Hofmann's son turned 13, she faced a question: Was it finally time to give him a smartphone?

She decided he was responsible enough to handle it, but not without signing an 18-point contract regarding appropriate use of the iPhone.

"In the quiet of the night, I had my own anxieties about giving him this technology that would be the world at his fingertips," she tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "What's in this contract is absolutely nothing that we haven't ever had a discussion about. ... I basically felt compelled to just put everything we've talked about to paper."

Hofmann posted the code of conduct she made for her son, Gregory, on her blog after she gave him the phone on Christmas, and it soon went viral. She and Gregory appeared on ABC's Good Morning America, and have received international attention.

The contract includes non-negotiable rules like, "I will always know the password," and practical advice like, "Keep your eyes up. ... Wonder without Googling."

It also touches on some more serious tenets. Point 10 is "No porn," and point 12: "Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else's private parts. Don't laugh."

"[Gregory] had a good laugh at that," Hofmann says. "And that's why I even put in there 'don't laugh', because maybe right now, at 13, that seems preposterous." But maybe in college or something after ... I want this ... little voice in your head to be like, 'I remember that contract for my first iPhone.' "

Though her son had been asking for a while, Hofmann and her husband had hoped to delay the technology.

"We live in a very close-knit community," Hofmann explains. "I just didn't see the need."

They finally ended up giving in, mostly for practical reasons.

"In full disclosure ... we had a free upgrade," she says.

Hofmann received a lot of criticism for the piece. Some parents felt she was being too controlling, and others felt that posting the contract was too embarrassing for a teenage boy.

"When I sit with my son and look at his contract, I can just absolutely say this is something that's working for us," she says. "He never saw it as a violation of trust or privacy. And to be totally honest, he keeps saying, like, 'Hey, mom, what's all the fuss about?' "

Hofmann says she did not publish the rules to serve as commandments for every household, but shared them to encourage parents to talk to their children about technology.

"Certainly, you make changes to it," Hofmann says. "I expect that everybody knows what's best for their family. This just happened to work for mine."

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Now, if you have young kids, you may identify with Janell Burley Hofmann. Her oldest son, Gregory, had been asking for an iPhone for years. When he turned 13, she finally figured he was ready to handle the responsibility, but the phone came with strings attached - 18 strings, to be exact. Janell wrote up 18 rules to teach her son about using technology responsibly. Some are practical, like turn your phone off after 7:30 p.m. on weeknights. Others are life lessons, like keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you.

The rules were a contract that her son had to sign. She posted the contract on her blog, and it went viral. It's been translated into French and Japanese, and sparked a debate over parenting and technology. So we want to know: If you're a parent, how did you decide your kids were ready for smartphones? What did you tell them about using technology responsibly? Call us at 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Janell Burley Hofmann is a writer and blogger at She has five kids. She runs community programming and parenting workshops on Cape Cod, and she joins us by phone from her home in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Janell, thanks for being on the program.

JANELL BURLEY HOFMANN: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Why did you finally decide to relent and give your son a phone?

HOFMANN: Well, in full disclosure...


HOFMANN: ...I mean, this isn't very Christmas-y, but we had a free upgrade.


HOFMANN: So there was a little practical component to it, too...


HOFMANN: ...where he had been asking for a while, and we live in a very close-knit community where in - I just didn't see the need. I work in the community. My husband works in the community. And if he ever needed someone, there are literally thousands of people that he could access and get what he needed. So we're big fans of delaying the technology. We just didn't see the need. And recently, combined with the practicality of a free phone, recently, we saw that - saw some new responsibilities and some new maturity in him.

He had been helping me with childcare, with his younger siblings, and he has some more independence. He, you know, takes off for the day and gets pizza with his buddies and those sorts of things. And so it was a combination of a lot of things, and the timing just felt right. And to be totally honest, it was going to be fun to wow him, because at this point...


HOFMANN: ...he didn't expect it. He has said in an interview, I can't - it's like beating a dead horse. When my mom says no, she means no.


HOFMANN: So it was kind of fun to just surprise him.

SHAPIRO: And did you know from the time you decided to get him an iPhone that it was going to come with this set of rules, with a contract that he'd have to sign?

