How to Help Teens Set Digital Boundaries: Building Safe Online Environments

How to Help Teens Set Digital Boundaries: Building Safe Online EnvironmentsBy Justin Ashley, author of Blaze Your Own Trail

In an era where technology and social media are the teenage norm, a fresh approach to navigating these uncharted waters is essential—one that doesn’t involve confiscating devices or banning social media: setting digital boundaries. Inspired by the rescue of Cape Hatteras, a North Carolina lighthouse, in 1999, this post explores crafting a modern beacon to guide teens and parents through the digital seas.

That North Carolina lighthouse was saved from being swallowed by the ocean waves, not because leaders waited to see what would happen but because they foresaw a light devoured by darkness and intervened before it was too late.

The Issues with Social Media

As teachers and parents, now is the time to do the same for our teens before technology and social media swallow them into the abyss. I’m not sure what generation you were raised in, but for me, technology was one small element of my childhood, and social media wasn’t even a thing, even though social definitely was.

Yes, I played Nintendo and tried to save Peach from Bowser’s castle. But I also spent a lot of time outside exploring the woods with my dog, playing sports with friends, and attending religious services with my family. There were real, authentic connections I was building. I was getting exercise, and I could find spaces and pockets of peace. There wasn’t a constant technological current trying to pull me away from the shore.

For many teens, the tides have changed. Snapchat messages and TikTok videos are a constant. The waves of gaming are beginning to flood through their phones, consoles, computers, and even virtual technology. Teens are facing erosion.

Their social, academic, physical, and emotional light is in danger, and we must help them create distance between the land and the sea by creating digital boundaries. What we once thought was a safe space for playing and connecting has become a danger zone of screen addiction, harassment, hate, violence, shaming, and bullying, so strong that it could take down the lighthouse that is your teen.

A new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General entitled Social Media and Youth Mental Health supports setting new healthy boundaries. The full document is available here, but here are a few key points that stood out to me as a parent:

  • 95% of youth ages 13-17 now report using a social media platform.
  • In one study, adolescents who spent more than three hours per day on social media faced double the risk of poor mental outcomes like depression or anxiety.
  • A study of 14-year-olds suggested that greater social media use resulted in poor sleep, harassment, poor body image, and low self-esteem.
  • Extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content like live self-harm videos (specifically partial asphyxiation and cutting) is easily accessible for adolescents.
  • Some adults actively use social media platforms to sexually exploit children and sell fentanyl.
  • The platforms have been designed to maximize user engagement (push notifications, ‘likes,’ infinite scroll, etc.) that can create changes in teens’ brain structure similar to changes seen in people with substance use or gambling addictions.
  • On a typical weekday (which could be a school night), nearly 1-in-3 adolescents reported using social media until midnight or later.

After these alarming findings, a call to action follows: “At a moment when we are experiencing a youth mental health crisis, now is the time to act swiftly and decisively to protect children and adolescents from the risk of harm.”

3 Tips for Tackling Tech with Teens and Setting Digital Boundaries

I’m not a perfect parent, but here are three tips I’ve taken to set digital boundaries and prevent my son from losing himself to social media and technology.

1. Be a tech coach, not the tech police.

My son has a phone, and we do “tech checks” randomly every few days. He’ll hand me his phone, and we’ll look at his daily usage, what apps he’s spending time on, review his messages to and from friends, and scroll through social media. I don’t punish him for what I find, but we have an open dialogue about what he’s doing right from a parental perspective and what he needs to improve upon.

2. Spend quality time together in phone-free zones.

I don’t announce, “I’m declaring this place a phone-free zone!” but I have found some spaces we go together where we have so much fun we don’t need to use our phones. One example is the local YMCA, where we play basketball and go to the pool together. You can’t play Clash Royale while you’re dribbling a basketball, and you can’t comment on a TikTok post while swimming. And, honestly, we get into such a flow state exercising that we don’t care about the tech. It’s rendered irrelevant by the activity at hand.

3. Do a family book study about social media.

My son and I recently read a comical and informative book, Slaying Digital Dragons, by Dr. Alex Packer before setting up his social media accounts. I also made a low-stakes test for him based on the book content to take and created a social contract for him to sign. We’re both now informed on how big tech works and what we want to get out of and give to social media, and we’re clear on where we draw the line and set digital boundaries.

