When people think about boundaries in families, they often think about family members knocking on a closed door, or what type of information should be shared between parents and children or teens. Boundaries with technology are often overlooked.
For years, parents have struggled and debated about how much oversight they should have in their child or teen’s online conversations with friends (and sometimes strangers). Should a parent have an app that allows them to see everything their child or teen does on their phone or other device? Should parents sneak and look at their child’s electronics? Or should parents demand “hand over your phone” at random times to be checked.
Many parents know that even when they try to put these strategies in place, their child or teen is able to get around it, either with apps that quickly make their messages disappear, or by creating secret accounts. They also can access their accounts on friends’ devices. It can easily become a game of “cat and mouse.” It becomes an issue of control that can go way beyond the electronics.
The other issue is parents who casually allow their children (sometimes young children under age 10) to go onto their (the parents’) devices. Parents hand over their phone for a child to play a game or talk to a grandparent. But without supervision, the child (or teen) may also be looking at a parent’s texts, emails, pictures, and sometimes pornography. The child can access porn that was already on the parent’s phone or iPad, but they can also easily go online and look at porn that they find themselves. In my own practice experience, there have been many children who have learned of a parent’s affair, business secrets, and other upsetting and inappropriate things, from being on their parent’s phone or iPad. Children and teenagers may fail to learn boundaries related to tech impacting future friend, roommate and partner relationships.
So what can a parent do? Each child, teen and family is different and there are many different circumstances. Here are a few basic guidelines and topics to consider:
Children seem to be getting phones at younger and younger ages and being allowed access to them for much of the day if not all day, and sometimes overnight. The phone often becomes like part of their body. This is not surprising, as many parents treat their own phones this way. Many parents have the experience of trying to limit their child’s phone access, only to be treated to a tantrum or other negative feedback. Wanting to avoid these unpleasantries, the parent “caves” and lets the child have the phone.
Access and Supervision
When a child first gets a phone, that is the best time to establish boundaries. First decide what your child will be allowed to do on the phone, and what they are not allowed to do. Give them various scenarios about what could happen and what they should do if those things happen (such as a friend texting something inappropriate or hinting at something dangerous, or being contacted by someone they don’t know).
Set times of day the child is allowed to use the phone. It should be when you are around, able to walk by and glance over their shoulder. Do not allow a child to take the phone into their bedroom. Overnight, your child’s phone should be in the parent’s bedroom. Many children and teenagers do not have the capability to self-regulate their phone (and other tech) use and need their parents’ help. Without these boundaries, it is too easy for your child or teen to stay up all night, be unable to focus on homework, or worse, become involved in something inappropriate or downright dangerous.
Many children have TV and video games in their bedrooms. Then parents complain their child stays in their room too much and doesn’t want to come out and do things with the family. Some of these children will end up spending too much time playing video games to the point where no other activity is pleasurable. And, children may also be watching TV and playing video games well into the early morning hours if they have access to it. By keeping TV and gaming in a common area in the house, parents can more easily monitor what their child is watching and doing.
Consistent Expectations and Expanding Interests
Children should have boundaries around how much TV and gaming they are allowed to do. Set up a guideline and stick to it. If your child starts having a bad attitude about getting off video games or turning off the TV, that is a sign that they are starting to have an unhealthy relationship with those activities. Take time to introduce your child to new activities, whether they are things outside the house or inside, with others or alone. Some examples include team sports, art lessons, crafts, book clubs, volunteer work, and taking care of a pet.
Privacy, Communication, and Seeking Help
Teens will want privacy on their phones. That is natural, and they should have it. If there is nothing suspicious going on, it is probably ok to let your teen have privacy on the phone. If there is a problem in your child’s life, or something suspicious is going on, before grabbing your teen’s phone and looking through it, ask them what is going on.
Try to talk to them about any difficulties. If they don’t want to talk, but you think there is something going on, let them know you are going to make an appointment with a mental health provider who they can talk to. Don’t ask them if they want to go to talk to someone. Let them know that if there are difficulties in their life and they are not comfortable talking to their parent (or other trusted relative or adult friend), then is appropriate to seek help from a mental health professional.
Although teens are gaining independence, they should not have access to their phones 24 hours a day. Set a time at night where the phone gets put into the parent’s bedroom. There can be a different time for school nights and weekend nights. Some teens will need phone boundaries after school and in the evening in order to concentrate on school work. And it is important to model and require they put their phones away during family meal times or other important times when the family is interacting.
Younger teens should not have a TV or video games in their bedrooms. By the time they are in 11th or 12th grade, it is appropriate to transition to that. They will be away at college soon and will have those things in their rooms anyway, so starting the transition at home is often a good idea. Let them learn from their mistakes, while they are still living at home. Even with an older teen, if they are not able to self-regulate, it may still be a good idea to keep the TV and video games out of their bedroom as it can be too tempting for some people and they find themselves unable to get off the game even at 2:00 am.
Some of today’s parents grew up with video games and phones. But many did not. Those who did not say “It’s a whole new world out there!” They often feel helpless and confused. In my practice I have seen many smart parents who have trouble setting boundaries with technology. It may be helpful to think of technology as just another piece of parenting. You would not allow your child to leave your house at any time of day, with people you don’t know, to go an undisclosed location. The same is true with tech. By considering these topics and determining what works best for your family, your child can stay connected online, maintain privacy, and respect others.