How to set digital boundaries that work

Image: D Sharon Pruitt 

Children need boundaries in all aspects of their life to make them feel safe. They are especially important - and particularly difficult - in digital life. Here are five tips to help. 

Children need boundaries to help them grow into respectful, confident adults. Setting boundaries that stick online is especially difficult because technology is designed to keep people using it. Add to that the fact that children need to test boundaries as they mature and learn how to find their own and it’s easy to feel you’re fighting a losing battle. 

You can take comfort in the knowledge that setting limits makes children feel safe. By setting boundaries you will help your child learn to set limits for themselves and develop their self-discipline - a skill that will help them as they grow up into adults surrounded by technology.

Some of the boundaries you set will be non-negotiable, especially when it comes to the safety of your child and others. Some will be more flexible. You may, for instance, decide to set different limits on their social media use during exams or at the weekend. Working with your child to agree what they are going to be and taking their perspective into account will make it much easier to make boundaries stick. Here are some more techniques to reduce digital boundary battles in your household. 

Know your child

Only you will know what your child is like. Setting boundaries that work will be much easier if your expectations of how they should behave match where they are in terms of their development. For example, some children will be much more affected by unrealistic images they see on Instagram and other social media platforms than others. If you feel that your child’s mood is negatively impacted by spending time on certain platforms you will want to have clear boundaries about how often and for how long they use them. To make those sort of boundaries work you will need to tell them what you’re worried about, why you’re setting the boundary and how you hope it will help them. 

Understand what they do online

Not all technology is created equal. Understanding what your child enjoys and what they are spending their time doing will help you to explain the boundaries and why you’re putting them in place. For example, a gaming environment can be difficult to leave for lots of reasons - they might be playing with a group of friends and feel they’d be letting them down if they stopped suddenly. 

Good gaming boundaries allow your child the flexibility to plan their gaming and have advance warning when their time is up. Chatting online - in all its instant messaging, live chat and live streaming forms needs a different approach. You need to agree how much time they spend doing it but also boundaries about accepting friend requests, dealing with too many messages and what to do if people start to behave badly.

If their passion is creating and sharing content you’ll want to agree whether they’re old enough, whether you’re going to allow comments and which platforms you’re happy for them to use. The idea that one size fits all when it comes to digital boundaries doesn’t work - the devil is very much in the detail.

Be fair and stay consistent 

We’ve all had moments when it’s suited us to let our children play a little longer on their iPad or games console. No-one can be consistent all the time - but it’s important to try. Boundaries that change aren’t really boundaries - they’re guidelines and children won’t feel compelled to follow them. Alongside consistency comes fairness and it’s something children care about a lot. If they feel that the rules are different for different people they’re going to struggle to understand them unless you have a really good explanation.

Unfortunately, this means you need to think about your own tech use. For example, if you’re telling your children not to take their devices to the bedroom you need to be prepared to explain why it’s different for you, if like us you sometimes take your phone to bed with you. 

Allow room for negotiation 

No-one likes arbitrary rules. Even very young children like to be able to negotiate so making sure your child feels as though they have had a say in what you decided makes your chances of successfully enforcing the boundary far greater.

Of course, there will be times when you simply have to say no because it’s a safety issue or a question of age appropriateness but whenever possible it’s better to negotiate. Aside from making your life easier, it helps children to internalise the rules - to make them something they want to do because they believe in them rather than something they’re just being told. 

Use tools as a backup 

It’s tempting to use parental controls, filters and other tools not just to enforce boundaries but to set them for you. This is a really bad idea. They’re a great tool to help you and your children stick to the boundaries you’ve set but if you use them to set up arbitrary time limits or filters you haven’t explained your children will miss the opportunity to talk to you about why you’ve set the limits and more importantly to take a critical developmental step and internalise the rules. So use them as a backup for your parenting decisions. A tool to help everyone stick to good digital habits, not just a blunt stick to limit access. 

No-one is finding digital boundary setting easy but your sensible offline parenting is your best guide. The technology can make it especially difficult but in the end, you are in control and your children will grow up happier, healthier and more resilient for your efforts - however frustrating that can be at times. 

Further reading

Find more information on building your child’s resilience online in Digital Parenting magazine

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: April 2019

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