Technology Isn’t Going Anywhere, So Help Teens Set Digital Boundaries

Technology is neither good nor bad. The ocean is neither good nor bad. They are, in a word, powerful. But as people, specifically people who can adapt, create, and improvise, we can be the most powerful of all.

We are losing so many teens to addiction, overdoses, homicide, and suicide. No doubt, social media has played a role. I sincerely hope that the waves of technology won’t bring your teen down. I hope they’ll become a self-sufficient adult who brightens the nights. I hope you’ll be able to look at them in the same light I saw Cape Hatteras.

Author Justin AshleyJustin Ashley is an award-winning teacher, motivational speaker, author, and public education advocate from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he began teaching in 2007. He is also a highly sought-after speaker for professional development. He has been an inspirational keynote presenter for thousands of current and future teachers, creating an atmosphere that bounces back and forth between rapt silence and raucous laughter. In 2013, he became the only teacher ever to win both North Carolina History Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year in the same year.

Justin is the author of The Balanced Teacher Path and Blaze Your Own Trail.

Balanced Teacher Path Blaze Your Own Trail

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6 Benefits of Arts and Crafts for Kids

By Gabriella Aldeman, author of Paula’s Patches 

Art is a creative endeavor, but it’s also much more than that.  When children sit down to tackle an art project, they have to:  

  • focus 
  • follow instructions 
  • use their fine and gross motor skills 
  • exercise social-emotional capabilities like patience, resilience, self-control, and self-reliance.  

6 Benefits of Arts and Crafts for Kids

Here are six important benefits of crafting for kids: 

Creative thinking  

This is the ability to come up with fresh new ways to handle challenges. Even when a child is following instructions, crafting provides ample opportunities for children to use their imagination, exercise their creative muscles, and make things their own.    


Sometimes even the best artists can’t quite produce what they have in mind. How many times must a creative try until they get it just right? Not all artists will have the same level of fortitude, but all will learn the power of trying again. And they’ll learn to be okay with a little mess (sorry, parents).  

Active Listening 

From learning how to cut with scissors, use glue, and properly hold a pencil to following step-by-step instructions to draw their favorite character, fold origami, or make fire-breathing dragons, art projects require a lot of attention. Kids will need to listen for instructions and learn to ask for help when they need it. 


Art projects require focus, patience, and the very important skill of keeping our eyes on our own paper. There is no right or wrong way of making art, but it does entail work. And some projects, like tie-dye socks and paper mache piñatas, require waiting for things to dry or set before moving on to the next step.   

Time Together 

Crafting is a great way for caregivers to bond with children. It creates an opportunity to form a connection and engage in play. Be encouraging, stay interested, and use the time to connect one-on-one and talk about what’s on their minds.  


Arts and crafts are special because a child works hard to make something tangible. This experimentation and creation give way to a huge sense of achievement and confidence. “Look what I made!” 

For these reasons, art is an important part of every school’s curriculum. It’s also one of the school subjects that students enjoy most. If you’re looking for a fun way to keep your little ones sharp throughout the summer, dive into some of these creative suggestions. Or keep it simple and try different art mediums: rock painting, stringing beads, chalk, water colors, finger painting, tissue art, paper weaving, sewing, and even baking (it counts if there are sprinkles!). 

Gabriella Aldeman Gabriella Aldeman is a Panamanian American author. She writes picture books in hopes that more children become readers and that all readers feel seen. She is also a professional translator and holds degrees from Georgetown University and the College of William and Mary. Gabriella lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her partner and two children.

Gabriella Aldeman is the author of Paula’s Patches:

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Understanding Worry in Children

by Deborah Serani, Psy.D., author of Sometimes When I’m Worried

Worry is a type of anxiety. Children can get tangled in the circular thinking of worried thoughts at early ages. As adults, we can help little ones work through these difficult emotions. The first thing we need to learn is how to distinguish fear and anxiety.

