Managing Teenage Screen Time

It would have to be the biggest parenting challenge of the early 21st century, “How much screen time should I give my kids?”

Parents who weren’t raised in an online world are trying to work out what it means to parent teens who are growing up in digitally saturated world.

Rarely a week goes by, when I am not asked by an exasperated parent what is the right thing to do about their teenagers use of phones, social media and computer games.

This post provides a framework to help parents think through the limits and opportunities of teenagers and screen time.

How Much Time Is Okay?

I need to be upfront and say at the outset I will not be detailing specific hour limits anywhere in this article. I am not a fan of nominating a set amount of hours per day per kid. There are different types of screen time, different types of screens, and different types of kids who are at different stages of development. Coming up with a basic hours per day limit is an overly simple fix for lives and situations that are rarely straightforward.

There are various associations around that have declared what is or isn’t an healthy amount of exposure to screens every day (example here ). While these guidelines are worth noting and understanding, they are generally based on assumptions that may or may not be valid. Yes, young brains are vulnerable to being shaped by various activities. But in a world where screens are going to be the dominant media form in the future (if not already) then brains adapted to such an environment could be a good thing.

All disruptive technology in history has changed the way we think; the introduction of the alphabet, the introduction of writing, the printing press, the radio, the TV, have all changed the way humans think and behave.

It is conceivable that by the time your kids are your age paper books will be a quaint novelty, and most of consumption of literature will be via a screen or via listening. I haven’t yet heard an argument for limiting the amount of time kids should spend reading each day. If we want teens to value reading, and texts are now on screens, limiting screen time becomes more complicated.

A more helpful framework is to consider screen time in terms of contributing to a balanced life. A better question about screen time, is not “how much is okay?” but rather “what else is important?” That is, consider what makes for a balanced lifestyle and a well-rounded upbringing, then determine where screen time fits into the mix.

Screen time becomes excessive when it stops kids from:

• Getting enough physical exercise

• Spending quality time in face to face relationships

• Adequately contributing to home and family life

• Getting healthy amounts of sleep

• Completing schoolwork

• Having down time to daydream and think about life.

There are other reasons for the above things not occurring, but if technology use is a contributor then your teen has too much screen time. If your teen is not suffering from any of the above issues, then I wouldn’t be to concerned about their amount of screen time.

The other signs your teen has too much of a good thing when it comes to technology access is the state of their mental health. If your teen demonstrates increased irritability, increased angry outbursts, compulsive behaviours, or higher degrees of social anxiety then consideration needs to be given to the amount of time and the type of activities they are engaged with online.

Not All Screen Time is the Same

Lets be clear what we are talking about when using the phrase screen time. There are different types of screens that teens encounter on a given day, and not all are equal in effect or importance. Common Sense Media categorises typical screen time into 4 different categories. Consider each category before implementing limits and quotas for screen use.

Passive Consumption: This includes watching TV, reading, and listening to music

TV watching is still the most dominant form of media consumption for teenagers. Any limit on screen time needs to define if watching TV is included or excluded.

Likewise, more and more books and magazines are released in digital formats. It is likely your teens will be on their tablet or e-reader to do what we were once encouraged to do with books. Do you want to limit your teen’s kindle use the same way as you would their time with Facebook?

As I write this I am listing to some soulful music in the background which is being played though my computer. When considering technology use per day, remember that background music is often accessed via a digital device.

Interactive Consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet.

This is the opposite of passive consumption, whereby teens are actively engaged and participating in what is happening on the screen. This includes surfing through the internet which involves reading /watching, choosing where to next, clicking on links, bookmarking, downloading or forwarding information.

It also includes the active participation in games or activities that are mediated via the internet. Some of these game will involve playing with or against others, while often it will just be your teen against the computer. The gaming aspect can be a serious issue for some teens in terms of the time it takes and the compulsion to play. To learn more click on earlier posts about teenage online gaming here.

While there are downsides to gaming, it needs to be acknowledged that the gaming industry is nearly as big as the movie industry. When done in moderation there are some real cognitive and physiological benefits to gaming – definitely more than watching TV all day.

Communication: video-chatting and using social media.

Teens like spending time with teenagers. Teenagers want to be online because they like other teenagers, not because they love of technology. Wanting to hang out with peers is a normal teenage desire. It was most likely a feature of your adolescence, as it has been for generations before, and it will continue to be for generation going forward.

Adults often overlook a key aspect of the online world for teenagers – it is the need to connect, or more importantly stay connected, with peers. Digital natives do not see technology as a separate thing, rather it is a means to an end. In the case of social media and texting that end is keeping up with the all important social happenings.

