Teens and Technology: Setting Healthy Smartphone and Social Media Boundaries

Personal device and social media boundaries for children and teens

Today’s parents of teenagers are faced with a challenge unique to our generation. We didn’t grow up with smartphones or tablets, and social media is not even two decades old. We are only now beginning to realize the longterm effects of this technology on our culture, personal mental health, productivity and families. In fact, many of us struggle to create healthy boundaries for our own personal devices; and yet, we are also responsible for showing our children how to navigate this new world with self-control, good judgement and safety.

The same online world of information and interconnectivity that we, as adults, have at our fingertips 24/7 is available and accessible to our children, too. And if left unchecked, they will use it to the limit: Their voracious minds will devour all the information the internet can show them, their undeveloped sense of identity will be shaped by likes and follows, their innocence will be compromised with images you don’t even want to imagine and this precious gift of childhood will be squandered away before you know it. It’s up to us as parents to protect our kids. It’s our job to set the rules and boundaries that will shield their soft hearts and shapeable minds.

When my daughter was born 13 years ago, I never could have guessed at how different her social life would be from the one that I experienced as a teenager. At the start of seventh grade this year, Sylvie was required to have a personal iPad for school. And as the school year progressed, I have found myself missing her. She manages multiple sets of group texts. She FaceTimes her boy crush for hours at a time. Her friends post group selfies on Instagram and she collaborates on homework team projects via iPad. I know it’s part of growing up. And I know as she gets busier and older, I will become less central to her everyday life. But the feeling of losing her this rapidly to people and websites I have no control over scares me to death.

Sylvie’s newfound technology routine prompted us to quickly implement a multi-pronged strategy to create healthy boundaries for her. She doesn’t always like the rules, so it’s an important part of the process to openly explain the reasoning behind our decisions. When our teens push back against our boundaries, it’s critical we help them understand that the rules are there to protect them. There are three areas our kids need protective boundaries:
1.) We need to set rules that protect their childhood.
2.) We need to find ways to protect their innocence.
3.) We need to keep them physically and emotionally safe.


Childhood is a fleeting gift. It’s a time in life that should be stress-free and full of imaginative play and physical activity. Looking back on my own childhood, I remember it as a time that passed much too quickly. What I wouldn’t give for one more day without bills and work obligations… a day when my only plan was riding my bike to my best friends house and my on,y responsibility was being home for dinner.

Personal devices filled with apps, games and social media have the potential to take away from this priceless time if boundaries are not enforced. The average 8-12 year old spends 4 hours of screen time a day and teenagers are clocking more than that. That’s 4 hours stolen away from reading books in trees, playing with puppies, snowball fights, creating art and laughing with friends.

The simplest and most practical way to safeguard our kids from overuse of their devices is to set specific time limits. In our house, we don’t allow Sylvie to use her personal device at all before school or after 9 pm. Set time restraints that work for your home. If your child has difficulty following the rules, there are some apps that allow you to remotely disable their iPad at specific times during the day. (Check out Ourpact. There are a few different versions and you can pick the one that’s right for your family.)

Another really good idea is to institute regular “phone free zones” for the whole family. Dinner time is the perfect opportunity to show your children that boundaries aren’t just for kids, but that everyone in the family is willing to benefit from a break. Spending time fully focused on each other, present in the moment is an invaluable lesson: Life is happening here, right now, with the people in this room who love each other.


The online world is full of beautiful images, inspiring ideas and kind, authentic people. But it’s also full of dark depravity and hurtful, human pain. The challenge is allowing our children to explore the good, while protecting them from the bad until they are mature enough to process it. The most obvious and practical solution is to enable parental controls on your children’s devices that block adult content and can even block any apps you don’t want your kids using on their phones or iPads. Search parental controls in your App Store and there are a ton of options with various features.

However, one thing to keep in mind is that parental controls cannot monitor or block content once your child is already using the apps. For example, if your child is scrolling through musical.ly, the parental controls can’t see what’s going on. Social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Musical.ly, Snapchat, Twitter) are all platforms where your child has access to the lives, photos and thoughts of millions of complete strangers. In my opinion, the longer you can keep your children off all forms of social media, the easier it will be to protect their fragile innocence. They can never unsee what they find on there.


The teenage brain is far from done forming and therefore, is especially susceptible to the pitfalls of social media. The part of the brain that controls judgement, impulse control, empathy and the ability to foresee consequences are not fully developed. Furthermore, it’s proven that children under the age of twelve have a difficult time understand the ethical implications of their choices. All this adds up to mean that children and teenagers are more likely to engage in bullying, make poor decisions and are more susceptible to addictive habits.

Almost all social media sites have age restrictions, but many are ignored. According to The Social Age Study , approximately 59% of children have already used a social network by the time they are 10. With teenage social media use this common and normalized, avoiding it is easier said than done. Consider these eye-opening statistics from a study by Jean Twenge, author of iGen:

“Using data collected between 2010 and 2015 from more than 500,000 adolescents nationwide, study found kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.”

When I was a teenager, I left the bullies and the mean girls at school when I came home at 3 o clock. My free time was spent with my family, my church friends and kids I chose to hang out with on the weekends. When a teenager is involved in social media now, there is no escape from the constant stream of comments, opinions, and judgements. A child is already hard-wired for affirmation and the desire for that feeling of approval can be consuming. Eating disorders, depression, addiction, self-harm and suicidal thoughts are all a very real risk. This is terrifying to me and well worth the effort to keep my daughter off of social media for as long as possible.

So far, Sylvie hasn’t asked for any accounts yet. But when she does, we have a couple of strategies already in place. The first plan is to offer an incentive program to remain off social media until she is 16. If she stays off ALL social media until that age, she gets a car. This teetotaler approach is partly selfish on my part. I want more time that I don’t have to share my girl with the rest of the world. Many parents plan on giving their kids some sort of transportation anyways, so it makes sense to double down and make them earn it. This strategy might not be right for every family or every child, but it’s an option.

We may come to that decision day and determine that our child is indeed, ready to open Pandora’s box of online networking. In that case, we plan to start slow and level up in phases. Starting with a private account for family only, we can easily monitor how she deals with that responsibility before slowly adding more approved friends and more freedom. A private account with location services turned off will be non-negotiable.

Many parents require their kids to provide them all their usernames and passwords. And while this is certainly helpful, remember that comments and conversations can be deleted at any time. I would suggest going one step further and only allow the apps on your phone. If your son or daughter wants to post a photo, or comment on friends’ photos, they have to log in on your phone. And guess who has the password? You and only you. That way, you are seeing any notifications and content before your child sees it. And you are also aware if the password is attempted from another device. Genius, right?! (Full disclosure: I can’t take credit for this idea. I borrowed this idea from my good friend, Parveen, who is raising an incredibly smart, beautiful and witty teenage daughter. I get a total kick out of following her girl on Instagram. ?)

Every family and every child is different. The most important thing is to know your son or daughter, keep the communication lines open and be intentional and involved with their personal device use. Don’t put off installing apps that let you monitor usage. If you see a spike in a certain category, find out why. Ask them to show you their favorite YouTube channels and their favorite Instagram accounts to follow. The more involved and aware you are, the easier it will be to head off problems. Good luck, we are all in this together!