Understanding Worry in Children

Fear is the first kind of anxiety we move through as human beings. It’s a here-and-now experience, where something in the moment presents us with discomfort. Whether it’s a loud sound, a breeze leaving us cold, a pang of hunger, or being alone and unattended, fear is a biological response to threat. Fear becomes a reflexive way for us to maintain a sense of safety.

For children, fear is a normal part of their development as they learn about the world. With encouragement and support from caregivers, most children can be soothed and learn to adapt to their fears.

Others, though, may become more fearful and focused on not something in the moment but something that could happen in the moment. This sensitive child takes the experience of fear and creates an anticipation of it, even if the threat isn’t there. And that is how worry develops.

To summarize, fear is experienced. Worry is anticipated. Fear is a momentary emotion that fades when the threat is gone. Worry, though, comes with a longer and more debilitating timeline for children.

Your little one is not just fearful of a dog in the park in real time. She is worried about if there will be a dog in the park—and then spends a lot of time thinking, worrying, fretting, and feeling anxious about that possibility. Because toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children cognitively understand later, tomorrow, yesterday, and the future, worries can really deepen at this age.

When children worry, we can help them feel safe, find solutions, and manage their ruminating thoughts in the following ways:

1. Validate your child’s worry

Listen attentively to your child’s worry and support the thoughts and feelings behind them. It’s helpful to summarize your child’s worry in words to give it validity.

You’re worried you won’t make friends at preschool.” 
“You’re worried about falling off the swing.” 

When you say these phrases back to your child, you offer compassion and understanding and help them linguistically structure their worries.

2. Offer realistic comfort

The next step is to offer realistic comfort when your child is worried. This can be tricky because it’s natural to want to minimize any and all distress your little one is experiencing.

“Don’t worry, you’ll make a lot of friends at preschool.” 
“You’ll be okay. You won’t fall off the swing.” 

Reassurance like this can cause unrealistic expectations, and it sets the stage for failure. What if they don’t make a lot of friends? What if they do fall from the swing? A better approach is to be realistic about experiences.

“It’s scary to go to school, but you’ll make friends little by little.”
“Let’s go slow on the swings. And if you fall, I’ll be here to take care of you.

This approach teaches children to face their worries instead of avoiding them.

3. Reward brave behavior

Worries and anxiety are very uncomfortable experiences for children. Not every worry will be conquered in a one-off intervention. It may take time for a child to find that workable spot where the confrontation of the worry is greater than the worry itself. Praise attempts your child makes along the way.

“So proud of you for going to school today.” 
“High five for sitting on the swings, buddy.”
“Nice try.”

Every small step is cause for positive reinforcement.

4. Teach self-care skills

Self-care is an opportunity for children to feel in charge of their body and their mind. Learning how to self-soothe will make a child feel less anxious and more confident in managing stressful experiences.

Teach your child how to belly breathe; imagine a favorite, special place; stretch and move their bodies; listen to music; or cuddle in a pool of sunlight. Find what your child loves and have a set of skills at the ready.

Teaching a child to have a routine and create consistency is also a self-care skill. Self-soothing is a tool that reduces the hypersensitive fight, flight, and freeze system. When children learn how to care for themselves at a young age, they develop a life-long skill set.

5. Be a role model

Make sure to practice these tips alongside your child. Let them see you validate and confront your own worries. Show that you use self-soothing skills along the way, too. Praise yourself for brave behavior.

Another important note is to keep tabs on your own percolating anxieties. Children can pick up on your distress even if you don’t verbalize it. Check in often to see if you’re anxious, worried, or stressed yourself.

Deborah SeraniDeborah Serani, Psy.D., is an award-winning author and psychologist in practice for 30 years. She is also a professor at Adelphi University, and her writing on the subjects of depression and trauma has been published in academic journals. Dr. Serani is a go-to expert for psychological issues. Her interviews can be found in Newsday, Psychology Today, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and affiliate radio programs at CBS and NPR, among others. She is also a TEDx speaker and has worked as a technical advisor for the NBC television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She lives in New York City.

Deborah is the author of the Sometimes When collection.

Sometimes When I'm Sad  Sometimes When I'm Mad  Sometimes When I'm Bored book cover Sometimes When I'm Worried book cover

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10 Ways You Can Support Grieving Children at School

By Korie Leigh, Ph.D., author of What Does Grief Feel Like? 