HOFMANN: For the most part, in the quiet of the night, I had my own anxieties about giving him this technology that would be the world at his fingertips. And so I - what's in this contract is absolutely nothing that we haven't ever had a discussion about. So it's kind of this living, breathing touch point for us and...

SHAPIRO: Nothing was new for him.

HOFMANN: Yeah. So even when he saw it - so I basically felt compelled to just put everything we've talked about to paper. And so that was kind of my motivation for doing it, and I wanted to do it with some warmth, with some love and with some accountability. It was a combination of all of those things.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. The warmth and love come through in rule number one, which is: It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren't I the greatest?

HOFMANN: That's pretty good, right? I mean, right off the bat, I want him to know how awesome I am.


SHAPIRO: And read what comes next in this list.

HOFMANN: Sure. So the number two is: I will always know the password.

SHAPIRO: And was that immediately obvious to you that this would have to be a requirement if he was going to own a phone?

HOFMANN: Yeah. I'm sort of in tune with what, you know, other people are doing, or people with older kids. I'm kind of just been, you know, shadowing their experiences and seeing what's working for them and what doesn't. And not that - like Greg said, my mom's not a creeper, but I think she just wants it, just in case. And so I feel like I'm in tuned with him. And if I need it, I have it. I don't need to see them, you know, sending emoticons, smiley faces to each other back and forth, you know? That's not what my interest is or who danced with who at the dance. That's totally age-appropriate and that's his. But if I do need it, I just wanted to be able to access it.

SHAPIRO: Some of the rules in here are things that I could imagine parents would have a hard time talking about with their kids. One of the rules is no porn. Another one is do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else's private parts. Important things for kids, but not necessarily easy to talk about with parents.

HOFMANN: Yeah. To be totally honest, again, this was not new. You know, we've certainly had that pornography discussion and the accessibility of a generation past. You had to sneak a magazine or something like that where you had to really work if you want to see this. Well, now not so much. And so this has been something I just - I don't want you using it for that purpose, right? Like, you are curious human being that's changing. I respect that. But let's just keep the phone usage clean.

And basically, that's, you know, he looked at the don't send naked pictures of yourself or receive of other people, and he had a good laugh at that. And that's why I even put in there don't laugh because maybe right now at 13, that seems preposterous. But maybe in college or something after you, you know, had a frat party, I want this, like, little voice in your head to be, like, I remember that contract for my first iPhone. And it's totally, you know, I mean those things. I say, you know, like, it could ruin your life. I mean that. You know, you don't want to be the boy 20 years later that's remembered for that.

SHAPIRO: Some of the rules in here seemed applicable to any person of any stage in life. There was one I love, which is rule number 15. Will you read that one?

HOFMANN: Absolutely. Let's see. Rule number 15. Download music that is new or classic or different than the millions of your peers that listen to the same exact stuff. Your generation has access to music like never before in history. Take advantage of that gift. Expand your horizons.

SHAPIRO: What are you trying to instill in your son here?

HOFMANN: Well, I think this was the one that was absolutely not new to him. My husband is a musician. He went to Berklee College of Music. We're constantly, you know, introducing him to what's new and what's old. So I just - I felt like I wanted to show him that I do, too, love this technology. I think it's beautiful. I think we have access to so many things, that, you know, for me, I had to save my money, go buy a CD. But for him, it's right there. It can come, you know, right onto his phone and he can have that. So while you're on the radio, you hear a lot of the same stuff, but it doesn't have to be that way for you.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a call from Jennifer in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Hi, Jennifer.


SHAPIRO: Go ahead. Tell us your story.

JENNIFER: So, this could not be more relevant in my life right now because I just purchased an iPad Mini for my 12-year-old and 10-year-old son. And actually, when we got our 12-year-old his first phone, we just got him a like a $25 Flip, which was as much for our convenience as it was for his because he could call me when he was done with soccer practice or whatever. And it was really no problem because he didn't use it to text or anything like that. But these iPad Minis for as wonderful as they are - because they can read books on them and they can draw in different little applications - it really has sort of opened up a big parenting can of worms because I'm questioning all sorts of things. So we read her contract together.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so you're familiar with Janell's contract.

JENNIFER: Oh, yeah. I saw it on Facebook, and I thought it was fantastic. So that evening, I brought both the boys on the couch and I was like listen to this. We're going to do this. This applies to us, and I want you to hear this.

SHAPIRO: That's great.

