Planning a Family Acceptable Use Policy

What Is a Family Acceptable Use Policy?

A Family Acceptable Use Policy (FAUP) is a document designed to help you and your children understand the benefits and risks of using the Internet and electronic devices, and to establish household rules regarding their use. It is a document that can be used to organize and clarify family values regarding online behavior and the consumption of media content, and will help children understand the consequences of their actions.

As most adults are undoubtedly aware, Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) are common in corporations, schools, and other large organizations. An organization that adopts an AUP has three main objectives:

  1. To provide users with definitions of terms and concepts so that there is a generally accepted understanding of what is being discussed.
  2. To establish organizational norms by specifying Internet-related or electronic activity that is unacceptable (in fact, some companies refer to their policies as “Unacceptable Use Policies”).
  3. To specify the consequences of violating one or more provisions of the AUP.

A family of 3 or 4 people may not seem like it has much in common with an organization with hundreds or thousands of employees or students. But in many ways, it’s even more important for a family or household to negotiate and agree to an acceptable use policy. An FAUP provides a terrific framework for educating children about the risks of electronic misbehavior and gives parents an opportunity to discuss and implement the values that they want to teach their children.

Perhaps most importantly, an FAUP can help children understand, even at an early age, that cyberspace is not a morality-free zone, and that cyberethics are just as important (if not a little bit more so) than brick-and-mortar ethics.

Why Your Family Should Have an FAUP

According to the United States Census, there were nearly 75 million children living in America in 2010, roughly 40 million of whom are over the age of 6. The vast majority of those children are online in one way or another, frequently with insufficient guidance or supervision.

Even more startling are recent studies showing that twenty percent (1 in 5) of all 2-year-olds have used a smart phone or iPad. By the time a child is 4, there is a more than 30 percent chance that he or she has used a smartphone, tablet computer, or video game system. As user interface designs grow steadily simpler and devices become cheaper, those percentages are likely to rise rapidly.

The simple reality is that the country is rapidly transitioning from GenY to GenI, a generation of children whose entire worldview is shaped by what they see and hear online. It is increasingly critical that we effectively educate children–even pre-school-age children–about what is and is not acceptable online behavior.

The best place for that education to occur is in the home. As the statistics show, we can’t wait for kids to start learning cyberthics in school, since a majority of kids are experienced Internet, smartphone, or tablet users well before they even get to kindergarten.

More importantly, while schools can play an important role in reinforcing generally held cyberethical standards, the moral education of children is the responsibility of each individual household. It’s not something that we should expect (or want) the government to do for us.

What Are YOUR Rules for Acceptable Use?

One of the benefits of creating a Family Acceptable Use Policy with your children is that it will give you and your spouse (or domestic partner) the opportunity to think about your own values with respect to online activity.

As you look through draft FAUPs online (if you have trouble locating examples, contact me), you’ll see a number of items that can apply to adults as well as children. Depending on your personal circumstances, you and your spouse (or partner) may want to discuss creating an AUP for yourselves before drafting one with your child or children.

For instance, how do you communicate with family and friends on social networks? Do you find yourself using language online that you would not use in person? Do you share material with co-workers that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sending to your boss (or your mother)?

Do you and your spouse use electronics constantly, or do you designate specific times (meals, an evening, or weekend morning) as “device-free.”? Have you ever texted or IM’ed a family member who was sitting in the same room?

What’s your approach towards copyrighted materials? Is a significant portion of your music or movie collection material that you pirated from the Web?

Have you ever bullied or harassed someone online, “tagged” someone in an unflattering photo, or shared offensive material?

Before you begin negotiating with your child or children about their online behavior, it’s a good idea to be clear about what your own standards are. Kids are both natural imitators and keen hypocrisy-sniffers. Inevitably, they will mirror your own good and not-so-good online behaviors.

Ultimately, the goal of an FAUP is to help you and your family decide on the values regarding online activity and electronic communication that are most important to you, and to give you a framework for discussing potential problems, resolutions, and consequences before a crisis occurs.

When Should You Write an FAUP?

Today’s children will spend a significant portion of their educational and working lives online. Their success in school and in their careers will depend in large part on their ability to communicate effectively with others, to adapt to rapidly changing social norms, and to behave in a cyberethical fashion.

Giving your child the tools to effectively cope with a rapidly-changing world is a process that should start no later than the day he or she first learns to launch an app with the press of a finger, or turn iBook pages by swiping from side-to-side on the iPad (something which increasingly occurs before a child’s first birthday). As some parents have realized to their chagrin, it is often frustrating for children when “real” book pages don’t respond so easily to a swipe of the finger.

Obviously, the 18-month- or 2-year-old children that I’ve seen using iPads and iPhones in coffee shops and airports around the country are not going to understand most of the concepts discussed in this e-book, let alone discuss and debate competing standards of digital behavior. But those busy fingers, innocently tapping and swiping, are a harbinger of the future, and it’s all too easy, even for elementary school children, for their technical skills to outpace their understanding of the consequences of online misbehavior.

