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Are you following the same digital rules you set for your kids?


Fellow parents who have lectured your child on the life-threatening dangers of texting and driving: Have you ever relied on Google Maps while driving or checked your email at a red light?

Digital double standards are everywhere. They’re in the home, at birthday parties, on vacations and even in our own social media feeds. And they’re becoming increasingly obvious to our children. As a social media coach, I speak with and interview thousands of kids across the nation, and they’re upset. They notice.

Parents’ social media habits are teaching kids the wrong lessons

A group of sixth graders I recently met with shared these examples. Do they sound familiar?

  • My parents tell me look up from my phone, but when I need to talk about something before going to school, they’re already working on their phones, checking emails.
  • Dad says not to post embarrassing photos of my friends and teachers on Snapchat, but he’s always sharing embarrassing photos of me on Facebook. He doesn’t even ask my permission.
  • I’m not allowed to sleep with my phone in the bedroom, but I know my parents’ phones are charging on their nightstands.
  • My mom keeps telling me to value my whole self and to turn my camera around once in a while. To look out at the world. And yet she always asks me which of her selfies she should post.
  • My parents tell me not to post anything provocative or controversial, but they’re constantly posting memes about politics and getting into Facebook fights with friends who disagree with their political views.

When it comes to one of the biggest drivers of their social development, our kids don’t need double standards. They need high standards, and they need adults in their lives who are living up to them. Our children are looking for positive role models to learn from, to mirror, to aspire to be.

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As parents, we have the privilege of setting the standards high, living up to them, and watching our kids — dare I say it — thrive with a phone in their hand. Here are some ways to do that.

Define your family’s standards

Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke Men’s Basketball is famous for his use of standards. “Usually, when you’re ruled, you never agree with all the rules, you just abide by them,” he has said in interviews. “But if you have standards, and if everyone contributes to the way you’re going to do things, you end up owning how you do things.”

Standards are not rules; they’re goals. They empower; they don’t scare. And they are meant to live up to, to live into. Whether a situation is happening online or offline — you take the high road when you have standards.

Create a Family Social Standards Agreement

Many people have started creating family technology contracts. But when I look them up online, most begin with: “I will not…” and require only the child’s signature. That makes sense: Being safe means not doing unsafe things, and these contracts are meant to keep the child accountable, so, of course they should sign it.

But, as Coach K said, rules require only that you abide by them, not that you live differently because of them. So once you have developed your family’s high standards, turn your tech contract on its head. Make it a Family Social Standards Agreement that focus on the do’s, not the don’ts, and have every family member sign it. Here’s what to consider for it:

  • What activities will you and your family prioritize before turning on Netflix? How about homework? Playing outside for 60 minutes? Practicing a favorite hobby? Chores?
  • When will family members put screens away? After 8 p.m.? Whenever driving? Whenever someone is speaking to you?
  • Where will all phones and tablets charge at night? A charging station in the kitchen?
  • Which criteria allows you to accept a friend request? That you’ve met the person in real life? That parents have approved the friend request?
  • How often will family members update their passwords to keep their privacy safe? Once a month? Every three months?
  • Will you fill your social media feed with positive role models? Which ones?

Not only do common standards keep everyone accountable, but they also encourage regular communication about the challenges of living up to them. Write your own agreement or download the Social Institute’s free version here. Then hang it up where everyone can see it.

Adjust the agreement when necessary

Your children get older. Once they were social media rookies, but eventually they’ll go varsity. Maybe even pro. New technology emerges with new capabilities, and new apps are made available to take advantage of them. New challenges present themselves depending on the time of year, whether your child is in school or on summer vacation, for example.

For all of these reasons, a Family Social Standards Agreement is not a static document. Review it regularly and change it whenever necessary. Involve your children in the revisions, and they’ll be more invested. They’ll also make sure you hold up your end of the agreement, like looking up from your phone and putting your phone away when you’re behind the wheel.

Help each other live up to the standards you set

Kids can’t live up to high standards without role models to show them how it’s done. Why? Marian Wright Edelman, an American activist for the rights of children, famously said it best: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Parents, you are the most important role model for your children when it comes to technology use.

By agreeing to live up to the same standards you set for your kids on social media, you can help your kids and they can help you. It encourages regular communication. For example, if you come to them with situations you found challenging or new apps you don’t understand, they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you with the same.

This regular communication about the hard stuff is the ultimate game changer. Not restricting their use. Not monitoring their every move. But talking about how you can live up to the highest standards and, ultimately, be your best selves on social media — this will make all the difference. Our children need parent-coaches now more than ever to win the game of social media. Start with standards.

Laura Tierney is founder of The Social Institute, which helps teach tweens and teens to use social media and technology in beneficial, positive ways.

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More reading:

Growing up under the watchful eye of his mother’s news feed

I made my phone less useful and I became a better parent

Many kids think parents are too distracted