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Teen attachment to their online world: What parents need to know to stay vigilant

Being a parent comes with no shortage of challenges, matched with a never-ending to do list. While the World Wide Web has many useful resources, it adds more to the already very full plates of parents trying to guide this generation of pre-teens and teens. When we look around at today's society 85% have their noses in their phones; so how do we, as parents, know what is an acceptable and balanced amount of time spent online for our kids?

Many of my clients, who are parents of teens, ask for my assistance with setting boundaries regarding technology. Before this can happen there needs to be background discussion on the who, what and why of apps and social media for their child. There are many factors to consider when first assessing our kids’ relationship with technology and as with every family topic, it needs to be individualized. For example, a child with a cognitive impairment may depend on technology for speech or communication of some kind; in turn, a pre-teen who shows signs of low self-worth will need extreme boundaries set around social media use.

Please read this article with your child's personality, needs and challenges at the forefront of deciding what a balance with technology looks like.

I strongly advise parents to be one step ahead of knowing which social media, apps and games are geared towards their child’s age group. In order to be vigilant you must be adequately informed. If you are unsure whether your online awareness needs improvement, research it: Google, school teachers, coaches, slightly older teens, other parents and your own child are some places to start the conversation. You want to understand what each app and site offers, encourages or how it could potentially harm your child; in addition, take the time to examine why children would want to use them. We want to understand the desire our kids have and knowing our children’s needs can help us to gauge what to supplement, if we are going to restrict. For example, if conversing with friends over Snapchat helps your teen feel connected with their peers, then helping them set up quality bonding time with their peers will fill that need to some degree (if restricting Snapchat is a guideline that needs to be set, based on their behaviour with the app).

However, if you are witnessing inappropriate pictures being posted on Instagram by your pre-teen, there is a much bigger interception that is needed. Part of this discussion would need to include topics such as: what your child is seeking by posting this; what their desired outcome is; and until they can process the implications they will need to be supervised on this app at all times.

This leads me to my next point, transparency: when to implement it and how to balance it depending on your child's age and behaviour. There will come a time for the majority of parents when your pre-teen will begin mentioning a different form of technology than you are used to, apps like Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, etc. As a parent you will need to make the executive decision, based on your knowledge, about what apps, if any, your child can access.

A caution regarding Snapchat: it enables instant gratification significantly, which is not as prominent in texting, therefore can lead to more of an attachment-like behaviour. It also has, in my opinion, a large risk factor for inappropriate and parental guidance.

Once you understand and have agreed upon use of the app, you can help set them up specific privacy settings, a discussion surrounding possible dangers (the general public reaching out and connecting with your children, etc.), and at this point you will want to set up time allotted for the app. Ideally, when kids first start using an app is when we want to discuss how much time they should be spending on it. When it comes to implementing online boundaries, children need to hear that there will be age-related guidelines and, if behaviour remains appropriate, what this will look like. This can be encouraging for them to be working towards the next level of technological freedom; as well as motivating desired and safe behaviour when online.

Guidelines and What to Consider When Setting Them

How do we, as parents, decide how much is too much time on specific apps and technology in general? Take time to evaluate your child's daily schedule - it helps to write it out. Categories I encourage parents to include are: wake up, meal time, school, work, extra-curricular activities and bedtime. Then, you need to take into consideration your child's age and what their peers’ online behaviour is; this is not to say we follow others, however, we want to be cognizant of peer interactions as this is of the utmost importance to them right now.

With this information you can now individually evaluate. If your teen is not involved in any sports or activities, for instance, you will want to limit their online time more so than the child who is going to school then being active for hours. A child, who is home, sedentary and disengaged physically from their peers outside of school, is more at risk for overuse of online behaviour. If, as a parent you are okay with your teen texting frequently, you will need to understand that Snapchat is the new, more frequently used form of communication and consider this time spent as part of your allotted screen time.

Factoring in age and activity level is also a large amount of developing a time allowance for technology. A 12 year old with a desire to be connected the majority of the time via technology is a red flag that needs to recognized, explored and discussed with the child. 16 year olds, on the other hand, should be able to begin to find balance using their online connections. I am a firm believer of leaving technology at the door when it comes to bedtime for kids 17 and under: they simply do not have the ability to self-enforce when it comes to not checking or engaging online when they should be getting the much needed sleep teens need. As teens get older we want to be encouraging this independent self-monitoring, but until we begin to witness this, it is our duty.

As parents we need to be continuously monitoring our kids’ behaviour: if we see it escalating or causing anxiety when the technology isn't available, this is our cue to step in and reset some firmer boundaries. Setting boundaries around technology is important for many obvious reasons; however, doing so is a great way to gauge their attachment to technology. If your teen can have a calm discussion and accept the new guidelines they are most likely in a healthy relationship with technology. If there is a sense of doom, panic or tantrums this is a sign the boundaries will need to be set firmly. Unfortunately, in the generation teens are in right now Internet addictions are on the rise and as parents it is our job to be monitoring, and enforcing rules when our children are not capable to do so on their own. We want to guide our pre-teens by having open, frequent discussions and role modeling appropriate online activity; the goal here is to help them practice a healthy balance between sleep, school, physical interactions with their peers, activities and use of technology. By the time your child is 18, they should be well on their way at finding their own balance with technology.

The most important tool we can have as parents is knowledge. We must know what is available for our teens and why, but also gain as much insight into what are teens are experiencing, thinking and their emotional intelligence. Signs to watch for in your teen or pre-teen are: anxiety, promiscuous language/ behaviour, or being secretive with their technology, along with anger or inappropriate reactions to having their usage scaled back.

As a counsellor I work closely with parents to help guide them towards a more cohesive relationship with their children. If your family is in need of support, I would be happy to assist you.

Ginger Henderson Counselling Services


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