The sooner you start the process of creating an FAUP, if only by talking to your young child about your ground rules for the electronic devices they already covet, the more ingrained the habit of communication will become, and the more influence you can have over their cyber-development.

Keep in mind that you may need for than one FAUP, or at the very least, an FAUP with different sections for different-aged children. The rules governing elementary students are not necessarily appropriate for middle schoolers, who in turn may need more restrictions than their high-school-aged siblings. If you and your children are in a multi-household situation, it’s not unreasonable to think that each household might have its own FAUP (although of course, the more similar the rules can be in each household, the easier the job of co-parenting will be).

In my experience, distinguishing between different-aged children is one of the most difficult parenting challenges, in part because of the natural eagerness of younger siblings to emulate their older brothers and sisters, and in part because of the time and effort required to limit the access of young children to media not suitable for them when their older siblings and their friends are watching or playing in the living room. Moreover, the fact that technology is getting steadily easier and easier to use makes it possible for younger children to accomplish things that only a few years before would have puzzled their older siblings.

Discussing an FAUP with your spouse and your children will give you all a chance to discuss your expectations and how you will supervise the respective behaviors of your children. By itself, an FAUP won’t prevent younger kids from seeing things they shouldn’t, but it will help you strategize on how to manage the inevitable conflicts.

The Educational Value in Negotiating an FAUP

In the early stages of a child’s electronic life, there isn’t much need for significant negotiation about acceptable uses. Parents can simply announce their rules or appropriate time limits, and enforce them by the time-honored expedient of putting devices somewhere where little hands can’t reach them.

That happy state of affairs doesn’t last very long, however. As kids learn to read and write, and can begin typing things into electronic devices, they will naturally want to do more exploring online. Their electronic skill set (and their curiosity) will accelerate rapidly once they go to school, where they’ll compare notes with classmates (particularly if they or their classmates have older siblings), or start having play-dates in homes with a variety of different electronic devices and rules for using them.

These changes and experiences are a natural part of a child’s development, but it unquestionably complicates the process of parenting. As a practical matter, it’s pretty much impossible to prevent a child from ever seeing undesirable things online, and it happens a lot sooner than most of us would like. It’s also unlikely that every household in your neighborhood or circle of friends will have identical rules or values when it comes to the use of electronic devices.

The best solution — in fact, perhaps the only solution — is to have multiple conversations with each of your children over a period of months and years about your family values and your expectations regarding their online activity. Not all of those conversations need to be formal discussions about your household’s FAUP. In fact, you’ll typically learn more in those off-hand conversations that occur at meals, in the car, or on walks.

As kids mature, however, explain the concept of a Family Acceptable Use Policy to each one and get their input on what they think is important or worthwhile. Don’t be surprised if they prove to be savvier than you first expect; most kids are born negotiators, and from the start of school, spend a significant portion of playground time debating and applying rules. The problem is that the consequences of playground rule violations (the vocal scorn of peers, mostly, or social shunning) are more easily imagined by 7-year-olds than the much more theoretical (but far more severe) consequences of online mistakes.

While it can sometimes be frustrating to explain online issues to children, keep in mind that the very act of drafting the terms of an FAUP with your child or children is a positive lesson. It encourages communication and discussion, it teaches the art of compromise, and if done collaboratively, it teaches consideration of competing viewpoints (particularly as kids get older and have stronger opinions about what they should be allowed to do).

Once you and your child have agreed upon an FAUP, make sure that copies of the agreement are posted prominently in public places. There should be a copy on the desk or wall near the computer, and perhaps another copy on the refrigerator (a particularly effective placement for ravenous teens). Try not to let it get covered up by other papers, photos, take-out menus, etc. If that starts to happen, it’s a good sign that it’s probably time to revisit the FAUP and see if it needs to be updated.

Updates and Revisions

In order for your FAUP to be an effective resource for educating your child and regulating their behavior, it needs to be periodically updated to reflect your child’s intellectual and emotional development, as well as other changing circumstances (new household arrangements, new technologies, new siblings, new friends, etc.).

This is not something that needs to happen every week, or even every month, but it is something that should be done regularly. My suggestion is to sit down with children every 2-3 months, review the existing FAUP, ask for their input on what has worked (or hasn’t), get their suggestions for changes, and then draft a new agreement for everyone to sign.

Ideally, your day-to-day conversations about their electronic activity and general supervision will have given you some ideas about what changes are needed. For instance, if your child is moving more aggressively into the area of social networking, you will want to focus on that subject. If there have been incidents at school or at the homes of other kids, those should be discussed as well. And of course, if your child’s grades or social interaction are not where you’d like them to be, you may want to discuss tighter limits on electronic use altogether.

The important thing to remember is that an FAUP is not a parenting panacea. By itself, it will not prevent electronic misbehavior, and it’s not a substitute for adequate communication and supervision. But it will help you and your children establish commonly-understood ground rules for online behavior that reflect the social and cultural values you want them to learn.

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