When Can Kids Use Technology Without Parental Controls?

Three kids using smart phones

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In many families, parents and kids exist in a battleground over devices, screen time, and access to digital media. Parents are in a tough spot because, on the one hand, they need to limit their child's time using technology and exposure to mature content. On the other, they likely want to help their teen or tween learn to do this independently.

There are key indicators that your child is ready to use their own cell phone, tablet, or another device with fewer (or no) parental controls or restrictions. Here, we explore why parental technology limits matter, how to institute technology rules that kids will follow (and maybe even embrace), and when kids have the ability to manage their own technology use.

Why Parental Monitoring Matters

Excess time on devices can be concerning for many reasons. For one, spending lots of time using technology naturally limits the available time for other activities. Research shows how difficult it can be for kids to find time for other activities, like sports, crafts, reading, homework, socializing, or family time, when much of the day is spent in front of a screen.

Research also shows that there are links between increased screen time and adverse impacts on mental and physical health, such as increased rates of obesity, poor sleep, behavioral issues, and reduced physical activity. Studies have also found a clear association between high levels of technology use and mental health conditions like depression.

Establishing reasonable technology habits has become a near-universal challenge, particularly as screen time rates have risen dramatically over the past two decades. Young kids often accept, if begrudgingly, parental monitoring; they usually need a grown-up's help to navigate apps and sites anyway. But many teens and tweens feel that they are old enough to manage their own screen time— even if that is not the case.

This tension can get tricky because, at a certain point, parents will want their kids to be capable of making these decisions for themselves, says Siggie Cohen, PhD, a child and family therapist and child development specialist based in Los Angeles. This timing can vary for different kids and different families, which leaves many parents wondering when and how to start teaching kids how to manage their own technology use.

What Are Parental Controls?

Parental controls are tools that can help parents set rules about their kids' access to devices, apps, media, and more. Parental controls can limit both the amount of time a child can spend on a device as well as the type of content they can consume while using a device.

There are many ways parents can institute parental controls. Most devices have parental control options in their settings, where parents can block certain types of content—including potentially inappropriate sites—or set time limits on the device itself or the applications downloaded onto it.

Additionally, there are a number of parental control apps or other products parents can install to restrict or monitor their children’s access to devices or apps. Many phones, for example, allow you to set limits on the usage of certain apps or messaging after certain hours of the night.

Other parental controls are lower-tech. Some parents turn off the Wi-Fi at home after a certain time or simply take the device away from their child when time is up. Some parents choose to review their child's search history after screen time is done, periodically check their text messages, or sit with their child as they use a device to keep an eye on what they are doing online.

It is important to weigh the pros and cons of which parental controls to implement. Before coming up with a plan for setting screen time limits, consider your family situation and priorities, as well as the individual needs and maturity of your child.

How to Determine Appropriate Limits

Essentially, managing technology use for kids boils down to three main issues: How much time kids can spend on their devices each day; what content they can consume when they are on their devices; and who has control of their devices when they are not in use.

These decisions should be based on your own belief systems as well as your family's specific circumstances. Consider your child's developmental needs, personality, and temperament, as well as practical issues like kids living in two homes or needing to communicate with you when apart, says Dr. Cohen. 

Recommended Screen Time Limits

Before you consider how (and when) to help your child move toward managing their own technology use, you need to think about how much time you want them on their devices. Again, appropriate limits will vary among families and specific kids, but experts advocate for far less screen time than most kids get.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calls for kids to have no screen time at all, save for video chats with loved ones, until they are 18 to 24 months old. Children ages 2 and older should get no more than 1 hour—of "high-quality programming," ideally. Acknowledging that older children will use technology at school, the AAP urges that parents focus on making sure their school-aged kids get at least one hour of physical activity and "screen breaks" each day.

It's a tall order that not all families meet. Many preschoolers and elementary school-aged children spend two to three hours a day using screens. Studies show that for middle and high school students, typical daily usage tends to skyrocket, and parental supervision decreases. Kids aged 8 to 12 spend an average of four to six hours per day watching or using screens, while teens spend upwards of nine hours daily.

This trend is compounded by the stark increases in media use that occurred for most kids during the coronavirus pandemic. This increased access to technology may also have become a habit that persists in many families.

Setting Screen Time Limits

Children need a lot of practice with controlling their technology use. Dr. Cohen recommends that they should not be left alone to use their electronics without some type of parental involvement until their early teens. "Even then, it is highly recommended families keep their children active and engaged, socially and physically, and continue to strengthen communication skills, trust, and openness so kids are not only relying on their devices for social interactions," Dr. Cohen says.

The AAP encourages each family to create a personalized media use plan that takes into account the needs and specific circumstances of their kids. The key is developing a plan that makes the media use allowed beneficial for the family in ways that do not interfere with other life activities, like sleep, meals, physical activity, learning, leisure, and social activities, and quality time together.

It can be helpful to get your kids involved in the planning too. "Parents need to build solid communication with their children," Dr. Cohen says. "From school age and on, parents can gradually help children learn to modify and regulate the use of devices on their own, by teaching them to manage their time and allocate it well between all activities and obligations."

Setting Content Restrictions

Rightly so, much attention is paid to ensuring that children only see and use appropriate digital material, as violent, offensive, or inappropriate content is widely available.

Clearly, younger kids (elementary-aged and under) need the closest supervision, but the needed level of parental control gets less clear when you look at guidelines for tweens and teens. Generally, the older the child, the more likely they may be to be allowed to self-regulate their usage both in terms of screen time and content. However, even older teens are prone to have trouble keeping their technology use in check.

