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Ever since Janell Burley Hofmann, '01,made her son sign a contract in order for him to have his own iPhone, the Cape Cod mother of five has started something of a revolution.
The 18 rules in the contract included guidelines for parenting, but also basic tenets for civilized living in our technological age, including respecting others, taking responsibility and experiencing life fully.
“I never wanted his iPhone or any electronic device to rob him of some of the human experiences, which is going outside and playing with your friends” and other childhood pursuits, says Ms. Hofmann, 34.
The BSU graduate and Sandwich mom never expected that the contract, which she included in her blog in the Huffington Post, would thrust her and her son Gregory into the national spotlight. Since giving Gregory the iPhone at Christmas 2012, mom and son have faced a barrage of media attention, including an appearance on ABC TV’s “Good Morning America.”
And the rules – which she dubs “iRules” – have provided the impetus for a new book, which she hopes will help other families navigate today’s technology waters: “iRules: What Every Tech Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming & Growing Up.”
“’iRules’ is about building a system with the technology that works for your family. Assessing your own family's needs, getting to know why you need the technology. So it really is a guide,” says Ms. Hofmann, who also presented at TEDx San Diego with a talk titled, “Parenting in the Screen Age.”
The West Bridgewater native has experience understanding families and the technological pressures they face. After transferring from Keene State College to Bridgewater State in 1999, she completed her undergraduate degree in communication studies. By then, Gregory was already in her life.
She then went to work for the YMCA, then as a program coordinator for the Sandwich Recreation Department, running family, parenting and community workshops and programs.
“I can see, when I look back, how all of this built toward doing my work around technology and parenting, because I was really looking at the big picture of family and parenting with purpose,” says Ms. Hofmann. “In a lot of my parenting classes, technology was coming up as something that parents were learning to cope with and needing advice, needing guidance.”
With five children, some would say, one might need to parent with purpose. Ms. Hofmann readily would admit that enforcing rules in her household comes with her role as a parent. Her son Greg, now 14, when presented with the iPhone contract, took it all in stride and would say, “That’s so my mom,” Ms. Hofmann says.
Others have reacted strongly to Ms. Hofmann’s iRules. She says she was not prepared for the barrage of backlash or of the support she has received. “I never imagined that I'd have to defend it or that I would be called ‘controlling’ or ‘bossy’ or ‘a total nightmare,’” she says. But in a world of all-encompassing technology, the idea of controlling the devices in our lives and not the other way around has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.
Ms. Hofmann and Adam, her husband of 14 years, have struck a balance between the inevitability of technology and the need to, at times, disconnect. Adam, who is a vice president of an insurance agency and a part-time musician, is a fan of the latest and greatest gadgets. He has social networking accounts that he rarely uses and has deleted some, Hofmann says, and now he is concentrating on his wife’s book promotion.
“While he has all this technology and uses it at work, it benefits his life, [but] socially, in his personal life, he's really stepped back from the technology,” Ms. Hofmann says. “I wonder if that's a cycle that's going to happen for a lot of people that they use it. They use it to its benefits, and then they do put it away.”
The family will sometimes leave their devices behind when hiking on the Cape. But the notion of the contract isn’t lost on their other children, Brendan, 11, Ella, 9, Lilly, 8, and Cassidy, 6.
“They absolutely expect that when they turn 13, that following Christmas they'll get an iPhone, so we've already started that conversation,” says Ms. Hofmann. “I'm a big fan of delaying the technology until we feel like our child is ready and that we're ready to parent it … because what I hear from a lot of families when I do workshops and when I travel to schools or libraries is, 'I gave too much technology, too soon.' And they're having to pull back the reins, which often harder to do.”
Ms. Hofmann admits that her family’s “iRules” don’t fit with every family. Each family must decide its own boundaries, she says.
The book discusses the concept of “Slow Tech Parenting,” using the technology for its intended purpose, but not getting lost in it. “So it's a part of our lives, but it's not central to our lives, and I think that's the key,” she says.
“The key component in iRules is that it's going to help people build a tech-healthy family. We know the technology is here to stay. It's coming into their schools. It's coming into social life, our professional lives, and certainly our personal lives. So what can we do for our family to stay healthy with the technology? It really is becoming part of the health and wellness conversation.”