The Technology/Social Media Rules Kids and Teens Wish Their Parents Would Follow

The Technology/Social Media Rules Kids and Teens Wish Their Parents Would Follow

We talk often about the rules we should be setting for our children around their use of technology and social media, but here’s the rub – the way we as parents use technology can affect our children as much as their use of technology affects them. Rules around technology usage in families can be a source of angst for both parents and kids. Even when rules are agreed on, enforcing them can bring as much joy into the household as a three-day old temper. 

Researchers explored technology usage rules in families, but from an angle which is rarely considered – the rules children would like their parents to follow. The study, involving 249 families with children between the ages of 10 and 17 has revealed some fascinating details.

Dear Parents,

We wish you would follow these rules – that’s all thanks bye. Love From Your Kids.

The research revealed that our children want many of the same things from us that we want from them. They want us to put down our phones when they’re talking to us and they don’t want us to text and drive – even while we’re stopped at traffic lights. Interestingly though, there is something many parents are doing that our kids want stopped – posting information or photos of them on social media without asking them first.

Even the most loving parents may do this, not thinking their children will mind. It turns out they do. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. It’s likely that many of us would feel the same if our children posted photos of us asleep, dancing like nobody was watching, singing like nobody was listening, and yelling because they actually do listen but not when you ask them (again) to pack the dishwasher.

Often, the posting of photos is likely to be completely innocent, and not intended to make kids squirm, but what many children are telling us, is that for them, it’s crossing a boundary. For our kids, their first experiencing of establishing their boundaries is with us. We’ll be the first ones to feel the brunt of their ‘no’s’, their resistance, or their experimentation with where their boundaries lie. We want this. We want them to be clear about what feels okay and what doesn’t. When we put their important, sometimes private, moments into the internet stratosphere without asking for their permission, the risk is that we’re teaching them that other people can do the same, and that their boundaries don’t matter. Like anything, it needs a little sensibility. Maybe they will care, maybe they won’t, but what they’re telling us is that they’d like it if we made sure. 

The research found seven general rules children wished their parents would follow: 

  1. Be Present. Our children want us to put our phones away when they need us, such as when they’re talking to us. It’s just the way it is that if we want them to talk to us about the important stuff (and it’s all important to them), we need to be ready when they are.
  2. Child autonomy. Not surprisingly, children would love it if parents allowed children to make their own decisions about their technology use. As parents, we would probably love it too – if we knew it would always end well. 
  3. Moderate use. If our children had a say, they would ask us to balance our technology use with other activities. This doesn’t necessarily mean our use is out of balance, but it might reflect our children’s needs to have us present and available when they need us (and so we can notice when they need us). 
  4. Supervise. Our children might hate our rules – we probably hate our rules too sometimes – but they want us to enforce the rules that keep them safe. At first glance, this might seem inconsistent with their need for autonomy, but it isn’t really. Our children want us to keep them safe, but they don’t want us intruding more than that. The struggle can be agreeing on what counts as ‘keeping them safe’ and what counts as ‘intruding’.
  5. Not while driving. Not even at traffic lights. They want to stop us texting or looking at our phones when we’re behind the wheel, even if we’re stopped at traffic lights. They’re watching everything we do. One day they’ll be driving, and when are, we’ll want them to put the phone down too.
  6. Practice what you preach. Kids and teens want their parents to practice what they preach, such as putting the phone down when everyone is at the table.
  7. Don’t overshare. They really don’t want us to share information about them with their explicit permission. According to Sarita Schoenebeck, assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Information and one of the authors of the study,

Twice as many children as parents expressed concerns about family members over sharing personal information about them on Facebook and other social media without permission … Many children said they found that content embarrassing and felt frustrated when their parents continued to do it.” 

What rules are families setting around technology and social media?

Almost all families have rules around social media and technology. The research found that only 6% of families have no rules or expectations at all about technology use. The rules that were reported by children and parents fell primarily into one of the following categories. The list is comprehensive and it makes sense. It would be a handy guide for any family who is exploring their own rules around technology and social media usage.

  1. Be present. No technology at certain times (such as at the table). This rule was a priority for children in relation to their parents.
  2. Privacy. This involved protecting identity and personal information. This was the primary concern for parents in relation to their children.
  3. Not at night. No technology after a certain time at night, or no phones in the bedroom after bedtime.
  4. Real-time check-ups. This rule makes way for parents to check their child’s devices, phones, or social media at any time.
  5. Ban on particular sites, games or activities. This might include a particular video game, site, or social media platform.
  6. Responsibilities first. No technology until certain obligations have been met, such as homework or chores.
  7. Rules about behaviour. No viewing, producing or sharing anything sexual, no bullying, and no bad language.
  8. Fixed time limits. Rules around how long children can engage with technology. When time’s up, it’s up.
  9. Be balanced. Balance technology use with other activities, such as playing outside. 
  10. Cost restrictions. Rules around the spend, such as, ‘no data without wi-fi’.