JENNIFER: So, you know, they rolled their eyes especially where she says you may laugh now, but down the road, you're going to think taking a picture of your private parts and sending it to someone is a good idea.


JENNIFER: And they did laugh at that. But she's right. I can see this, you know, I can see this, you know, why not go ahead and sort of anticipate all that could go wrong because they need to know that, you know, once you put something in cyberspace, you can't take it back.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, Jennifer, let me ask. Was there anything you wanted to add to the list? Does your list have 19 or 20 compared to Janell's 18?

JENNIFER: God, that's a good question. No. You know, she really - she did a good job covering it all. Right now, my big dilemma is, you know, fighting with them to get these things turned in by bedtime because their argument is that they need to - they like to read to fall asleep and they need the alarm clock. So actually, on my list of errands today is to buy, like, an - just an old-fashioned, digital or analog alarm clock so that I can at least nip that one in the bud.

But the other one that's really hard is monitoring the emails. So in her thing, it says, you know, I will be reviewing your emails. And, you know, I have a hard time at that one because I feel like I need to, but at the same time, their argument to me is - but don't you trust us? You know, you must not trust us, kind of thing. So it's hard.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, Jennifer, thanks for the call. And, Janell, is this the sort of thing you hear a lot? Parents who have picked this up and adopted it for their own kids?

HOFMANN: Yeah, absolutely. I was at the Boston Museum of Science with my son's seventh grade class right after this came out. And one of the girls in his class on the field trip came up to me, and she said, hi, Mrs. Hofmann. You don't know me, but my dad said that you really made his life a lot easier, and he just printed your contract and said do what she says. So that was a really cute example of - you can kind of see how it spreads. So certainly some people have sent me amendments or additions to what they thought. It should be 20 points. Certainly the texting and driving, which I kind of see is the golden rule of technology, so I didn't include that also because my son, you know, isn't driving. But absolutely the it-can-wait philosophy, I'm behind that.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say the golden rule of technology, the it-can-wait philosophy?

HOFMANN: Yes. That you don't need to be texting while you're driving and it's that distracted driving. And just put it away or pull over and just know that it's going to be OK if you don't respond right away.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. We have an email here from Jen in Tremont, Illinois, who writes: We took the contract from Janell that you're talking about and adapted it to our family to include all electronics for our son. It was so good that we took the time and went through each line with our 11-year-old son. He laughed at the same places. We added a few other lines and really spent a lot of time talking about all of them, so thank you, Janell, writes Jen.

HOFMANN: Oh, it was nice. Yeah. And I think that's true too. I certainly never share this to say this is exactly what every household should be doing. I think what I'm asking, because - is just be in tune with what's happening for your family. So, certainly, you make changes to it. You know, people felt like, oh, for a different gender you might say different things. And, absolutely, I expect that everybody knows what's best for their family. This just happened to work for mine.

SHAPIRO: But I understand you've also gotten some negative feedback.

HOFMANN: Just a little.


SHAPIRO: Well, tell me about that. I mean, what's the criticism?

HOFMANN: So the criticism is - some of it was that it's very controlling. You know, that issue of trust that the caller had, too, that don't you trust your child? And also that I've somehow - I humiliated my son because I've shared this contract that was private between us. And they assume that he's being teased or picked on. So there's a few components there that I've got some negative feedback.

SHAPIRO: You know, one of the things that really strikes me, though, was the point you made earlier - that nothing in here was new to him, that these were all things you had talked about before. It seems to tie into a broader philosophy of parenting. Can you describe what that philosophy is?

HOFMANN: Sure. I think what - some key points in here are, respect yourself, certainly, right? And then respect other people. I trust you enough to give you something that you're going to need to be really responsible with. So there's some responsibility in there. And I think there is that overall message, is, I want you to have that human experience still. Use this beautiful, powerful technology but be in tune with what's going on around you and, you know, stare out a window...


HOFMANN: ...let your mind wonder, you know? That kind of stuff is what I really want for him with or without the iPhone. So you can see underneath the surface is about technology, but rooted, it's my parenting style and my love for him.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about helping teenagers use technology in a responsible way. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Well, speaking of negative feedback, we have an email here from Arnita(ph) in Minneapolis, who writes: I found this contract to be one of the worst parent-to-child documents ever written. She isn't giving a gift to her child. She is using it to assume the worst. It provides no useful information while underestimating the range and value that access to effective technology has to kids. Janell, care to respond?

