Parenting Online

In the modern day, your children are growing up with phones, video games, and the internet. As the parent, you’re responsible for teaching them appropriate use. Here’s our guide for how to set boundaries at every age.

There’s a whole lot of information out there about violence and video games. Some say that gaming is responsible for most of the youth violence out there. Others say that violence and video games are unrelated- plenty of people play video games and never hurt anyone else. And everyone seems to blame the parents for either allowing too much screen time or being overly restrictive.

As the parent, you need to set limits around all of your child’s activities. When it comes to video games and unsupervised screen time, it is especially important to create house rules that scale down as your child ages and matures. Having a decisive policy also helps your child by giving a reason for the rule. Children aren’t born with internal senses of moderation and control. External rules give them structure until they develop their own internal sense of what is appropriate. As they mature and show signs of taking on responsibility and modeling appropriate behavior, parents relax the external rules, trusting the internal locus of control to start taking over.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “more is caught than taught,” and this also applies to screen time. When a parent brings a child into the therapy room for gaming addiction or for spending an inappropriate amount of time online, I always ask the parent about their own habits first. If you are glued to your phone, a young child or teen who is trying to be more adult will likely model after you. If you are able to let your phone go, model reading books, and have real world hobbies, your child is more likely to have similar behavior.

Very Young Children

Infants and toddlers love screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics previously recommended no screens at all for children under two, but has recently relaxed the guidelines to say that 18 months is okay. Children at this age should have very limited, totally supervised screen time limited to video chat with parents or other relatives, educational television shows like Sesame Street, or videos of animated children’s songs. Parent interaction is important, so sing along and clap with the song, repeat key words or phrases for your child, and make screen time a two person activity.


From three to five, children should have no more than one hour a day of screen time. Electronics should be limited to certain rooms of the house like the play room or the family room, and they should not be allowed to have devices at meals or in bed. Children in this age group are highly conscious of fairness, and parents can help model good habits by not bringing phones or devices to meal times.

Elementary Age

Most modern elementary schools involve children using laptops or tablets during the school day. They are learning how to use cloud drives to collaborate with others, programming simple games, typing with a keyboard, and playing topical games. Some elementary schools give students a tablet to take home to complete their homework.

This is the age where some of your child’s friends may have smartphones or a tablet. If you haven’t given your child their own phone yet, expect them to start asking. Decide with your partner when you want your children to have phones. Before you give your child their own phone, make sure you have the phone password protected with an additional, separate password for parent controls and the phone’s wallet so your child can’t purchase new apps or in-app extras. Some phones have the ability to display a separate home screen for children. Know your phone and its child proofing capabilities. Set rules for appropriate use, consequences for not following the rules, and behaviors or grades the child needs to maintain in order to keep the phone. If you do not plan on allowing your child to have a phone until later, be able to explain your reasoning.

Video games for this age group are typically rated C (early childhood) or E (everyone 6 and over). Older elementary children may also find appropriate games under E10+ (for ages 10 and up). The ratings may also include content information that explains the reasoning behind the rating. These include “mild lyrics,” “fantasy violence,” “simulated gambling” and others. These content descriptions are more important than the rating. Decide with your partner what you will allow your child to see or hear. Some parents may be okay with mild profanity but not violence, or blood but not nudity. If either of the parents plays higher rated video games, keep them out of the child’s access and limit playing those games while the child is near.

Junior High

At this age, preteens and teens typically have a strong identity with their social group. Puberty leads to budding sexuality, and teens do not always consider how their social media use may have consequences for the future. Most children at this age have a phone or non-phone device. If you are planning to wait until high school or driving age to give your child a phone, be prepared to explain your reasoning firmly, but also be aware that your child will probably still use social media through school computers and friends’ phones. Some children have told me that when they were not given a phone from home or had a phone taken away, another friend would “lose” their phone, get a new phone, and give the “lost” phone away for use as a wifi-only device.

Parents need to adjust the elementary school aged rules to allow for developing individuality while still keeping an eye on use. Talk with your child about appropriate posts, cyber bullying, and nudity. It is critical to make sure your child knows that any distribution of nude photos is a criminal act, even among minors. Having or sending nude photos counts as child pornography possession and distribution, and can lead to charges, even for the one who took the picture.

Here are signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • withdrawing from family life or reluctance to participate in school activities
  • displaying unusual sadness after using the internet
  • secretive about online activity or unusually protective of the device
  • nervous about getting notifications
  • unwilling to use the device even for schoolwork
  • change in grades, mood, activity level

You can help by being aware of your child’s online activity, keeping the lines of communication open, and protecting your child by blocking the bully and reporting the bullying where appropriate. If you discover that your child is the bully, set limits on online activity and have a discussion of the real world effects of online harassment. Many children have a sense that the online world is somehow different or separate from the real world. It’s easier to say mean things online than in person.

Your child may want to participate in creating online content through a blog or a video channel. These can be great creative outlets for your teen as well as a way to interact with others. Know the content of the channel and ask to follow them. Offering to help by holding the camera or taking pictures is a great way to monitor the content without being too intrusive. Operating a blog or channel also invites severe criticism. People are not always kind on the internet. Following the blog allows you to look at negative comments together. There are several videos from content creators that discuss dealing with harsh negative criticism from strangers.

Video games for this age group include the T (teen 13+) category in addition to the previous categories of E and E10+. T is a broad rating category for teens 13-17, so not all T games will be appropriate for a 13 year old. Again, use the content information guide to determine which T games are okay for younger teens and which will have to wait. Make sure your consoles and cloud accounts are password protected so teens are not able to purchase or download new games without your knowledge. Don’t share accounts with your teen if you play Mature or Adults Only games.

High School

As your older teen is preparing to go off to college and become a legal adult, your job as the parent is to give them increasing responsibility for their own choices and consequences. Overprotectiveness at this age does not help them develop an internal locus of control. They will make poor decisions at this age, but they need to be ready for adulthood where they will be making most or all of their decisions unsupervised.

From freshman year to senior year, older teens should be increasingly allowed to manage their own screen time, homework/play balance, online presence, and phone. You should be stepping in to manage them less and less. They should also be expected to take increasing responsibility for their consequences. This is another good time to remind your teen about the legal consequences of taking nude photos and sending them.

While your child should be able to manage their own phone and internet use at this age, here are three warning signs that you need to step in:

  1. They are unable to turn away from the internet to do any school work or get appropriate sleep
  2. They are identifying with bad groups online such as racist hate groups, suicide pact groups, or significantly older adults
  3. They are using their online presence to bully or harass others

Model good phone and internet behavior to your teen as well as a healthy balance of outdoor activity and screen time. Keep the lines of communication open as much as you can so your teen feels comfortable talking to you about issues they experience online or at school.