Establishing Trust with Smartphone Agreements

Amber Coleman-Mortley
January 25, 2022

A smartphone is a powerful device, a key to all the knowledge on the web, and a powerful tool for connecting with others, including strangers. This means that handing over this amount of power to a kid could bring forth unexpected and potentially dangerous results. It is undeniable that the pressure from friends and classmates can become a distraction for families wanting to establish some rules around smartphones. Just as we would not give a 13-year-old the keys to our new car, we should not be comfortable with giving a young person a device without first having a conversation about what the device can do, what you expect them to do with the device, and what the consequences are for breaking your trust.

How can parents manage this coming-of-age moment with minimal headache? Through family agreements!

On their tenth birthday, we provided each of our kids with their first smartphone. We treated each 10th birthday as a big celebratory event and we took great care to establish trust and rapport around technology use in the years leading up to this big milestone. But a smartphone seemed to be a leveled-up experience from tablets and gaming platforms so our family created the Smartphone 10 Commandments as an agreement between the adults and the kids. This agreement serves as a reminder of what is acceptable and what’s not when our kids are using their new phones. The great thing is that these “commandments” aren’t set in stone. They’re open to amending and evolving based on maturity levels and trust built between family members.

The Mortley Family Smartphone 10 Commandments

  1. At 8 pm, all smartphones are in the parents’ room with the notifications turned off.
  2. Smartphones are property of the parents and are on loan to the kids. It is a tool for communication, not a toy for entertainment.
  3. We do not leave each other “on read”. We respond to family texts immediately. However, don’t use your phone during school hours or at school activities UNLESS your life is in danger or it’s an emergency.
  4. Audits will happen. We will regularly go through the smartphone together. Lock codes and passwords are available to parents for all sites and platforms.
  5. Your image and conduct online are searchable forever. No sending suggestive or questionable photos or videos to friends and love interests.
  6. Make sure you come home with the phone. Don’t lose the phone. Don’t get it stolen. Don’t get your phone taken away from you while at school.
  7. Parents must meet or know of all contacts in your phone. The only adults in your contacts are friends’ parents that we approve of or athletic coaches. 
  8. All app purchases are approved by parents.
  9. Be kind online. You represent us. Don't initiate bullying or harassment in a group chat or one-on-one text or direct message.
  10. Tell us about interactions that made you feel uncomfortable or unsafe ASAP so that we can support you. You can always record any negative interaction that you think should be documented.

We encourage families to adopt, amend, or create their own version of the Smartphone 10 Commandments based on their family values and the maturity level of their kids. When we guide our kids through adult-like experiences, we can model how to be great citizens online by being great citizens and team members in our home community first. Your agreements should reflect your family's needs and should be supported by ongoing conversations about the powerful device in your child’s hand. 

In many ways, my kids experience a lot of freedom and trust while online. They understand that the boundaries that exist can expand as they earn more trust and learn more life lessons. This means more social media platforms, more gaming, and extended hours online with friends. They also respect their devices and know that real consequences exist when individuals fail to uphold community agreements. Our family views technology as a privilege and we view our kids as minors whom we are responsible for supporting and protecting. This means we have regular family discussions about appropriate conduct online, our data that’s collected by services and platforms, and how all of that impacts our shared and individual futures. 

Giving your child a smartphone can be a big decision and whether your child already has their smartphone or you're contemplating giving them their first phone, establishing shared rules of engagement and expectations provides your child with a great life lesson and provides parents with some assurances and guardrails to make the situation safe and beneficial for everyone involved. 

Written by

Amber Coleman-Mortley

Outside of elevating an intersectional approach to gender issues, Amber Coleman-Mortley’s passions are focused on elevating diverse voices and perspectives in the civic education space, working with students, educators, and parent communities for more equitable outcomes. Amber spent a little under a decade at iCivics, building a trusted consumer base on social media;  expanding and diversifying their Educator Network; and establishing the Youth As Civic Experts Network and Equity in Civics Youth Fellowship. Her work to bring students together around how to make civics more equitable and relatable for all kids resulted in a student-led listening tour of nearly 5,000 student responses from all 50 states.

Amber holds a B.A. in African American Studies from Oberlin College and an M.A. from American University in Media Entrepreneurship. A decorated three-sport varsity athlete, Amber continued her athletic passion as a P.E./Health teacher and varsity head coach at Sidwell Friends School for nine years. Amber covers civics, K12 education, edtech, and family life on her blog - Mom Of All Capes, and on the Let’s K12 Better podcast with her daughters. Her family’s advocacy has been featured in the LA Times, New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and a variety of other broadcast, podcast, and online media outlets.