Raising kids in a digital world is no small task, but considering most of us are the first generation to do so, it feels insurmountable. With social media, video games, TV and movie apps, and more, parents, especially parents of teens, are wondering how to manage it. Considering that not managing screen time can have dire consequences, it’s more important than ever to find healthy ways to manage your teen’s screen time.
The stakes are high, and the information is overwhelming, so parents sometimes resort to extremes like no screens or, on the other end, as much unrestricted and unsupervised screen time as the teen wants. There is a better way to create a healthy relationship with screen time for teens, and it requires curiosity, compassion, a little understanding of human development, and a ton of grace as you navigate this challenging issue. Managing your teen’s screen time is your job as a parent. With the rise of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, poor body image, obesity, and low self-esteem, we as parents must take sustainable action to help our teens build healthy screen time habits.
Understanding the Effects of Screen Time
Screen time, left unchecked, can cause physical, emotional, and intellectual damage to teens and young adults. With more and more screen time for every demographic and age group in recent years, experts have been researching the effects of screen time to understand how it impacts day-to-day life. Researchers have found that screen time affects the physical health of teens, creating health concerns like obesity, sleep problems, chronic neck and back pain, and low energy. Social and emotional development can easily be sidetracked, delayed, or not happen when teens excessively use their digital devices.
One way to think about how too much screen time affects social and emotional development is to remember that our brains are a series of neural pathways and connections that, when used consistently, become our default way of doing things. For example, if you decide to leave your keys on a hook by your door, after a few weeks of consistently putting them on the hook, your brain will do it automatically without extra thought. Kids and teens learn social and emotional skills in the same way. As they are repeatedly exposed to social situations they’ve never experienced (like meeting new people at a party), their social skills will improve, and those situations will become easier.
Being on a screen limits the number of opportunities to develop and grow the neural pathways that make social and emotional development possible. Not only do they miss out on real-life social situations to practice healthy social and emotional skills, but add the harmful effects of social media to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for a lonely, isolated teen. Social media can lead to multiple adverse effects, like depression, anxiety, poor sleep, low self-esteem, poor body image, and eating disorders. Bullying, hateful or inappropriate content, and hate speech are readily available on your teen’s phone and can drastically affect their mental health and self-esteem.
Practical Ways to Limit Screen Time
Screen time and everything associated with it can elicit profound feelings of guilt or worry in parents. After all, most of us are raising kids in the digital age, and it’s a completely different landscape than our childhood. The complexities of technology, an ever-changing social media landscape, and the constant barrage of information about how bad screens are for kids are overwhelming for parents. But it isn’t as simple as just banning screens from your home; screens are here to stay, and our job as parents is to teach our kids how to use technology responsibly so they can have a healthy relationship with it even after they are on their own.
Instead of making up reasons for why you want to manage your teen’s screen time, just be incredibly direct. Site sources that show how damaging too much screen time is for development, how it can cause a litany of negative results, and because of that, you are limiting their screen time. Know that they’ll probably fight you on your directness (they might say something like “You just want to control me,” or “You don’t trust me,” or “My friend’s parents don’t limit screen time!” Keep repeating that your job as the parent is to keep kids safe, and just like they have to wear a seatbelt and go to the dentist, they have to limit their screen time. It’s a matter of safety.
Establish Rules Appropriate For Their Age
There are all kinds of guidelines out there for how much screen time you should allow based on all kinds of factors, but at the end of the day, you’ll know when your teen has been on their phones too much. If they’re moodier, less flexible, more critical, and harder to connect with after they get off a screen, they were on for too long. Your job as the parent is to observe the pattern. If it’s been 20 minutes and it’s time to be done with screens, and your teen tolerates it (not necessarily enthusiastically but is still compliant, and it’s easy to get them to engage in another activity), then they can probably handle 20 minutes of screen time well. If, after an hour, they’re grouchy, inflexible, difficult to engage, and overall miserable, then you know an hour was too long.
