What I Wish I Knew When I “Lent” My Now 12-yo Son A Brand New iPhone One Year Ago

“It’s not a faith in technology. It’s faith in people.”
- Steve Jobs

First, a bit of context. I have twenty years of experience working in NY/Silicon Valley-based media and tech companies, primarily as a lawyer. I coach emerging talent, advise founders and CEOs, invest in start-ups, and teach at UC Hastings. I have throughout all of this been part of several teams behind drafting and enforcing Terms of Use (including app/platform age restrictions) and privacy policies, many designed to protect minors.

I’m also a mom. In fact, that is my first (and most important) job. I have two sons, now in seventh and third grade respectively, in excellent public schools of our hometown of Mill Valley, CA.

As our older son was starting sixth grade, his requests for a smartphone intensified. Most of his friends had one already (irrelevant), he didn’t like sending or receiving texts on his flip phone (very relevant to me as I like to be easily in touch when we are apart for school/work/travel/etc.), and he was intrigued by all of the fun things one can do on a smart phone while on the move, including taking, editing, and sharing pictures (could go either way).

Admittedly adding to the considerations, his father and I are divorced. We live within a mile of each other and share custody equally, but that means half the time, if I wanted to communicate with the kids, I had to go through their dad, which became a bit tiresome to us all. If our oldest had a phone we could use it for direct FaceTime, photo sharing, and more; we could stay a little closer, even when apart. Finally, the nifty “Find My Friends” app on the iPhone had a lot of appeal given that our son commutes to school and activities by bike.

So, about a month into sixth grade, after much discussion, research, and extensive consultation with family and friends, we went to the Apple store and bought an iPhone for him to use (his parents own it, he gets to use it, as a privilege). We attached a number of conditions to his “use” of “my” phone, and put them into a contract that we all signed:

  1. Technology is a privilege, not a right. We trust you. As a reflection of this trust, we have purchased a phone and we pay the monthly service fee so that you can use your phone responsibly. This agreement has the rules that govern your use of this phone as a privilege. If you do not do so, we will take the phone away and you may earn it back.
  2. We will always know the password for this phone and any apps. We may monitor your phone regularly, including text messages, videos, and apps. If need be, we can check this information (including deleted messages) remotely. If there’s an issue, we will discuss it together. If you change your passwords, you need to let us know immediately.
  3. Always answer calls from your parents and immediate family members. If you miss a call/text from them, return it immediately. We track whether or not messages have been delivered.
  4. You must keep your phone charged and available for use.
  5. Power down the phone every night at a time determined by your parents, unless previously discussed for an alternative time. Overnight, the phone must be left in a central location where it can be retrieved the next morning.
  6. People in the room with you take precedence over the phone.
  7. Follow school rules about phones. We do, however, allow you to have the phone on your person or in your possession (i.e. backpack).
  8. If something happens to your phone, you are responsible for the replacement costs or repairs. If anything happens to it in your possession, you are also responsible. The same is true if a friend does something to it.
  9. We permit you to use this phone because we trust you and believe you are a good person capable of making good choices. Do not use this technology to speak ill of another human being. Any form of bullying or rude behavior will result in loss of the phone. Be kind always: online, on your phone, in person. Also, be honest.
  10. Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud to them or your parents. If there’s ever any doubt, do not send/post/share it.
  11. Keep your private parts private. Don’t search/view/share anything you wouldn’t share at the dinner table.
  12. Do not take a photo or video of someone else and post without their permission.
  13. Do not use your phone at mealtimes or while speaking with someone. Be polite and respectful.
  14. Do not use your phone in in the car unless a parent allows it.
  15. Remember the Internet is forever. You may be tempted to do something questionable or risky. Know that what you do on the Internet can impact your life today and well into the future. If you don’t want to explain it to your oldest relative or future boss, don’t do it.
  16. Do not be disruptive in your phone use. If someone asks you to stop talking or texting, stop immediately.
  17. If you have a question about anything, ask a parent.
  18. You might make mistakes and there may be consequences. We will deal with that together. Our job is to help you be safe and responsible. We love you.

Most of this was copied and pasted from similar agreements from fellow parents, resources found online, and our own intra-family email exchanges. There are lots of versions out there. This one works for us. It is printed, signed, and on the bulletin board in our son’s room. It may seem harsh, but it is a version that works for our family.