"Young teens, 13 and up, can be more in charge of the types of content they enjoy," recommends Dr. Cohen. "Still, be aware of what they are watching. If they are exposed to anything you deem inappropriate or harmful, step in to stop it from happening."

Physical Control of Devices

It is also key to consider the physical access to devices. Out of sight really can mean out of mind, and the temptation to use a device that's sitting in open view can be challenging for many kids to resist, says Dr. Cohen.

Technology-use rules can vary widely among families. Some allow kids to keep ownership (as in physical possession) of their phones, tablets, computers, gaming equipment, TVs, and other devices at all times. In other homes, the parents take the devices at a certain time of day or in certain circumstances.

There is one time when most experts agree it is important for kids to give up physical control of their devices: at bedtime and during the hours a child should be asleep. The AAP advises against allowing kids to have any devices in their rooms when they should be sleeping at night.

"Absolutely no electronics in bedrooms, including, TVs, video game systems, computers, tablets, or phones," recommends Dr. Michael Whitehead, PhD, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Twin Falls, Idaho, and spokesperson for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

How to Help Your Child Self-Regulate

There are many ways kids can develop the skills needed to manage their own screen time and content access.

Make Rules Together

One effective strategy is to make media-use rules together to encourage buy-in from your tween or teen. Additionally, brainstorm consequences for noncompliance to the screen time rules. Involving your child in developing your family's technology guidelines will help them to understand why the rules were developed and is a sure way to be sure they understand your expectations.

"Throughout childhood, parents want to focus on building a solid foundation of communication skills, support, and trust between them and their children, so when the time comes for them to be on their own, they can use that as their base to be functional, responsible, and well-regulated adults," explains Dr. Cohen.

Follow Through on Consequences

Adhering to consequences for not following technology-use limits is also key to getting your child to follow the rules. If they know you will let them get away with using their devices longer than agreed upon (or doing things online that are not allowed), then they will be disincentivized from following the guidelines. Likewise, if you want to encourage your child to moderate this for themselves, they need to know that you are serious about following through if they break the rules.

Set Aside Regular Screen Time

Give your child time to use their devices, advises Dr. Whitehead. If they know they will get a good chunk of time each day, they may be more likely to be able to control their use at other times.

"Allow up to 3 hours a day of video game time (if possible) where games are not played for more than 45 minutes consecutively," suggests Dr. Whitehead. "After 45 minutes, the child should do something active for about 30 to 45 minutes that doesn’t involve electronics." Having them take periodic breaks can help build their ability to walk away—and ensures they engage in other activities besides being online.

Model Self-Regulation

Equally important, parents should model appropriate phone and electronic use, recommends Dr. Whitehead. For example, "if you don’t want the child to be texting or scrolling nonstop, you shouldn't be either," he says. The same goes for using phones while eating or doing social activities together.

Reward Positive Screen Usage

When your child does well limiting their own technology usage, be sure to give them praise for it. Incentivize them further by offering a reward, such as a family outing or greater technology privileges for keeping their screen time and other online behaviors in check.

Talk About Why Limits Matter

Dr. Whitehead emphasizes that it's vital to regularly talk about electronic use with children. Explain that while it's fun and you can learn a lot online, too much screen time is not good for them—or adults. You can point to research that shows children who have excess screen time are more likely to have increased behavioral and emotional problems and less physical activity.

When You Suspect Unhealthy Online Activity

You may need to roll back technology use freedoms if you notice (or suspect) warning signs that may indicate your child could benefit from parental controls for a bit longer. These include the following, says Dr. Cohen:

  • You feel your child is pushing you away or looking to harmful role models online
  • You notice a change in your child's behavior, language, or tone
  • Your child has trouble being away from their electronics
  • Your child is breaking your technology-use rules
  • Your child is choosing screen time over most other activities, such as physical activity, socializing, or family time
  • Your child is sneaking extra media time (and/or viewing inappropriate content)

"Parents should be mindful and vigilant of any type of extreme changes in their children, look into the content their children seek to know what it is all about, talk to them about it, sort facts from fiction, discuss the difference between being influenced and being inspired, and if needed, raise their restrictions," recommends Dr. Cohen.

Dr. Cohen also advises creating a family framework of solid routines, a healthy lifestyle, mutual activities, and plenty of supervision to counteract the temptations of too much screen time. "But, if and when necessary, parents can rely on digital parental control systems, such as timers that turn children’s devices off automatically at a certain time of the day or night," she says.

Drawbacks to Parental Controls

There can be downsides to using stringent screen limits and other parental controls, especially with tweens and teens. Some research suggests that the use of parental control apps is associated with teens being exposed to more, not fewer, online risks.  Most experts agree that the pros of monitoring kids' usage to a certain extent outweigh the cons, but it is important to understand potential drawbacks, too.

Benefits of Using Parental Controls
  • Controls access to devices

  • Limits exposure to inappropriate content

  • Parents know what kids are doing online

Drawbacks of Using Parental Control
  • Requires parents to monitor and control technology usage

  • Fails to develop self-regulation

  • Limits teens ability to make own decisions

  • Your child may find ways to work around your limits

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, as a parent, you will need to decide how much intervention your child needs from you on their use of technology. The keys, however, are to realize that there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. So, if you want to try relaxing or tightening your guidelines for a period of time to see how your child does, that's fine. But along the way, it's always helpful to let kids know exactly what digital and online behaviors you expect in order for them to earn (and maintain) greater freedom as they mature.

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