Defining Personal Limits

MAR 16, 2022

Teaching Kids to Set Boundaries Around Technology

Learn how to keep your kids safe and promote independence

By Joseph Pratt
Gabb Family Resources

Kids can learn to accept healthy boundaries by educating them about potential dangers, giving them space for self-discovery, communicating that the boundaries are there because you love them, and encouraging them to engage in other interests.

“Why don’t you trust me? I’d never do that!”
“All my friends’ parents let them have social media!”
“Choosing the apps I want is a basic human right!”

-Typical teenager

Getting Kids to Buy-in to Tech Boundaries

With no buy-in, rules often cause tension between “parental control and teen autonomy” (Wisniewski et al., 2017, p. 53). How many times have you heard, “Don’t you trust me?” or “Stop treating me like a child!” This generation of kids demand a seat at the table, and we can allow for parental authority and best judgement to preside while allowing for a child’s voice to be heard.

While setting boundaries will always be necessary, you can get on the same page and minimize arguments. Setting goals and limits for screen time will model for kids the process of balancing wants and needs within the context of protecting their own mental health and wellbeing.

Finding that balance will always be a work in progress, but these principles can help you and your child set tech limits together.

mother and two kids working on a puzzle together

Informing, Not Demanding

Once you and your kids have set tech boundaries together, what then? It’s easier for kids to help create and follow tech rules if they receive open and direct information about the pitfalls of too much tech. A good example of an educational campaign that improved the physical health of our nation is the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on the dangers of tobacco use (Cummings & Proctor, 2014).

In 1964, 42% of Americans were smokers.

Before that time, 42% of Americans were smokers. By 2011, that figure had dropped by half to 20% of the population. Smoking rates declined by educating young Americans through news stories, media coverage, warning labels on tobacco products, and school education programs (History, 2018). The most impactful result of this campaign were the conversations around the dinner table when kids confronted their parents about smoking. Families began to have conversations about the risks of tobacco use and many adults quit and fewer children adopted the vice.

Today’s social media woes have often been compared to the smoking problems of the 60’s. Like smoking, too much screen time increases rates of aggression, depression, obesity, and social anxiety, to name a few (Lissak, 2018, p. 152).

Imagine the impact of discussions surrounding excessive device use. Families will begin making healthier tech decisions and will put down devices and connect with one another even more (Ko et al., 2015, p. 867).

family sitting down for dinner together laughing

Encourage Self-Discovery

Kids enjoy finding answers themselves. It helps to let them internalize the dangers of excessive tech on their own, rather than being told what to believe (Heath & Heath, 2017). Doing so can empower them to internalize the dangers of too much technology too soon, rather than being told what to believe (Heath & Heath, 2017). To encourage exploration, invite each family member to write down how much time they spend on their device for a week. After you add up the numbers, talk about the fun that could be had by spending at least half those hours living life beyond the screen.

Keep talking about what your children want to be when they grow up, what kind of person they admire, and what it will take to realize those dreams. Talk about how technology can help them and how it could be an obstacle. By listening to your kids and letting them come to their own conclusions, you’ll create a stronger connection. They’ll be more receptive to the research you share about excessive device use.

Make Space for Self-Discovery

Creating space for self-discovery invites your child to own part of the solution. They become more motivated to follow the rules and less driven to find ways around them when they have participated in the creation process. This internal filter will protect your children more than any external filter you could attach to their devices.

There is value in discussions, above and beyond simply creating filters. It provides an excuse, an opportunity, and a fun way to discuss things which may be otherwise ignored.

—Yasmeen Hashish, Department of Computer Science, University of Manitoba, 2014

Focus On the Child, Not the Behavior

It’s tempting to lay down the law and use any means necessary to get a child to behave when their wants are unrealistic, unsafe, or against family values. However, forcing good conduct has been proven to negatively affect their behavior, mental health, and motivation (Koestner et al., 1984, p. 235).

In contrast, when kids receive unconditional acceptance, love, and respect, they are less likely to view rules as a threat to their independence (Koestner et al., 1984). While some rules need to be enforced, you’ll have a better chance of success if you explain them calmly and clearly instead of threatening them (Purswell, 2020, p. 230).

Discussing limits has many benefits for your child’s moral development and your relationship with each other. Dr. Yasmeen Hashish advised parents, “[There is] value in discussion opportunity, above and beyond simply creating filters . . . [It provides] an excuse, opportunity, and fun way to discuss things which [otherwise] may be less interesting for the child or [even] ignored” (2014, p. 1805).

We risk losing mutual trust and appreciation if we tell our kids what to do without listening to them.

young boy doing a scooter trick in the air

Replace When We Restrict

In the 1970s, researcher Bruce K. Alexander conducted a series of experiments on drug addiction. His now-famous study found that rats with robust social lives who frolicked together in enclosures with toys and tunnels consumed less drug-laced water than their counterparts who resided in cages alone. Even rats already addicted to drug water gradually drank less when placed in the novel environment.

One thing we can learn from these experiments is that social support matters. When there was nothing to do and no one to socialize with, the test subjects turned to drugs. When there were plenty of alternative experiences, they chose to engage rather than seek the mind-numbing alternative.

little girl performing a magic show to stuffed animals

To help your kids set technology limits, encourage them to replace screen time with other worthwhile activities, like playing with friends or siblings (Carlson et al., 2010, p. e94). Guiding our kids through a process of self-discovery will help them find activities they’re passionate about too. It may be a team sport, time at a potter’s wheel, science experiments, or even magic lessons! Get creative.

When we make our child’s interests our interests, our support will help them improve their skills, stick to hard tasks, and spend less time in front of a screen (Ryan & Deci, 2000). You’ll bond over baking goods, learning card tricks, and being soccer moms and dads.

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