A Guide to Setting Healthy Digital Boundaries at Home

Words by Celeste Goh
  • Adolescents spend more time in front of the screen than their parents know
  • Each family needs to set boundaries in different ways – cookie cutter methods rarely work
  • Set good digital examples for your children if you want them to follow your rules
  • It is all about give and take – what are you giving them in return for what you’re taking away?

If your child has been showing signs that he or she may be addicted to the Internet, based on the article we highlighted a while back, it’s high time that you start taking precautionary measures as a parent to curb the addiction.

Research has shown that: 25% of adolescents describe themselves as being ‘constantly connected’ to the Internet, whereby on a typical day, they are at least 2 hours in front of screens on weekdays, and twice as long on weekends. Moreover, they spend time online more than twice as long as their parents believe or know about.

If you have been getting advice from parent friends, and following step-by-step guides on creating healthy digital boundaries at home – but to no avail, we speak to child and family development specialist Racheal Kwacz once again this week, on how parents can go about with that without seeming like you’re about to start World War Three with your children.

“Your family is so important, I cannot stress that enough. So, it’s about asking what this family needs – what do we trust for our family, and doing what works for your family – and then building rules around it,” Racheal says. “We want to have healthy boundaries, and we want to have cooperation that feels empowering – like, I am taking charge of this, I feel part of this, and I feel part of the family.”

Understand Your ‘Why’s’

When it comes to screen time limitations in families with children under the age of 10, and teenagers under the age of 17, while the reasons restrictions are set in these families to protect the younger generations from practically the same things – physical, mental and behavioural side effects due to unchecked hours on the Internet; and cyber attacks such as catfishing, phishing scams and many more – each family’s approach towards digital wellness varies, and an all-encompassing curation from every member of the family is crucial to set up these online rules that fit your family in particular.

“If you’re going to follow what everybody else says to do, guess what, it’s going to work for a week, before it goes downhill really quickly and massively,” Racheal says. “Mainly because it doesn’t necessarily work for your lifestyle or your family; it just works for whoever wrote the article, or whoever passed on the advice.”

In terms of coming up with these safeguard pillars that suit your family, Racheal advises on understanding the family’s “why’s” before anything else: “When we understand our “why’s”, we tend to be more purposeful in what we do.” 

“I want to make sure that my daughter gets a good night’s sleep every night. So, I make it a point of no screen time one and a half hours before bedtime,” Racheal continues with an example of her creating a safeguard pillar for her five-year-old. “Besides that, I also want to make sure that she is getting enough physical activity. So, we’d make time to go to the playground or to the park with her.”

What’s next is getting down to the nitty gritty of putting these family rules in place: What are your expectations from these Internet/media restrictions? What are the boundaries you are looking to set? What are the potential consequences if they aren’t adhered? What are you doing to follow through on these rules?

“The most important thing is to have a conversation, firstly, with your partner or spouse, so that you’re both on the same page in creating these rules that feel right for the family,” Racheal says. “You pick resources that you trust – like American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) or Common Sense Media with its age-based media reviews for families – to help get an idea on creating these rules. With these resources, you sit down with your partner or spouse, and discuss what works for the family, and what feels right to the family.”

“Then, you sit down with your child, and you present these facts, and why these rules will be imposed to try fulfill the safeguard pillars you have set for your child and your family,” she adds. “Lastly, let your child have a say as well, so that it’s something every single family member can be a part of.”

Prioritise High Quality Programming

There is only so much a family can do when it comes to online limitations, before everyone feels like they are getting withdrawal symptoms, and eventually break down. While we can’t protect ourselves from not being exposed to everything that the Internet offers, what we can do is have boundaries instead, set up in sieving through content of your preference you let through the cracks.

For the Kwacz family, Racheal makes sure that what comes through for viewing is high quality programming with positive messages about relationships, family and life, as well as those that inspire off-screen ideas: “Think about the people that you follow on social media: Do they inspire you the follower to be a better person, to have greater off-screen ideas? Do they inspire you to be creative, and live the best of life?”

“If you follow someone that complains about life all day long, and constantly tells you what an abysmal era we are living in; or someone who all they do is complain about their friends, and their work – what happens after that? You start seeing the world through that lens in your life, and you start to feel that same way too,” she adds.

However, if as a parent, you are at a loss on what is considered “high quality programming” that will set good examples for your children to model after, Racheal advises to “fast forward 20 years”: how do you want your children to act or react to certain situations when you’re not there – that’s what you aim to teach them now, so that they are adults and they are confronted with the same situations, they would already have the skill sets to power through, because they had practice since they were young.

Racheal says: “20 years from now, I want my daughter to be able to control her gadget dependency on her own. I want her to know how to have scheduled screen time for a balanced lifestyle online and offline. So, right now, that’s what I teach her, and that’s what I put in place.”

“For our generation, we’re just beginning to learn these skills for digital wellness and self-care. Not to mention, skills to speak up, and fighting for our rights,” she adds. “Imagine if little kids were taught that from the start, how much more advanced are they going to be?”

