Setting Boundaries for Family Tech Use

By Tracey Dowdy

Dr. Richard Graham launched the U.K.’s first technology addiction program in 2010, with patients as young as four years old. One of those patients was a toddler, who had developed an unhealthy dependence on her iPad. The child used the iPad 3-4 hours a day and became visibly agitated when it was taken away from her.

Obviously such behavior is extreme and most of us wouldn’t see that as something happening in our own homes. However, setting healthy boundaries for our families, particularly for younger family members who may not have the ability to make wise choices or self-regulate yet, can be a challenge.

So what’s a parent to do? How do you determine how much is too much or how soon is too soon?  These simple guidelines can provide a framework for you and your family to raise tech-savvy kids and set healthy boundaries.

Start a conversation. “Because I said so!” has to be one of the least effective ways for parents to communicate their point of view. Helping your kids understand from the very beginning that boundaries are in place for a reason and their safety trumps any trends in social media and mobile tech is paramount. The key is to involve them in a conversation, not engage in debate. Make them part of the process, so your motives are clear you’re not just imposing an arbitrary set of rules.

Set clear rules. offers several different family contracts for online safety. Contracts contain statements like “I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable” and “I will not give out my Internet password to anyone (even my best friends) other than my parents.” Contracts are broken down by age so younger children have different boundaries from teens, and they can be printed out so parents and kids can both sign. If the rules are broken, you can refer back to the contract to remind kids of the boundaries and choose appropriate consequences. Many families choose to post the contract somewhere everyone can see it like the fridge door so you never have to hear “I forgot!”

Continue to communicate. I often use the example that you would never let your preschooler play alone on a public playground and the internet is no different. With age and trust come greater levels of freedom. Obviously you want to know more about what your 5-year-old gets up to online than your high schooler, yet no topic should be off limits. Many parents use the “I pay, I play” rule. In other words, if I pay for your smartphone I get to know what you’re up to. Remember, if we as parents have heard of it, our kids are probably over it, so keep those lines of communication open.

Be careful what you post. Remind your kids of the simple principle “If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, you shouldn’t say it online.” The internet provides a false sense of anonymity that has led to epic levels of bullying. Teach your kids that the words they say can wound just as deeply when posted as a comment as if it was said face-to-face.

Use security features. Take advantage of the security and safety features native to your mobile devices. Smartphones in particular have security features built in but they won’t do you any good if you don’t activate them. Use common sense: Don’t let apps have access to your contacts; password protect all your devices; limit apps from tracking your location; don’t let emails and messages be previewed from the locked screen…practical, simple, secure.

Be consistent. If you set boundaries, maintain them. There’s no shorter road to frustration than constantly changing expectations and consequences. This is where a family online safety contract is invaluable. Once the rules have been established and the consequences for failing to follow the guidelines have been set, it’s up to you to follow through. You are the parent and, as you well know, a big part of teaching our kids responsibility is also teaching them that online actions have real-world consequences.

Be a good example. Kids can smell a phony better than a beagle can sniff out bacon. Follow the online contract. Be respectful, be responsible and maintain your boundaries. Sure we’ve all had to take a work call or answer an email from home but if you have a “no tech at the dinner table” rule, follow it. You’re setting yourself and your kids up for failure if you don’t do your part.

Be patient. If you’ve never really had guidelines in place before, be mindful that change is often met with resistance. Keep the lines of communication open with your kids, so they see the reasons behind your decisions. Rules are easier to follow if you’re part of the process of setting them up.

Celebrate the wins! When you see your kids putting down their smartphones or closing their laptops because they’ve used up their allotted screen time, be sure to acknowledge it. You don’t like stopping in the middle of a favorite movie or TV show and it’s no more fun if you’re just about to save the princess or crush that last piece of candy. We’re often quick to chastise when rules are broken but it’s just as important to celebrate when the rules are followed.

Be flexible. That may seem as if it contradicts my earlier statement to be flexible but it makes sense in the context that rules, like people, will change. As your children get older and demonstrate greater levels of responsibility, you can loosen those restraints. Obviously a high schooler will need greater Internet access to do homework research than a second grader. Keep the lines of communication open and be willing to revisit that contract to keep it up-to-date.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


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