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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Be present. No technology at certain times (such as at the table). This rule was a priority for children in relation to their parents.
- Privacy. This involved protecting identity and personal information. This was the primary concern for parents in relation to their children.
- Not at night. No technology after a certain time at night, or no phones in the bedroom after bedtime.
- Real-time check-ups. This rule makes way for parents to check their child’s devices, phones, or social media at any time.
- Ban on particular sites, games or activities. This might include a particular video game, site, or social media platform.
- Responsibilities first. No technology until certain obligations have been met, such as homework or chores.
- Rules about behaviour. No viewing, producing or sharing anything sexual, no bullying, and no bad language.
- Fixed time limits. Rules around how long children can engage with technology. When time’s up, it’s up.
- Be balanced. Balance technology use with other activities, such as playing outside.
- 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.
How would I share this article to FB? it really is that good!
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.
An excellent article!!
Actually just an adult perspective on what an adult thinks a child ought to want.
Actually no – the research was done with children. The research article is hyperlinked. Perhaps you should take a read.
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’
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!!!
You’re welcome Lisa. I’m pleased it was helpful.
I think this is a great idea! If parents want their children to behave a certain way they should be the role model.
lovely practical balanced approach.