In your classroom, you have a grieving student. In fact, you probably have more than one. By 18, one in every 12 children will have experienced the death of a parent or sibling.

When you include the losses of other family members like grandparents, aunts, uncles, community members like classmates, or even teachers, you can see just how common the experience of childhood grief is. In any given elementary classroom across the United States, you can find at least two to three students that have experienced the death of someone they love.

As an educator, you can support the grief experience of your students.  Teachers who intentionally provide support by listening and responding with empathy can be a positive force. Below are ten ways to support grieving children in your classroom or your school.

10 Ways You Can Support Grieving Children at School

1. Talk with your students using open-ended questions and statements.

Instead of saying, “I know how you feel,” try, “Can you tell me more about what this has been like for you?” or instead of saying, “You must be feeling so sad,” try, “Can you tell me what you are feeling right now?”

2. Grief impacts the way students learn. 

Grief affects many parts of the brain, including the ability to focus and concentrate. Short-term memory is impacted. You may notice students zoning out or unable to retain new information. This is a normal part of the grief experience.

3. Grief is a lifelong developmental process for children.

A loss that occurs when a child is three will be re-grieved as they continue to grow and develop. When that same child reaches the age of seven, they may, for the first time, really understand the finality of their loss.

In my own practice, this very thing happened. A seven-year-old was making Father’s Day gifts in class, and his dad died when he was three. During that class, it was the first time he realized his dad was never coming home and to die means to die forever.

Developmentally this makes sense as this child was entering a new stage of cognitive development and forming the ability to navigate abstract concepts with more mastery.

4. Listen more, talk less.

As adults, we like to fill space with our words. Yet, sometimes what children need is for the adults in their life to just listen. Not ask questions, not probe with inquiries, simply sit with them, play with them, and really listen to what they are saying with their words, their behaviors, and their emotions.

5. Grieving students may feel different from their peers.

Educators can strengthen grieving students’ social connectedness with their peers to reduce isolation and encourage emotional expression. However, there is a delicate balance to walk. On the one hand, you know that grieving students have unique needs. On the other, these same students don’t want to be singled out for this difference.

Instead of excluding these students from experiences, such as excusing them from making Mother’s Day cards if their mom dies. Try to invite them to make a card in honor or memory of their mom or ask what the student wants to make. That student still has a mom but is now navigating life as a child without a living mother.

6. Make space for the class to learn about grief.

Use literature and children’s books to support learning about and expressing grief. Many well-written psychotherapeutic books can help you find the words to talk about such challenging topics.

7. Your grief is not your student’s grief.

Since grief is a normal experience, we have all had our own losses and our own unique grief experiences. It’s important to remember that a child’s grief experience is unique to them. Some may cry, some may not. Some may want to talk about it, others may not. When supporting grieving students, it’s helpful to recognize that how grief feels to you isn’t necessarily how grief feels for your student. Do your best to meet your students where they are and validate their grief experience.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there are no stages or end point to the grief process.

8. Develop a code or sign for overwhelm.

Grieving students will have times during the day when they feel emotionally overwhelmed. To prepare for these times, create a sign, signal, or something that you can see that tells you the student is having a hard time.

One client I worked with decided that her sign would be to put her hair in a ponytail because she always wore it down. When the teacher saw this sign, they would tell the student they could go to the counselor’s office or opt out of doing work at that time.

9. Be flexible and gentle . . . with yourself.

You’ll make mistakes. It’s normal. If you realize you may have said or done something that you feel may not have supported your grieving students, you can always talk with them about it. Or, if that is not appropriate, you can learn from those experiences and work towards changing the way you engage with topics of death and grief.

10. Grief is a normal part of loss.

As an educator, you are uniquely positioned to use teachable moments as touchpoints for lifelong social-emotional capacity. The way you approach and hold experiences of death and grief will inform the way your students cope with grief and loss.

This means that you, as the adult, must learn where your own struggles and challenges are with talking about such emotional topics. Children will pick up on subtle emotional cues; if you’re uncomfortable or nervous, they will feel that.