Remember Their Individuality
If you are the parent of more than one child, you know that every kid is different and responds differently to every situation. Tailor your rules to your teen’s temperament. That doesn’t mean giving them what they want if they tend to have big emotional reactions to reduced screen time. It means thinking about their interests, values, and needs to help them overcome their frustration. If you take your teen’s screen away and know they love golf, take them golfing. If you know they like their screen time because it helps them unwind, offer a different solo activity like painting, playing an instrument, or trying many new activities. If you observe that they use screen time to watch funny videos, watch a comedy special with them.
Put Age-Appropriate Controls On Your Devices
Poor impulse control, the belief that they know everything, and curiosity are absolutely normal features of a teen’s development. When managed well, those traits are necessary for teens to eventually be brave enough to leave home and adventure into adulthood. But they’re absolutely terrible traits for managing their screen time and what they access on the internet. That’s why adding controls and consistently checking the phone is crucial to keep them safe. One way to explain the need for phone controls is to ask them to envision a bridge going across a roaring river with a huge drop on either side. If the bridge has tall, sturdy walls on either side, you can walk along the bridge confidently, relaxed and happy, enjoying the beauty of your walk. If there aren’t any walls or fences, you’ll be scared every step you take, worried you could topple over the edge. Controls on the phone are like the walls; they’re there to allow you to experience the bridge but to keep you safe from falling over the side and getting hurt.
Lead By Example
We could all likely use a closer inspection of our own phone use. If we are on our phones, even for “worthwhile” tasks like ordering groceries or checking in on a sick friend, our teens see the minutes and hours we spend on our phones. They’ll repeat what they see, and if we are on the phone, constantly telling them to wait for us to be done to talk to them, they’ll take those behaviors and mirror them back to us. Our example speaks volumes louder than our words, so creating a set of rules for the family to follow with screens can be a huge step in the right direction.
Finding the Right Balance
As with everything, finding a healthy relationship with screen time is all about balance. Completely removing all screens in all contexts from your teen’s life will not give them the tools and practice they need to manage screen time later in life, but giving them full, unsupervised access and limitless time won’t give them the skills they need to be socially, emotionally and physically ready for adulthood. You must establish balance for your family, preferably as a group.
Ask your family how they feel after hours of scrolling or playing video games, but don’t try to police the answer. If a teen says, “I feel great after watching TikTok for 3 hours,” instead of rejecting that statement, get curious about it- “Why do you think that is? What kind of videos are you watching?” That curiosity will lead to insight into their screen time use—maybe they love watching cooking videos, and it excites them to try a new recipe or go to a new restaurant. Then you can use that connection to offer to cook with them, buy that special ingredient or new kitchen tool, or go to the new restaurant.
Ask your family how it feels when you are on your phone so much that they can’t get your attention, and be willing to truly hear their experience. Ask your family what their favorite screen time activity is, whether it’s scrolling through social media, playing a game on their phone, watching a movie, or texting friends. Find ways to replicate those favorite activities into your family time, whether watching a documentary one of your kids will like or playing a two-player game on your phone.
Ask them for input regarding the number of hours spent on screens, when they need to be done with screens at night or start in the morning, where phones and devices should be charged and stored, etc. Find compromises where you can; if they ask for three hours of screen time and you want one hour, offer two hours with the understanding that if they’re irritable and uncooperative when screen time is over, you’ll try one hour instead.
Remember, it will take time, patience, and many mistakes to get to a point where screens are used in a healthy way. But with practice, curiosity, grace, and compassion, over time, you can find a balance that works for your family.
Outdoor Adventure Therapy (Screens Not Included)
Screens are here to stay, and while it might be easier to give your teen unlimited access to their devices or completely remove them altogether, balance will be the best way forward. Sometimes, even with curiosity and compassion, your teen or young adult may still struggle to get off their screens. You might notice more aggression, sadness, or inability to connect with the world.
If you are seeing these behaviors and feeling at a loss for how to deal with them, we can help. Pure Life Adventure is an outdoor adventure therapy program designed to help young adults find their footing in the world. Using research-backed therapeutic practices, community immersion, recreational activities, group and individual therapy, and based in beautiful Costa Rica, our program builds confidence and resilience in young adults. We’re here to help your teen or young adult find their place in the world, contact us today to find out how.