For many of us the only time outside of school to hangout was hours on the phone (to one special friend), or getting to hang out at the mall once or twice a week. For today’s teens, digital communication makes such intermittent notions of staying in touch seem archaic and restrictive. Much the same way that getting cash was only possible by going into a bank seems like an impossible inconvenience today.

When teens are using social media and texting apps they do not consider it a luxury, rather they see it as a vital part of belonging to the group. This is why teens who have less access than all their friends do (often not true) can feel like they are missing out on a fundamental right. Parents shouldn’t feel obliged to allow unlimited access to social media (quite the contrary.) But it is an important consideration to have when setting limits.

Content Creation: using devices to make digital art or music.

Years ago I was surprised and impressed when at the end of a car journey home from a holiday, my tween daughter handed over her iPad from the backseat with the movie she had created about our holiday, complete with soundtrack.  Instead of sleeping, whinging, or staring out the window (which is not a bad thing,) she chose to be creative and make a meaningful package of her memories, and a celebration of our time as a family.

Screen Time is not always brain-deadening or mind-altering. It can be an avenue for creative and constructive pursuits. This doesn’t mean that a teen should spend all day creating movies. But if your teen is using technology to create and express themselves, consider the benefits, and allow time for it to occur.

There is also a distinction between recreational and academic usage. As the world becomes more connected, and the cloud becomes the ubiquitous source of information, teens are required to go online as part of their everyday education.

Most teenagers (in Australia at least) need to be in front of screens for a significant part of their schooling. Many schools now expect students to have a their own tablet or laptop to take part in classroom activities.

If kids need to be online for education they will need some screen time at home to complete homework, and take part in class discussions.

When considering limits on screen time you need to consider what the average requirement for school work is likely to be. Ask the school, they should be able to give you an indication of how much time your teen will need to be in front of screen daily / weekly.

Taking a Balanced Approach

The goal of parenting your teenager is to launch your teen into adulthood. By the time your teen has finished high school you want them to be ready to independently navigate the big scary world.

When it comes to screen time, when your teen moves out with friends or heads away to college or uni, you will not be there to monitor there usage or behaviour on line. So, the goal is to get them to a point of being a responsible confident manger of their own technology usage before they head out into the big wide world.

For this to happen you need to be progressively equipping and releasing your teen to take more and more responsibility for their own media use and tech habits. This, as with all aspects of parenting, is a balancing act; not too much too early but not too little too late. This balance is always an individual thing determined by you, your teenager and your combined personalities and circumstances.

There are two ends of the digital parenting continuum. At one end you have the laissez-faire parenting style, which leaves teens to manage their online behaviour by themselves with only very minimal parental intervention. At the other extreme are parents who promote digital abstinence, by banning their teen from all but the most basic or necessary forms of technological engagement.

If you are on the laissez-faire end, I was not expecting you to read this. But as you are let me encourage you to get involved in parenting your teenager in the digital space as well as the rest of life. Not being involved in how your kids use technology or engage in the online space is a recipe for disaster, and you are failing to equip your teen to participate in a healthy way in the digital economy as an adult.

If you are a parent who is more inclined towards digital abstinence let me encourage you to also reconsider your parenting approach. Not allowing teens to participate in the digital world can be just as harmful in the long run as letting teens have unfitted access to everything online.

The most common reason parents fail to allow their teens to engage in the online world as teenagers is because of fear. It is natural to fear that which we do not know or understand, and many parents today are don’t fully understand the rapidly evolving digital world.

Just because you never had it, don’t understand it, or don’t like it, doesn’t make it okay for you to allow your teen to grow up unprepared for the world they will be thrust into as an adult. The digital revolution is rolling along at pace and it is unfair to not equip your kids to participate and thrive in this world because of your own fear.

While it may be comforting to try and keep your kids from exposure to the world of social media and mobile technology, and it may be confronting to try and learn how to parent in a way we were never parented, it is vital that you actively engage with your teenager and help them develop the ability to navigate the digital space as a responsible citizen. Our kids are growing up in a different world to the one many of us did, we need to accept it, educate ourselves so we can help equip them.

The Essentials of Digital Parenting

Be Involved

As a parent you have the ability to shape your teenager’s technology use. Technology use is essentially about behaviour, lived values, communication, and responsibility – this is the stuff parents are primarily responsible for instilling in their offspring. As a parent you have an obligation and the ability to shape the way your teen uses technology and engages in the digital landscape.

However, you can only do this effectively if you are actively involved and aware of what is happening in their digital space. It is important you make an effort to know about the types of technology your kids are interested in.

