Tips for setting healthy tech boundaries

We interviewed a psychologist for expert advice on how to stay connected with your children in the digital age.

When your child is playing with a tablet or smartphone, do you ever feel as though they’ve completely tuned you out? How do you teach your kids to handle screen time and technology safely, while strengthening your relationship with them?

Find the answers in our interview with psychologist Jarmila Tomková.

In order for parents to have an overview of what their children are doing online, they need to learn how to communicate and build trust. How do you do that without being too intrusive or insensitive?

This is essential. Building the warmest relationship possible is very important. When it comes to technologies, all you have to do is talk about this area naturally, as if it were any other regular topic. Do not make a big deal out of it and don’t get stuck on distinguishing between what is happening online and offline. Instead, talk about technologies with a similar tone and passion as you talk to your children about other things that are happening in your life or that are surprising. That is the baseline for building trust, together with a culture of openness and sharing, between kids and parents.

When is the right time to start communicating this way?

At preschool age. It is a necessary investment in their sense of security and their willingness to share their experience in any environment, including online.

But how do you talk to young children, such as preschoolers, about things from the online environment that they can’t imagine on their own?

Here I would suggest using analogies that help children to better imagine the situation we are trying to describe. Let’s name one specific example: Parents are used to explaining to children why kids should not open doors to strangers. Similarly, parents can explain to their children why it is better not to click on sites they do not know. Through this analogy, you can show them that even you, as an adult, would first look at a person through the peephole, and if you didn’t trust the situation, you would not open the door. And if we don’t want to open the door to a stranger in real life, we shouldn’t do that on the internet either. These analogies might be very useful when setting the rules.

Screen time rules help set boundaries for children. Why are they worth following?

Many parents are afraid of setting rules, but there is nothing wrong with setting boundaries. Children find the rules useful, because they make them feel safe and help them understand the world. Without them, they wouldn’t know what they can and cannot do. The rules are their tool for navigating the world. For this reason, it’s important for you to explain the rules around using devices and spending time online very clearly, so that children really understand why you are doing this.

But some parents might be struggling with their children’s emotions in reaction to a ban on an activity, or even feel that they are restricting the child. What would you say to them?

This is a common feeling that arises with children who get angry and cry. In such cases, parents really feel that they are restricting their children. Consequently, the parents have trouble in setting boundaries, or they are too tolerant when it comes to time spent with technologies.

Why is that wrong? 

Because then children will have weak internal boundaries, which will affect them further in life. I believe every parent is responsible for explaining how we do things. Parents need to be aware of their role and stop putting their children on a pedestal. The parent is the authority.

Children might cry or be angry from time to time, that is normal—but it doesn’t mean that we should change our approach. Kids are demanding, but it’s our investment into their future. It’s not only about technologies, but generally about our approaches and the culture of raising kids. As a psychologist, I would advise parents to overcome their fear of not being a good parent if their kids are crying.

Do you have any advice on how to better handle angry kids who don’t want to put aside their device?

It’s a good idea to make a home schedule that tells children when, how long, and what they’ll do, including some free time. For example, they will have one hour of free time they can spend however they want, for example, using technologies such as TV or tablets. You can spend your free time together and in one room, so that the children get used to being together while playing games or watching TV. After an hour, you will all finish the activity, and you can talk about it. Children raised in this way won’t find it weird or punishing in any way. If they tend to cry—which is normal, because people have the urge to get frustrated about things they didn’t finish—try to gradually prepare them for the show or game coming to an end. 

How can we prepare them for the end of playing or watching TV? 

If your kid watches one fairytale after another on YouTube, you can always say: “This is the fourth part of this fairytale. There is going to be only one more.” In this case, the child is better prepared for the end. If you are strict and don’t allow your daughter or son to stretch those limits and watch several more, next time, the struggle won’t be that bad. At this point, you can also explain why you are limiting their screen time. For example, that too much time staring at a monitor can be tiring, or that they have chores or homework that need to be done.

Should parents also explain to their children that it makes sense to go out after playing video games?

When kids are demanding some more time online, we can scale down their excitement or anger with some activity relieving the stress and energy. If they spent an hour playing some fighting games, their energy level would be higher, and they need some forms of physical and emotional ventilation, like going for a walk or bike ride.

Can this form of communication encourage kids to talk to us about some difficulties or dangerous situations they might experience on the internet one day?

Yes, it can. But to make your relationship even better, focus on forming a real partnership between you and your child. You can support this by taking an interest in what your child is doing. Whenever she wants to start an activity, be there, ask her about it, and then support it. Alternatively, try to change the roles and show that you can also learn something from your kid. It does not contradict the parental role of authority. The opportunity to learn together with one’s child is something that no parent should miss. So, we need to be mindful, patient, and willing to invest time and energy into this.

If there is a well-established child-parent relationship, then it might be easier for the parents to spot some changes in their youngster’s behavior. What should parents do if they notice their child’s behavior has changed, without knowing why?

I would encourage them to observe and try to understand what their kid is going through. To encourage them to open up, you can say something like: “I see you’ve been irritated recently. Is there anything difficult that you are going through?” or “I’m sorry that you are having a hard time now… But hey, everybody has good and bad days. I’ve also had a bad day today.” By saying that, I reveal the fact that even adults have some troubles. And then we can speak about our coping mechanism. Or about similar stories to what your son or daughter is currently experiencing, to show them that things happen, and there is always a solution. You can also switch their attention towards their own coping mechanisms by asking a simple question: “What helps you to deal with a bad mood or a bad day?” And if that doesn’t help, there are pediatric therapeutic techniques.

Such as?

One of them is using the metaphor of a miracle. We tell children to imagine they have a miracle tool and ask them: “What would you do with that to make your day better?” In addition to the fact that children are likely to tell us, in response, what is bothering them, this activity also has a therapeutic effect—it allows the child to imagine some solutions for the particular situation. If parents join in this activity and say, for example, that they would do something with the miracle tool too, like slowing down the world or having less work to do, that again strengthens their relationship.

Another trick is to ask: “Which experience from today would you like to store in your treasure box?” This can be used when thoughts or situations are hard to share. You can start with that and later move on to the idea of putting bothersome and useless things into a compost pile. This activity comes with an even stronger metaphor: something that bothers the child can be metaphorically turned into a soil full of nutrients. In a compost, old plants turn into something that will help another plant grow in the future. Similarly, a child will learn that when they talk about a difficult or challenging experience and then put it aside, they can benefit from this seemingly unpleasant experience one day.

written by PhDr. Jarmila Tomková, psychologist

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