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The Healthy Boundaries Conversation

Marco Verch Professional Photographer on flickr

When we consider how we speak to children about boundaries, we are constantly trying to teach them about dangers that exist in the wider world. “Don’t talk to strangers” or “Look both ways before crossing the street” are usually some of the first lessons children hear about developing healthy boundaries. By the time children reach Middle School these conversations about boundaries transition to conversations about the dangers of smoking or alcohol. However, one of the most important conversations that isn’t being had in classrooms and across kitchen tables is the conversation about boundaries with technology.

The conversations parents have with young children about strangers tends to come from children’s overly trusting nature and the unfortunate fact that not everyone deserves their trust. However when it comes to technology, many parents and society in general have lost this ability to take account of what is considered dangerous and what is considered safe. In a strange turn of events, technology companies have snake-charmed many into believing that devices, apps, and games are safe and appropriate for children as young as Kindergarten age when the research very much says the opposite. Moreover, apps like TikTok and services like YouTube Kids have been introduced as safe alternatives while at the same time onboarding children into services that have detrimental effects on privacy, safety, and mental health.

As a teacher of technology, I can see how the internet, gaming, and modern computing provides a gateway to learning about computer hardware, software development, and game design. However, more and more I see students falling into pitfalls and whirlpools related to technology addiction. This is truly one of the great vexing questions of our time: how do we provide our children access to the beneficial aspects of technology while also avoiding its lasting, toxic effects? One way to maintain the benefits of technology while also avoiding the downsides is to give kids the agency and encouragement to set personal boundaries with apps, games, and devices.

There are two rough camps parents tend to fall into when it comes to technology boundaries. One camp is the restricted access camp where parents are strict arbiters of their children’s technology use. I have students who will simply say that their parents will never allow them to have phones or social media. Other students get to use phones in public spaces and during designated times. I applaud these parents because this is not an easy road to travel in this day and age. But, there is a deeper issue with this strategy. If children never learn the ability to manage their own boundaries, sooner or later they will find themselves on their own and the temptations may prove to be too difficult to ignore.

The second camp is the open access camp. Children are given wide latitude when it comes to devices and apps. Many students with parents in this camp are heavy users of social media by the end of elementary school. In my experience, they tend to be more well-versed and fluent with technology, but their attention usually is consumed by the current internet trends and memes. If a student has a strong enough identity outside of technology (sports, music, etc), they tend to have better outcomes; however, this is a group I usually worry about as they move through Middle School.

The concept of a boundaries conversation could be beneficial for both of these groups. The way I usually frame these conversations is through the lens of technology as a “toxic friend” – a fascinating and affirming friend that also has a dangerous and mean side. Middle School age children find this metaphor particularly apt. Many of them have friends that they both hold dearly, but also realize may not have their best interests at heart. Sitting down with a simple Venn Diagram and asking them to define boundaries can be a watershed experience. YouTube is a good example. What is my personal boundary with YouTube? What is appropriate? I enjoy watching videos by LEGO artists, but what do I do if I see a violent video being suggested?

The goal is to empower children to turn off the computer, phone, or video game system and walk away on their own. This is no easy feat; however, when we begin rewarding children for setting boundaries, we are giving them the gift of agency. By starting these conversations early and repeating them often, parents can prepare their children for a world where technology is ubiquitous, but also slippery and dangerous. Being capable of setting boundaries with “Toxic Friends” like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram also gives kids the ability to search out better company. Hopefully, they will gravitate to sites that preemptively protect their privacy, autonomy, and right to consent. In the end, parenting in the modern world remains a challenging task, but armoring your children with agency and boundaries is a great first step to giving them the tools to manage on their own.

Learn More

9 Steps to set boundaries for technology


8 Tips for setting technology boundaries


Setting and Keeping Technology Boundaries


Healthy Technology Use


Talking to your child about Internet Safety


Online Safety


Helping Kids Be Safe, Confident Online Explorers


Internet Safety Conversation Starters


Internet Safety for Kids


Internet Safety for Teenagers


Online Safety Advice for Teens 14+