Setting healthy boundaries for your child and their phones

 Illustration (PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Illustration (PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
JGI/Jamie Grill

It’s a perennial problem for parents of teens: navigating the eye rolls, sighs, grunts and groans should you have the nerve to interrupt them when they’re on their cellphone. Whether their fingers are a blur on WhatsApp or they’re zoned out watching back-to-back YouTube videos, woe betide the parent trying to pull them away from their device to do chores, wash their hands for dinner or switch off their light.

These are anxious times for well-meaning moms and dads: are these devices frying our kids’ brains? Is their social development being stunted? Are they encountering undesirable elements online?


Marion Read, a concerned British mom, was so desperate to resolve the constant fights she and her daughter were having that she recently turned to online parenting forum Mumsnet for advice.

The mom shared the fact that she confiscates her 17-year-old daughter’s phone every night and turns off the Wi-Fi at 9.30pm, even on weekends and during holidays. After conceding her approach was leading to “constant arguments” and increasingly unruly behaviour from her daughter, she asked fellow parents if they thought she was being too strict. 

Responses to the post flooded in, with one parent branding her methods “draconian” and others berating her for not trusting her daughter.

While many parents slated Marion’s heavy-handed approach, others commended her for it, with one adding that hopefully she’s teaching her daughter good habits.

It seems science is on Marion’s side, judging by a recent study conducted at the University of San Diego in the USA. Researchers used an online survey to question more than a million kids aged 13-18 on how much time they spent on their phone, tablet and computer and how much time they spent seeing friends face to face. They also analysed their happiness levels.

The result? The happiest teens spent just less than an hour a day on digital media, leading the research team to believe screen time caused unhappiness rather than vice versa. On average, teens with longer exposure to screens were less happy than those who spent more time doing other activities such as sport, spending time with others, and reading books and magazines.

“The key to digital media use and happiness is limited use,” says Professor Jean Twenge, who led the research project. “Aim to spend no more than two hours a day on digital media, and try to increase the amount of time you spend seeing friends face to face.”

But short of wrestling your teenager’s cellphone out of their hands, how can you ensure they’re not spending too much time on their digital devices? 

One of the reasons the issue is so contentious is because times are changing so fast, says Colleen Wilson from Durban, a parenting expert and co-founder of Contemporary Parenting.

“The world of devices is something parents of today’s young kids and teens will never fully understand. We often make the error of parenting from our perspective, which means we miss their point of view and as a result this creates a massive divide between us and our kids.

“Ultimately, we want responsible phone use that doesn’t harm our kids or allow them to harm anyone else so they get maximum benefit out of the device and also achieve a balance in their lives.”

But as any parent will tell you, that’s easier said than done. Here are tips and things to keep in mind as you navigate this tricky issue with your child.


You need to contextualise your child’s cellphone use according to their age, Pretoria-based psychologist Mark Southwood says. “Smartphones are another manner in which kids interact with their peers, so one can legitimately ask the question: what would a parent reasonably allow their child to do when it comes to interaction with their friends?

“Would they be out with friends at 9.30pm on a school night or entertaining friends at home that late on a school night? No? Then why would you let them interact with others on their phone at that time?”


Parents do need to stay on top when it comes to what younger teens are doing on their phones, Wilson says. “You need to check your kids’ phones, so tell them that’s part of the deal,” Wilson advises. “Passwords must also be shared – that’s also part of the deal. They need to understand that the phone is not their exclusive property.”

She encourages parents to educate themselves and their teens on the do’s and don’ts of smartphone use. Social media expert Emma Sadleir’s book Selfies, Sexts and Smartphones: A Teenager’s Online Survival Guide would be a good place to start – and communicate what each of you expects from their smartphone usage.

“We’re all learning,” Wilson says. “Let us as parents not pretend we know what’s going on or that we know exactly how to handle it. I think it helps kids to know that their parents are trying to do the best for them in the face of this new world and to protect and skill them up.”

And if your kids are on social media, be sure to check that they’re old enough to use those platforms and befriend them online to ensure they’re using them responsibly. “Most if not all of the social media apps have age restrictions and these are generally there with good reason,” Southwood says. 


Interestingly, the San Diego study also found that children who avoided digital media completely were unhappier than those who didn’t.

Wilson agrees with this finding, saying the days of parents flat-out refusing to allow their teenager to own a cellphone are long gone because they’ve become so integral to daily life. “Ultimately, we can’t stem this virtual-world tide. We need to learn to surf it well and teach our kids to do the same,” she says.

A mother of a teen herself, Wilson advises parents to flow with the times. “The tech changes, the world changes, and they change so fast that what works for us one month may change the next.”

She says forcing compliance from your teens won’t help them to learn how to use their devices responsibly in the long run. “You could force the issue, but what happens when you’re not around?” she asks. “For example, your child needs to learn to recognise when they’re tired and need to cut themselves off from the virtual world and get some sleep.

“I recommend healthy boundaries, lots of communication, tapping into their world, educating them and ourselves constantly, and navigating this new world together.”

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