How to make rules that lessen the likelihood of clashes.

Making rules is easy. Enforcing them – not so much. When the battle is on, it can feel like a gladiatorial clash with a fearless and worthy opponent. Technology and social media can be great things for our kids, and can really open up their world, but it can also come with risks. We don’t want our children growing up feeling scared of a world that can hurt them, but the truth is, that world is there. Children and teens will often be blind to these threats, which can make the dangers worse. This is where we come in.

Having rules around technology and social media use is important, but as much as we can, we want them to understand and agree with the rules. When the rules make sense to them, they’ll be more likely to internalise those rules and follow them even when we aren’t watching – and we won’t be watching most of the time. It’s impossible to constantly know what our kids are doing online. When they follow rules because they believe the rules make sense, rather than to stay out of trouble, it’s more likely that they will stay compliant, even when they have the opportunity to do otherwise. 

One of the best ways to make this happen is to involve them in making the rules. Making the rules as a team will help make sure everyone feels heard and understands the reasons for the rules. It’s important that the conversation is open, and that children feel as though they are able to say whatever they feel. It’s the only way you’re going to know about what might tempt them to push the boundaries. When the conversation is open, they’ll feel heard and you’ll have the opportunity to respond to any of their blindspots or misunderstandings.

There’s something else we need to remember whenever we’re setting rules for our kids about social media, particularly for older kids: They often know the territory better than we do. Although there will be risks they will be blind to, there might also be ones that we’re blind to. We need them involved in the conversation, because we need to learn from them, especially if we want them to learn from us. We need to ask them what they think the biggest risks are, and we need to listen. We also need to ask them what they think about the risks we see, and we need to listen. In their answers, will be the reasons they don’t think the rules are important. This will be the things they’ll tell themselves to make it okay to break the rules. Then we need to ask them again next month, because the landscape is changing so quickly out there.

Research has found that children are more open to our rules when those rules are around their personal safety and welfare, as opposed to when we set rules related to issues of personal taste. Knowing this gives us an edge. If the discussion of rules can tilt towards the risks, and the way the rules can help to ensure their safety, there is likely to be less resistance. (Of course, ‘less resistance’ doesn’t mean ‘no resistance’, which is a pity.) It’s also important to keep in mind that children and teens who are using technology and social media want to feel as though they have some autonomy. For us as parents, the challenge is to give them space to explore their autonomy, and keep them safe at the same time. A way to do this is to invite them to set the rules they need to stay safe. To do this, explain the risks and what you’re worried about, then put it to them to come up with a rule that will address that.

This does a couple of things – both good. First, it lets them feel as though they are setting the rules for themselves. When they feel as though they are having a say in the rules, they are more likely to feel that this is something they are doing for themselves, rather than something you are making them do. This won’t always run as smoothly as you’ll want it to, of course. There might still be disagreement about which rules deserve to be rules, but it will help.

The second thing it will do is engage their thinking brain. Particularly for teens, decisions are often made without the engagement of the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is able to think through consequences, problem-solve, and analyse. The pre-frontal cortex won’t be fully developed until the end of adolescence, which is somewhere in the early 20s. In the meantime, they will be more likely to pay attention to the potential positives and less to the potential negatives. Their decisions will be based around what they can gain, rather than what it might cost them. This is why teens can easily get themselves into all sorts of trouble with sexting, cyberbullying, or sharing things they shouldn’t, or overexposing themselves to the world via the internet. This doesn’t mean they can’t use their pre-frontal cortex – they can, and when they do, they’ll do great things, but until it’s fully developed it will need to be ‘switched on’. Having the discussion about the risks and ways to manage those risks with rules will involve them having to problem solve, think of consequences, and use information to plan. All of these will engage the pre-frontal cortex and switch on their ‘thinking brain’. 

And finally …

Technology has an enormous capacity to open up the world for our kids and teens. They can have information at their fingertips, they can find support for anything, they can discover, experiment, and find a place they belong – but this can open up just as many problems. Other risks that technology brings include the dilution of their social skills, the need to always be accessible or ‘plugged in’, and the difficulty in finding space away from the world when the world’s access to them sits on their bedside table. The key is finding balance, and doing what we need to do to help them stay safe, and emotionally and socially healthy. Setting the rules we want them to follow isn’t always going to be enough. They spend so much time away from us, and if we don’t have them on board with the rules, the risk is that they’ll make their own decisions around which ones are important enough to matter. We don’t have control, but we can have influence. There are things we want from them, and there are things they want from us. This gives us an important opportunity to nurture our influence by asking them what matters to them, and where we can, negotiating the rules for the family, as a family. 

