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

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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. 

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