HOFMANN: Yeah. I think that's an interesting perspective. And certainly, she's not the only person that has that perspective. But I think when I sit with my son and look at his contract, I can just absolutely say, this is something that's working for us. He never saw it as a violation of trust or privacy. And to be totally honest, he keeps saying like, hey, mom, what's all the fuss about, you know?


HOFMANN: Because for him, this is his normal. These kinds of discussions, these kind of, you know, creative gesture towards a conversation and expectation is very much part of our daily life.

SHAPIRO: I want to talk about the last rule on this list. Will you read number 18?

HOFMANN: Absolutely. You will mess up, I will take your phone away. We will sit down and talk about it. You'll start over again. You and I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together.

SHAPIRO: And what are you trying to accomplish through that final rule?

HOFMANN: That this list is so imperfect, and I expect that my child is going to make a mistake and - but I want to show him I know he's real human being, and he's going to have human experiences. And that if something does happen, if there was a conversation that he had, that something he felt like, oh, because my mom made list, I can't ever come to her because I violated something on there, I want him to know that he can always come back to me, that the dialogue is always open.


HOFMANN: And I'll help him.


HOFMANN: I will help him navigate whatever waters he gets himself into.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to another caller. This is Krista(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, Krista. Oh, it looks like we've lost Krista. In that case, we've got Elisa from Elk Grove, California. Hi, Elisa.


SHAPIRO: Go ahead.

ELISA: I'm 16 years old, and my mom has her own rule. This past summer, she didn't want us being idle and just sitting in our house and playing games and being on the computer all day. This isn't necessarily a smartphone but just in terms of technology. So she change the Wi-Fi password every day, and we wouldn't get it until we've been outside for at least an hour and all our chores were done.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's really smart.

HOFMANN: I love that.

SHAPIRO: That's Janell saying, I love that, not Elisa saying, I love that. Well, Elisa...

HOFMANN: I'm sorry.

SHAPIRO: a 16-year olds, do you ever rail against that and think, mom, I just want to use the Wi-Fi.

ELISA: Oh, plenty, all the time. But I see - I think it really helps with my younger brother. My younger brothers are only 12 or 13.


ELISA: And this is a really positive for him because he's - I mean, I know we're the same generation, but it just feels like it's so much more prevalent in his life being connected, and I'm not super into being connected all the time with all my friends. But I think it's really good for him to have to go outside and actually do something other than playing games or Facebooking everybody all the time.

SHAPIRO: OK. Thanks the call, Elisa.


SHAPIRO: And let's take one, final call. This is Lisa in Hood River, Oregon. Hi, Lisa.


SHAPIRO: Go ahead.

LISA: So - yeah. I had a question for you. I was wondering how you feel about this emerging trend called the technology (unintelligible) are intentionally unplugging some commonly used forms of communication technology?

SHAPIRO: Or just shutting it all down from time to time.

LISA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Janell, what do you think about that?

HOFMANN: I haven't been - not been brave enough to try it...


HOFMANN: ...but I certainly think there's some merit to it. You know, I think you just know, right? Like when you had too many cookies and you get a stomach ache, well, it might be time to back off. So it can - I think sometimes, we're so in it that it can literally make us not feel good. And I've had that experience, obviously, with this whole contract. I've been on my phone and using the technology quite a bit. And I can feel my self needing to detach a little bit from that, you know, in the upcoming weeks. And that's going to be something that I'm going to really have to consider because - especially for children, right?

Like - and I think that's the, you know, 7:30 bedtime is - at least, my son is guaranteed a good 10 hours, where he doesn't even have to think about it. It's not on the table. So incorporating into our life where, you know, those - the technology diet that they're calling it, yeah, why not?

SHAPIRO: But knowing you need to put it down is sometimes easier than actually putting it down.

HOFMANN: Right, right.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's Janell Burley Hofmann. She is a writer and blogger at She joined us from her home in Sandwich, Massachusetts, to talk about her 18-point smartphone contract that she gave her 13-year-old son, along with the iPhone. Janell, thank you so much for talking with us.

HOFMANN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is back with trivia, and newly former Congressman Steve LaTourette on the state of the GOP. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ira Shapiro, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.