Focus on Creating Connections, Not Restrictions

While adhering to the rules the family has set up together to curb Internet addiction and gadget dependency, it’s all too easy for the parents to end up over-controlling the children. Before you know it, you are hovering over their shoulders to see what they are doing online, and more often than not, you might even end up knocking on their door to check if anything fishy is going on – which may end up being overbearing for the children.

“We get so focused on trying to create rules and limitations, but instead, what we want is to focus on creating connection, instead of limitations. It doesn’t work long term, if you’re going to force it on them,” Racheal says. “Ask yourself instead: Why do kids ask for screen time? Why do we want screen time? Because we’re bored. We want engagement, we want connection, and we want to feel involved. So, how do parents meet that need for connection and involvement, without screen time? By creating connections with your children.”

Racheal implores parents to only look at themselves when meeting up with friends, and how when we are with friends we have a genuine connection with, we wouldn’t feel the need to look at our phones to pass the time. Hence, it is the same when it comes to the children and gadget dependency.

“All the lying, the hiding and the manipulating… These are signs that the trust and relationship between the parent and the child is broken,” Racheal states. “Because a connected child isn’t going to seek stimulation or connection in other places; if they don’t feel seen or heard at home, they’re going to look for this stimulus in other places, such as their peer groups or online. But if they feel connected at home, he or she is able to have a healthy conversation with the parents, and work together as a team to keep the whole family safe.”

It is also important for parents to ask why their children are dependent on their gadgets, and why they would go as far as hiding it from their parents for extra screen time. Racheal notes that such suppression nurtured while they were still developing as children, may shape their behaviours when they are grown up.

“It’s something that feels really small right now as a toddler, but in real life, this is going to show up in different ways when they are adults,” she states. “In situations when the children find themselves at odds with peers that don’t align with their values or beliefs, are the children going to conform because they want to be a part of the group; or will they be able to take a step back, and consider other healthier options they can go for?” 

“Growing up, children are constantly in survival mode: it either makes them fight – in which they rebel; or flight – in which they pretend cyberbullying didn’t happen; or numb – in which they suppress their feelings; or, the big one that they do, comply,” Racheal continues. “So, it’s the fine line between: ‘Yes, I will do everything you say, because I’m so worried that you won’t love me, if I don’t do it’; and ‘I’m doing everything that you say, because I understand why’.”

“We as parents want to make sure that our children understand why they’re not allowed to do something, instead of not doing it, because the parents said so,” she concludes.

Be Consistent

Another mistake that parents would unwittingly – or sometimes, consciously – make, is giving in to their children, when they try to bargain with you for more screen time. Especially with the puppy dog eyes they know you would go for, before you know it, you’re giving in to the extra 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour… Not to mention, the headache and embarrassment of them throwing tantrums in public places!

“What’s going to happen the next time they want things their way? They’re going to throw another tantrum, because the last time they escalated a tantrum, they got their way,” Racheal explains. “However, if this time around, the parent decides to not grant the children what they want despite the tantrum, it’s not as if they are just going to give up; they’re going to throw an even bigger tantrum.”

She continues: “So, imagine there is no consistency for the screen time rules you’ve set for the family: today you get one hour, but tomorrow you get five hours, and then the day after that, because the day before you’ve had five hours, so there’s no screen time – how chaotic and confusing it feels, even sounds, not just for the parent, but also for the child.”

Racheal suggests that upon setting scheduled screen time that works for the family, parents should be consistent in upholding the schedule, come rain or shine, tantrums, puppy dog eyes or no.

“Of course, they’re going to try their luck with you. Which child’s not going to try their luck? I mean, even we as adults try our luck with additional discounts, don’t we?” She laughs. “However, if you have consistent rules, boundaries and schedules, and if you do this consistently every day without fail, the child will stop asking eventually, because they will finally understand the need for healthy digital boundaries, based on how seriously the parents adhere to it.”

Practise What You Preach

Besides presenting the facts on the negative effects of using the Internet for long hours, and setting strict boundaries on healthy Internet usage, it is all for naught if parents themselves don’t set good examples for their children to model after.

“Children are not stupid, children are brilliant amazing little creatures that pick up on your nonverbal cues, more than verbal cues, and they will do what they see 100% of the time,” Racheal says. “Not only that, your kids will call you out on lots of stuff, when you’re using your phone or the Internet when you shouldn’t, and as parents, we often proclaim ourselves an exception to the rule because we were the ones who set it.”

From checking our phones for messages the moment we wake up, to sneaking a peek at the dinner table during meals, not to mention, the fact that we would binge watch an entire Netflix for eight hours straight… These are some of the notable cues that children will pick up on and use them against you. More importantly, they may turn out to be the cracks showing in the relationship between the parent and the child.

“Undeniably, not putting your phone on your bedside table but somewhere more inaccessible is really, really hard for us, but you know, we’re asking our kids to do things that may seem hard to them, so we have to be able to overcome the hardship ourselves too,” Racheal says. 

Besides showing the children how we as parents work towards healthy digital boundaries at home, based on our own screen time, Racheal also shares that children model after us taking breaks after screen time. In the Kwacz household, they practise the 20-20-20 rule: “The screen should always be 20 inches away from you, and every 20 minutes, you take a 20-second break, where you look away at least 20 feet away.”

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