Advice from a Child Psychologist: Setting Boundaries for Children and Teenagers on the Internet

Author: Lea Zweig, Psy.D. and Alexa Rabin, Psy.D.

Setting Boundaries for Children and Teenagers on the InternetWith the creation of the Internet and the popularization of smartphones, the way people interact with one another has drastically changed.  Gone are the days when children and teenagers could only communicate by talking on the phone, or access a computer at school to play Oregon Trail.  Today, children and teenagers connect instantly and frequently via texts, emails, videos, and other social media sites. The virtual world is very much a part of their reality and day-to-day life.  Many parents and schools have not caught up to this fact, leaving children to explore the virtual world without guidance and boundaries.  Children and teens often do not get the education and structure they need to make healthy and smart choices on the Internet.  Setting boundaries and expectations for your children from a very young age will help them learn what is safe and appropriate.  Remember that restrictions, boundaries, and expectations can grow with your child, as he or she demonstrates safe and appropriate Internet behavior.

Before creating boundaries and expectations with your child or teenager, have a discussion to help your child/teenager better understand the virtual world.  Review the natural consequences to Internet decisions. Natural consequences are not the consequences you set as a parent, but rather the natural outcomes that happen as a result of a behavior. For example, if your child uses mean or inappropriate language online, other individuals may choose not to interact with him at all, or they may attack him, either online, at school, or both.  In your discussion, be sure to also review the severity of their Internet and phone choices, and how these choices can affect them both in the virtual world and in real world.  A few key points to discuss would be: appropriate behavior when interacting with anyone on the Internet (no bullying, appropriate language, interacting only with people they know in real life); the definition of an inappropriate picture and the reasons not to post inappropriate pictures on the Internet or send them to anyone; and the natural consequences for these behaviors.  Children and teenagers that are informed are less likely to engage in such inappropriate behavior.

Each parent manages cell phone and Internet access differently. Some parents decide to get their children a cell phone in elementary school as a way to get in touch with them in case of an emergency.  Other parents decide to wait until their child is in middle school or high school to get their children a cell phone. There is no general rule regarding when your child should be able to have certain access or devices; however, rules and boundaries must be age-appropriate, communicated to your child ahead of time, and always consistent.  Regardless of what other parents are choosing for their children, if your child cannot handle the responsibilities of Internet or phone access, then he or she does not get to earn those privileges. The first step in creating a plan is to determine your expectations and what you feel is best for your child.  One way to create concrete expectations is to develop a contract with your child.  Below is a sample of a contract between a 12-year-old and her parents for rules around using a smart phone.

Contract between (Child’s name) and (Parent’s name) regarding my phone responsibilities:

  • I will have access to my phone after breakfast until before dinner. Just before dinner I will turn my phone in to my parents and will not ask for it again until after breakfast the next day.
  • I will only use the phone at school to call my parents in an emergency or if I have questions or concerns about pick-up or drop-off.
  • I will not take my phone out of my backpack at school unless there is an emergency.
  • I will not use my phone at school for Internet access or texting with my friends.
  • I must complete all of my homework and chores prior to using the phone.
  • I will not download anything to the phone without permission from my parents.
  • I will not view sites that my parents would not approve.
  • I will never send pictures of myself in a bathing suit or anything less than a bathing suit to anyone, including my close friends.
  • I am allowed to join social media sites (Facebook, Instagram) after one year of appropriate behavior with the phone.
  • My parents will know my passwords to my phone and any other sites at all times.
  • If I change my password to my phone or to my social media sites at any time, I must notify my parents immediately of the new password.
  • My parents have the right to log on to my social media sites and monitor my use as often as they feel necessary. The more I prove that I am appropriate and responsible, the less my parents will monitor my online activity.
  • If at any point my parents do not have the correct password to my phone or my sites because I did not update them, I will immediately lose my phone.

Regarding media sites:

  • I must ask for permission to join social media sites before I join them, and I must give my parents the passwords to gain access to each site.
  • I will only friend people that I already know in real life.
  • I will not give any personal information (i.e., address, birthday) to anyone without permission.
  • I will not bully anyone on the Internet or write things that I would not say to someone in person.
  • I will tell my parents if a conversation becomes uncomfortable.
  • I will not use inappropriate language.
  • I will never post inappropriate pictures of others or myself.

Together, develop consequences if any of these rules are broken.  Make the consequences part of the contract.  Some examples include, losing access to the phone for a specified amount of time, extending the time until they can join social media sites, and taking away data privileges.  You can also develop more privileges the child can earn if she is appropriate and responsible. The contract can change as often as you feel is necessary.  Both parents and child sign the contract and get a copy to keep.  You may also consider checking with your phone or Internet provider to learn about parental control options.

If you want help regarding what boundaries and expectations would be most appropriate and helpful for your child, please contact a child psychologist to get direction and support.  A child psychologist is a great resource to help you determine what might work best for your family.