There MUST be boundaries around technology! Yup, I said it. Boundaries are a must-have when raising a child today in a digitally dominated era. I see more and more teens come into my office with their phones dinging and buzzing in their hands—demanding their precious attention and time. And, we all know how tantalizing those notifications are—ever tried not to check your phone when you know you just received a text?
This is where boundaries come in. Boundaries are how we create safe and constructive separations around people, places, and things. As adults, we have boundaries for all kinds of things—not sharing Trump’s latest Tweet at the dinner table, saving that beer for the end of our workday or not checking our work emails on Sundays. Boundaries keep us in a healthy check with the world and its multitude of demands and distractions.
The same goes for teens and their phones. Sure, the phone is a convenient and reliable way for parents to call their kid, but the phone has transformed from mere communication into a whole other world to which teens belong. Often, their social life is very tied up in who’s posting and liking and commenting on whose social media. Teens text each other more than ever and can feel as though they must be “available” to their friends and social groups at all times. Phones have become so wrapped up in the identity of teens that setting boundaries on it as a parent can be very, very difficult!
Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling on setting those tricky phone boundaries:
- Before purchasing a phone, create a Phone Agreement with your teen. Don’t stress--the agreement can still be made if your teen already has a phone. Either way, the key is to remember that it’s your job as the parent to hold firm to those boundaries and to remind your teen if they forget about the agreement (which they are likely to do, unintentionally or intentionally). Work on it together! Get your teens feedback. This demonstrates to them that you are giving them a privilege and a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously. You can explain that you’re creating this agreement because it’s healthy for everyone NOT to be on their devices all the time. Allow your teen to protest or disagree. Hold firm to your knowledge that you’re teaching them how to set boundaries by enforcing this phone limit.
- This leads to the first rule on the Phone Agreement: phones are a privilege, which sometimes parents forget to tell their teens! Having a phone is a pretty big expense and should be treated with care. So, right from the start, remind them that the phone requires payments, and if your teen is old enough and wants more bling or features for their phone—get their participation and contribution in purchasing it. This teaches responsibility, and at the same time, your teen gets to earn something they are excited to get.
- Other rules on the Phone Agreement can include what you expect your teen NOT to do with their phone, including cyber-bullying, using as a distraction during class or at school, viewing porn or sending nude pics of themselves or other teens, etc. The agreement can also include a phone “curfew”—the time of night when you want them off their phone. Depending on your teen’s willingness to comply, some parents find it helpful to keep their kid’s phone in their room overnight.
- That leads me to the next boundary—it’s YOUR phone, not your teen's. While you pay the bills for the phone and your kid lives in your house, you are in charge of the phone. That doesn’t mean you get unlimited access to it whenever you feel like, nor should you take it away unexpectedly. This does mean being firm and holding the boundary that the phone is under your name and belongs to you, so if phone use is abused in any way, you are allowed to enforce restrictions.
- Today’s phone is yesterday’s candy bar in line at the grocery store. The kid tantrums and pouts, demanding the candy bar from their parents. Parents attempt to ignore the behavior, but the child gets louder and louder until finally—they cave. (After all, it’s annoying and humiliating, right?!) The parents purchase the candy bar to appease the screaming child, and that is usually the moment the child realizes that if they throw a bigger or louder fit, they’ll get what they want. Your teens know this too. Phone privileges must be taken away if your teen violates the Phone Agreement and has not demonstrated appropriate behavior with their phone use. Teens may have a meltdown or tantrum if the phone is taken—be prepared for that. Again, the phone is their identity, and they will feel lost without it. Reassure them they will get it back, but that they must earn it back.
- Model appropriate boundaries to your teen. Demonstrate that you can behave with your phone as well. Put the phone away at dinner time, at the movies, at the store, while driving and so on. If you are texting and driving, trust me—they will too. They learn behavior from their parents, so show them through your actions what appropriate phone etiquette is and how to responsibly and safely use their phone.
- Have a digital free day! More and more research is linking phones to depression and anxiety due to the limited real life social interactions teens get while emerged in their phones. I highly recommend spending some time each week WITHOUT phones. (This can be an entire day or an afternoon or evening. If that feels too hard, start off with a tech-free hour). Unplug and recharge your own batteries. Do it on a day that is easiest for the whole family to leave their phones behind—you might head out for a hike or to a museum or have a family game or movie night at home. And, reassure your teen they can return to their phone after—you can even tell them to blame you if their friends are upset that they’ve been away. Believe it or not, your teen might even come to enjoy this phone-free time!
Remember, parents, at the end of the day, you want your teen to be healthy, happy and thriving. In order to do that, boundaries are key! Saying no and holding firm to your boundaries supports the entire family, not just the angry teen demanding the candy bar.
By Arielle Grossman
Want more help for your family or your teen? We'd love to be there for you.