True confessions: I love when I hear that parents are setting technology boundaries for their children. Not because I want kids to suffer, but because I know parents are thinking about the effects that technology use will have on their children, both short- and long-term.

However, the reality is this: not all parents set these boundaries. In fact, more times that I would like to admit, I’ve heard a parent say something like, “It’s my kid’s phone, I can’t take it away.” And rather than be the parent, they treat their child like an adult, and leave them to navigate technology on their own.

Here is the point when youth leaders (and kid min leaders) can step in and work to educate students on navigating technology use and setting their own boundaries. We can model healthy use, and explain the whys behind our suggested boundaries. And while you may think kids won’t listen (and you are right, some won’t), some will, and it will be worth the effort.

In my experience, all it takes is forced time away from a phone for some students to realize they really don’t need technology as much as they think they do. On virtually every trip I’ve helped to lead–from week-long mission trips to weekend retreats–we have told students to leave phones at home or we will collect them for the duration of the trip. At first, students are upset, but a few days in and I’ve always heard a comment that went something like this: “I’m really glad you took away our phones; I really don’t miss mine at all.” Sometimes a forced break is all it takes for a student to realize the world outside of technology is amazing and filled with unique opportunities they won’t get on social media.

So how do we as youth leaders help students (and parents) set healthy technology boundaries? I think we start by not only suggesting certain boundaries, but explaining why they matter. Below I have listed a few of my top suggestions, and I would love to hear yours! Feel free to leave them in the comments, or tweet me @MrsEliseMance.

Set specific “no technology” hours.

The best thing students can do, especially if they struggle to get off screens, is to set specific times to be off their phone and technology in general. A key time to do this is at night, when lights and notifications can disrupt sleep. I recommend leaving the phone somewhere other than their bedroom and using something else for their alarm (like an actual alarm clock, or asking a parent to wake them up). If they use their phone for their alarm, they should put their phone on a “do not disturb” setting, which will keep notifications from popping up, but still allow an alarm to sound. They shouldn’t sleep with their phone in their bed.

Another key time for a “no technology” boundary is whenever they’re spending time with others. This sounds like a lot, but think of the last time you tried to have a conversation with someone who was on their phone. Or better yet, the last time you were on your phone when someone was trying to talk to you. It’s virtually impossible to do both, and you miss out on a lot by not being present in the moment. This may be stretching, but even starting small (like at meals, when out with friends, when they first get home from school) will help.

Besides needing rest and practicing the art of face-to-face interaction, time off of technology can help protect students from negative and hurtful influences. When people my age and older got home from school, we had a natural barrier from drama at school and bullies. Now, bullies and drama follow students everywhere thanks to social media. Sometimes enforcing time off screens can help protect students’ mental health and give them a break from negative voices.

If a student needs help setting these types of boundaries and they use an iPhone, they can set restrictions for themselves under Settings > Screen Time. There are options to schedule downtime, set app limits, and set content restrictions. Plus under “Screen Time,” you can see how much average time you spend on your phone and what you’ve been doing.

Limit who you interact with.

The sad reality is predators use technology to find and lure young people. This has been an issue since the advent of the internet, and any medium where one person can communicate with another can be used by predators (including gaming networks, social media apps, and video sharing sites). It’s devastating how many stories of missing young people include a detail that they “had been chatting with an adult they met online.” We don’t need to scare students, but we do need to make them aware that strangers online can be just as dangerous as strangers in “real life.”

I encourage students to only communicate with people they have first met offline, people they know and their family knows. And even then, if the person is bringing up topics they don’t want to or know they shouldn’t talk about, they should stop communicating with that individual and inform an adult they trust. Not only can predators attempt to lure children, but some sites share locations, which can make students easy to find. The best thing for students to do is keep their profiles/accounts private, turn off location services, and only communicate with their friends and trusted adults.

Carefully consider what you share.

It’s okay to be yourself on social media, I don’t list this recommendation to encourage students to be fake. But I do think they need to exercise wisdom in what they decide to share. People always like to quip, “Nothing posted online ever goes away,” but it’s true. Even apps that claim to make your content disappear will save it on their servers, or other people can screen-shot and save it. In addition, your online presence sends a message about who you are and what you believe. That message can point people to Jesus, or it can be self-absorbed and self-serving.

Students can ask themselves a few questions before deciding to post or share content with others, and look for positive alternatives if needed.

  • Does this post/content honor Jesus and represent my relationship with him? (Every post doesn’t have to be overtly religious, but it does need to reflect my identity as a Christ-follower.) If not, don’t post it. Instead, share something that points to God’s glory and the place He has in your life.
  • Would I be embarrassed if this post/content were made public forever for everyone to see? If so, don’t post it. Instead, share something that the world could see and know that you’re a child of God.
  • Am I looking for attention or affirmation from people and using this content to get it? If so, don’t post it. Instead, spend some time reflecting on the attention and affirmation God gives you and share truth out of that.
  • Is this post/content hurtful or slanderous toward myself or someone else? If so, don’t post it. Instead, share things that uplift others and yourself.

I encourage students to carefully critique their content. Again, not to perpetuate the idea that they need to carefully craft their online persona, but to remind them that what they share does matter. It is as much a part of their spiritual journey and witness for Jesus as their conversion story.

These are just a few tips to get the conversation going around technology and help students think critically about what they are doing. For some students, they may need more specific guidance and accountability, but this is only something you will know after beginning these conversations with them. So I encourage you, start those conversations. Ask the hard questions, and don’t forget to explain why something matters.

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