Creating healthy tech boundaries for your kids

Parents have a love/hate relationship with their kids' devices. On one hand, they see the educational benefit of many creative and content-rich apps, but on the other hand, they witness kids having a difficult time at putting down the screen. This dilemma has many parents either caving into their kid's desire for constant connectedness or insisting that the child goes Amish. Surly, there's a middle ground. There must be a way to teach kids how to be smart stewards of technology. I think the solution is found by creating clear boundaries with open, and sometimes even awkward, communication.

We know that children, especially pre-teens and teens, desperately need boundaries. Research in early brain development shows that as the teenage mind undergoes growth spurts of their pre-frontal cortex, self-regulation is near impossible. As media expert Erin Walsh says, the child's job during this stage of life is to test the boundaries and the reliability of those in authority. It's the parent's job to create and consistently maintain those boundaries.

Know thyself

The first step in establishing boundaries is to consider how you the parent actively model usage of technology. Kids will simply mimic what they see you doing. Many of us have felt the conviction of our child's request to put down the phone and listen. If we ourselves do not recognize the addictive nature of technology, then how can we expect to instruct our children along the same lines?

Again, you and your spouse will want to discuss the place of technology in your home and what type of atmosphere you want to foster. In light of the growth spurts occurring within the teenage brain, we have a few recommendations.

Define sacred spaces

First, think of the "sacred spaces" for your family and how you might want to protect those times. Sacred spaces are times or places when you want to be able to talk with one another — share the day's highlights, bummers, and oddities. For example, if dinners are especially important for your family's bonding time, you ought to strongly consider abiding by a "no tech at the dinner table" rule.

iPads in the bedroom

Nearly all media and brain development specialists recommend removing screens from the bedroom. (This includes televisions as well as iPads and iPhones.) There have been links found between bedroom screen-time and lack of sleep, which in turn affects academic performance and the ability to stay focused when working. In light of this, we strongly recommend that bedrooms are an iPad-free zone.

Along with an iPad-free bedroom, we recommend setting a curfew for the device. This can be something easily configured and monitored with the a parental control service like Curbi.

Other considerations

Several families have been blessed by having a phone basket or charging station in either the office or entry way to the home. This doesn't necessarily mean devices are off-limits, but by adding a bit of friction and distance between us and our device, we're given the space to truly think about what it is we need to do with it. We're also reminded that our first priority is to those immediately within our vicinity. If this idea appeals to you, try not to have the basket in a high traffic area of your home, such as the kitchen, as that might be too close at hand and thereby defeat the purpose.

It might be a good exercise for your family to observe a tech-sabbath once a week or month. Choose to fill your time with other hobbies that show children the richness of books, the outdoors, and family games. This serves to show kids that the world isn't totally experienced through the lens of a digital device.

Talk to other families in your neighborhood, school, or church to discover additional ways to establish healthy boundaries. Share with them your struggles and what your family is doing to raise holistic, wise kids. Not only will this give you new ideas, but it will help alleviate your child's perception that yours is the only family with rules about device usage.

An open dialogue

Regularly talk to your kids about what they are doing on their iPad, and invite them to ask you the same thing. Asking what someone is doing on their iPad or smartphone (in a polite way!) can actually be a fun way to open up new conversations with your kids. Likewise, if they learn that Mom and Dad use their iPad for reading rather than social media, it will communicate right usage of these devices. Encouraging these interruptions proves to your kids that you prioritize them over email.

As I mentioned before, these are merely suggestions. If the shoe fits, wear it gladly. But if not, cast it aside. My family doesn't abide by each of these restrictions, and some will come and go depending on our family's season. My hope is that they will help your family find more time to talk about technology, its impact on our lives, its proper use, and what we can do to make sure we're not missing out on each other's lives.

Rick Stawarz

Minneapolis, MN

I am an Apple Certified Support Professional with over a decade of experience supporting families, schools, and businesses. Tech has always captured my imagination, but it's not my only passion. I'm an ordained Anglican minister;  Aeropress is a daily ritual of mine; I've driven across Mongolia; and I'm the father of three girls. I hope to provide for you a balanced and realistic perspective into the practicality of technology.