Resources for educators

Korie Leigh author photo With training as a child life specialist and grief counselor, Dr. Korie Leigh has spent over 16 years specializing in working with children and families experiencing grief and loss. As an associate professor and program director, she teaches graduate courses on child development, death, dying, and bereavement. Dr. Leigh obtained her Ph.D. in transpersonal psychology, where she wrote her dissertation on the lived experiences of bereaved parents. She also holds an M.A. in public health and grief counseling and a B.A. in child development. She speaks and presents at national and regional conferences on issues of grief, loss, and coping. Dr. Leigh lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Korie Leigh is the author of What Does Grief Feel Like?:
What Does Grief Feel Like? book cover

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4 Ideas for Practicing Mindfulness with Children

By Lynn Rummel, author of I Remember My Breath

4 Ideas for Practicing Mindfulness with ChildrenThink about the last time you smelled a flower. You probably looked at it first, held it to your nose, closed your eyes, and inhaled its sweet scent. For that split second, when the sense of smell was the only sense your brain was processing, you were practicing mindfulness.

The term “mindfulness” has become more mainstream over the past decade; it’s on the bulletin board of a staff workroom, in a classroom lesson plan for the morning routine, on a magazine cover in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. But what exactly does it mean? Is it the same as meditation? Do we need special training or equipment to “do mindfulness”?

The fortunate answer to these questions is that mindfulness is a simple concept and is a human state of mind that already exists—just not often, for most of us. We are busy; we are tired; we are the experts of multitasking.

Practicing mindfulness is intentionally attending to one single sense at a time without judgment—that is, without thinking about whether you’re finding something to be a positive or a negative experience. You don’t need fancy cushions or music (or even flowers) to practice mindfulness. And once you find small ways to incorporate moments of mindfulness into your daily life, you can more easily help children do the same.

Here are some simple ways to practice mindfulness on your own or with children:

1. Listen to water

We’re used to looking at water, tasting it, and feeling it. But we don’t often focus on listening to it. Practice listening to water wherever you can, such as:

  • sitting in a parked car, waiting for the rain to stop before heading indoors
  • using a white noise machine or water sounds video for a few minutes before bedtime
  • lying on a blanket near the shore of the ocean or a stream

Intentionally choose to experience only the sense of hearing by closing your eyes and holding your body still.

2. Use your hands as sensory tools for daily activities

You can create sensory touch experiences by filling a bin with dry rice or beans, cotton balls, shaving cream, or sand. You can fully experience your sense of touch by closing your eyes and being silent for a minute or so while doing an activity like kneading dough or spreading mulch in your garden.

3. Use taste as a mindful experience

There’s a lot of information available about mindful eating, but for practicing mindfulness with our senses, you can use any type of food. Even candy! Leave the food on your tongue for a few extra seconds and fully take in the taste and texture while your eyes are closed.

4. Practice mindfulness of breath

The most basic way to practice mindfulness is through a brief awareness of breath exercise. With eyes closed, draw attention to the breath. You’re not changing it in any way nor narrating in your mind whether it’s good or bad, fast or slow.

If you find it difficult to keep your mind silent (I know I do!), you can picture a wave going up and down slowly, or you can say the words “in” and “out” in your mind along with your inhale and exhale. Gently bring your attention back to your breathing if your mind wanders to other thoughts. “What should I make for dinner?” creeps into mine often.

Creating a “mindfulness minute” as part of your kids’ daily routines can be as simple as incorporating one of the above ideas into morning get-ready-time or afternoon snack time or come-on-everybody-it’s-time-for-bedtime. Small moments like these give children (and us) the tools to handle stress when other events or situations become overwhelming.

Lynn Rummel author photoLynn Rummel is a licensed speech-language pathologist and certified professional school counselor. While working as an elementary school counselor for nine years, she taught mindfulness and breath awareness strategies to many of her students. Currently, Lynn operates a pediatric speech and language therapy private practice in South Florida, where she lives with her husband, two children, and pug. She specializes in articulation, literacy, and social and emotional skills. Children’s picture books are among her favorite therapy materials for all ages.

Lynn Rummel is the author of I Remember My Breath:
I Remember My Breath book cover

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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2023 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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