The decisions and guidelines are evolving though, and require almost daily attention. For example, earlier this summer he turned twelve and joined Instagram. This was another big step that followed lots of conversation with fellow parents, friends, and most importantly our son. He took the printed and signed contract off of the bulletin board in his room and read it out loud before downloading the app and we talked through a few key reminders about permanence, being responsible, this is a privilege not a right, we have your passwords and will use them, and so on.

It has been a year since we lent our son his first iPhone. He hasn’t lost it, broken it, or abused the privilege in any major way. We regularly remind him of the guidance in 6 (people first), 9 (be kind), 13 (no phones while eating/talking), and 14 (don’t use it in the car without asking your fellow passenger(s)), but if I’m honest, I have to remind myself of most of these regularly too. So what do I wish I knew when we embarked upon this smartphone journey nine months ago?

It is fun.

He is having fun with this technology in his pocket and I am having fun engaging with him in this new way. We share photos, memes, recipes(!), travel ideas, cool apps, and more. Of course he’s doing most of this with his friends and other family too, It is a new way to connect and I love it that we are using these tools to be collaborative, creative, and teach each other cool stuff.

It is enabling connection in new ways.

Our son is very social. He has old friends and meets new ones pretty easily. I didn’t expect it, but having an iPhone has enabled him to nurture friendships with people who don’t live near us: the kid who lives in Florida we met on vacation in December, his favorite cousin who lives in LA, my dear aunt who has been like a grandmother to him, and more. I’ve been able to guide him on how to manage heartfelt outreach from people who love him (respond promptly, etc.) while enjoying seeing him start to evolve his own relationships web.

I’m glad I monitor it.

I look at his text threads a couple/few times a week. He knows I do this and understands it is part of the privilege of using a phone at his age. On three very memorable occasions I discovered something surprising that warranted a discussion: (1) the use of a lewd comment (that it turns out he didn’t understand and was horrified to have used on a group chat), (2) calling a best bud a name he shouldn’t have, and (3) a new friend of his referring to self-harm, that resulted in a call to a parent and a timely series of conversations around what to do when someone we know speaks of or shows signs of wanting to hurt themselves. This is a tricky one for some families and I get it — it could feel too invasive. For us, the advantages of helping him learn about how to use this technology with the same values he applies in his 3D life have far exceeded any concerns about seeming invasive.

There are some fantastic apps for parents encouraging safe and responsible phone use.

We did some research on this too. Different families have different needs. Here is a great article summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of some of the best. We’ve been using unGlue and its been good for us in that it makes several decisions final and non-negotiable until collectively agreed otherwise.

I’m learning a lot about myself through this experience.

Technology itself is neither good nor bad. People are good or bad.
- Naveen Jain

I remember that time when my older son was two and I asked him to stop picking his nose, then realized, I was actually picking my nose as I was saying it. True story.

In teaching him about responsible technology and phone use, I myself am getting more mindful about my own. We all abide by the no phones at the dining table rule. I try to not have it in my hand when talking (to anyone). I use social apps aware of how durable and far-reaching the posts are (including a new awareness that my kid(s) will read and see it all in time — hi kiddo :). We’re evolving together and I’m glad we can support each other as a family in setting our own ways in navigating these tools.

Good citizenship extends across the digital divide.

There is a lot of value in teaching our kids to be responsible digital citizens, but none of this matters if they are not good people with solid values offline. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about mobile phone etiquette and use, but we spend more time teaching our kids in-person skills: proper greetings, eye contact, expressing gratitude, how to handle emotions, respect for elders, and more. If we are good people offline, chances are higher we’ll be good people online.

Used well, technology can bring us closer.

“Technology is best when it brings people together.”
- Matt Mullenweg, Social Media Entrepreneur

Despite its power to isolate and disconnect us, used the right way, technology can bring us closer too. There is nothing like a FaceTime chat with my son(s) when we are apart. I love that we can share photos and videos of what we are seeing in our parallel but often separated-during-the-day lives. Its amazing that we can instantly share photos, articles, and videos one anything and everything from rocket launches to art on sneakers, grades and traffic surprises. I’m a fan of some of their music choices, and vice versa.

In sum

These decisions are personal and must be made to match each child, family, and set of circumstances. Above all else, I’ve learned that as long as I engage with our son in the digital world in a way that mirrors the way we engage in-person as loving human beings, these tools will serve as powerful and positive extensions of us, adding to, not taking away from our lives.


reflections are my own. mom, investor, advisor, author. thrive in overlap between tech & human betterment. clearlife is my jam (ig @clearlife108); book in ‘22!

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