20 Comments

Karen Young

Thanks Jill! The share buttons are on the left hand side of the article, or if you’re on a mobile they are behind the grey ‘share this’ button at the bottom of the page. Hope that helps.

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Samson

Actually just an adult perspective on what an adult thinks a child ought to want.

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Samson

I read this part: ‘Of the 249 children in our sample, 43 (17%) reported that they believe adults should not be held to any rules or expectations about their technology use, saying things like “they are adults, they can do whatever they want.”

Of the remaining 203 children, 29 only described one rule or expectation. Thus, children described 383 rules for parents. Of these, 42 (11%) were not specific enough to be meaningful’

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Tammy

Thank you for this! It reinforces many of our experiences in our home around technology. One question I have is how to handle consequences when the rules are not followed? We’ve had a particularly difficult time with this aspect of technology. It is easy to place restrictions on access but we find these restrictions are not helping to correct the behavior of, for example, not shutting down technology at the agreed upon time. Additionally, we’ve made distinctions between screen time with online games and screen time for research purposes, but now it seems there is always something to research. Any thoughts?

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Karen Young

Ahhh – the ‘I need it to research’ conundrum. A lot of this has to come down to trust, especially because you can’t be watching over their shoulder constantly. There are some apps out there that might help. Here is a list that might have something for you http://www.bewebsmart.com/parental-controls/comprehensive-list-phones-computers-tablets/. In relation to consequences, it can be helpful to involve them in coming up with them too. Let them know that you want to give them freedom, and that you want to trust them, but there still needs to be consequences for when the rules are broken. Of course one of the heaviest consequences for a lot of kids is losing your trust. Try to have the consequences as natural as possible. So if for example you find that they are messaging in the middle of the night when phones are meant to be off at 9pm, the consequence might be that there is no technology in the bedroom after 9pm, or perhaps no phones after 7pm. Obviously this will depend on the ages of the children, and the way they use their technology.

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Elspeth

Yes, have to agree with everything that Erika said about this article. Always timely of course – technology is all pervasive. It is hard to see our own patterns of use as a problem – we’re doing ‘important’ things whereas our perception of our children’s use can be that it’s less important. This article was more calming than most about tech and our children. I do panic about it. And even with trying to discuss my concerns and then work together to get some rules in place, We struggle to find a balance of tech and other activities. I think the questions to ask will really help – I have asked what my son finds most enjoyable, and watched and chatted as he ‘works’. His favourite game is so engaging. He can code, play, ‘meet’, chat and play with his friends. He can earn a little money and above all kudos. That’s an amazing thing for a young person who finds school hard in many ways. I still long for more balance of activities. I will try these new questions you suggest and see if we can get a little closer to my idea of safe (for brain development and emotional health and development and physical too). Thank you Karen x

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Karen Young

Thanks Elspeth. I hope the questions are able to open up a useful conversation with your son. You’re absolutely right about the benefits of social media and technology. There are so many, and you’ve described an important ones – the opportunity to connect with others. Like anything that has a lot to offer, it can also have it’s problems. The key is communication. If you can keep the conversation open and and safe (even if that takes a few conversations) it will hopefully be easier to manage the risks and expand the potential for it to add something positive to your son’s life.

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Ty Hatfield

Excellent article Karen! We love that you included that kids have boundaries too around this issue! As parent educators for 19 years we know this is critical to creating cooperation and safety.

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Erika

Yet again your newsletter (and this article) came at the right time! Thank you for such a measured and genuinely helpful approach to an issue which definitely taxes a lot of families – it is so hard to strike a balance between embracing the positives that technology can offer and the concerns that it generates when our kids are ‘plugged in’ on a daily basis. You are absolutely right, we DO need to practice what we preach, as kids are brilliant at sniffing out all of those little double standards we think we have hidden!

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Barbara G

I love getting your articles, and would like to post them on my Cool Kind Kid Facebook page where I daily am posting relevant articles regarding bullying, social skills, and raising kind, caring children. Please put a direct link on your articles to Facebook and others so I don’t have to send to my social media person to do this. Please note that I am 75 and for the last 20 years my late in life mission has been creating and developing curricula and products to help young children gain the social skills tools necessary for rejecting bullying.

Reply
Karen Young

Barbara I love that you’re doing this! There is a direct link to facebook on the articles. On a laptop, the share buttons are on the left hand side. On a mobile it’s down the bottom behind the light grey ‘Share This’ button. I hope this helps. And thank you for sharing!

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Lisa S

This is just fabulous!! Thank you. I can literally hear my 9 year olds voice in the research shared. So validating for both of us!!!

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Kathleen M

I think this is a great idea! If parents want their children to behave a certain way they should be the role model.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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