What are the games, apps, social media platforms, communication tools your kids are using and why are they using them? Learn about the pro’s and cons of each, understand the risks and what controls are available, determine what level of maturity is required to use each beneficially, and most importantly talk to your teenager about all of the above.

Setting limits and curfews without understanding will not equip your teen to be a responsible digital citizen. As a parent, you need to be involved at all levels. Before you set limits make sure you understand what your teen is doing with the screen.

Being involved extends to getting online with your kids and talking to them about what they are reading and watching. Helping them interpret and understand the different types of content and media they are consuming is important.

Access is a Privilege

This is vital for parents to remember when it comes to setting up helpful boundaries and screen time allowances for teens.

Just because internet access and smartphones are everywhere, it doesn’t mean that access to the internet is a basic human right. Access to technology is a privilege. I’ll say it again for those of you to whom this concept is new, access is a privilege!

Your teen may carry on like you are starving them of life giving sustenance, when you turn a screen off. But the truth is they will survive. Access to technology is not a necessity or a fundamental human right. It is useful and valuable, but it is still a privilege that your teen needs to value, rather than demand or expect.

Privileges are the things in life teenagers earn the right to have. When your teen fails to live up to an expectation associated with a privilege, they forgo that privilege until they show a willingness to behave in a suitable manner.

In most cases parents pay for the family internet connection, cable subscriptions, and many of their kids mobile phone bills. If you as a parent are paying, your teen is definitely enjoying access as a privilege.

You are not the worst parent in the world when you set reasonable limits on access to digital technology.

You are in Control

In the same way you don’t let your kid out on the road in a motor car when they are ill-equipped, or let them drink unlimited amounts of alcohol at any age, so too you should set limits on when and what your teenager can do in terms of screen time and digital communication.

So many parents I hear from sound so powerless when it comes to managing their teenagers screen time. Often this is because they have let things go unchecked and find reigning things back in is near on impossible. But the reality is as long as your teenager is in your house you have a level of control over what they can and can’t do. This is even easier when you are the one paying the bills for online access and equipment.

So it is pretty straight forward, set digital limits with your teens.  These limits need to include how much time they can spend online, where and when it isn’t okay, and what else needs to be done prior to engaging in recreational or social screen time. They also need to include the consequences for violating a boundary or agreement.

One effective way of setting digital limits is to have house rules that apply to all the kids all the time. Then on top of that you have individual boundaries or agreements based on your teen’s maturity, interests, and demonstrated capacity to manage their digital life.

Below is an example of typical house rules for screen time.

Screen Time Rules for Home

Here is a sample list of rules for screen use at home. All kids and families are different, so feel free to adjust this to suit your situation.

• No TV in Bedrooms

• Phones & Tablets handed in before bed

• Complete Chores & Homework before going online

• No Technology at the meal table (unless a parent is on call for work)

• All Screens off by a certain time at night (weekends could be later)

• Recreational Screen Limit on Weekends

You also need to set specific limits for each child. What age can he can get Snapchat or Instagram? How much time each day is she allowed to FaceTime? These boundaries and agreements would be different for your 13y.o. than they would be for your 17y.o. But the house rules above would still apply to them.

This only works is if you have conversations up front about what the rules and consequences are.

Then you need to follow through. This could involve a great deal of screaming and accusations of you being the worst parent ever. But boundaries are only effective when they have enforceable consequences consistently applied.

Start Young

The sooner you have proactive approach to setting digital boundaries with your teens the easier it will be to manage. If you have a 15 year old and have never tried to put in place limits or restrictions on screen time, you will be in for an period of adjustment to start of with.

If you have been setting limits since they were a child, then you your focus is on extending and adjusting boundaries as your teen demonstrates more responsibility.

The longer you leave it the harder it will be. So even if you have never set limits with your teen before, it is not too late to start. If you are only starting then it might work more effectively if you implement gradually, rather than a huge list of restrictions and limits all at once. For older teens, the conversation will need to be in the form of a negotiation if you are to see lasting change without daily arguments.

Practice What You Preach

There are lots of studies about the hours per day teenagers are in front of screens. While I don’t doubt the veracity of these findings, I wonder where the headlines are about the amount of daily screen time adults are exposed to? If teenagers spend on average up to 8 hours a day in front of a screen, the average adult would not be that far behind. Considering a lot of adults spend all day in front of a computer for work, own a smart phone, have a Netflix, and have active social media accounts, I would hazard a guess the average number is much larger than 8.

Telling your teenager about the evils of screens will be hard to do if you are in front of a screen as much as your teen. Your media habits will be a big influence on your teenager’s own habits. Your actions will speak louder than your words.

If you don’t want your kids using technology during meals, then you shouldn’t be bringing yours to the table either.

If you don’t want your kids to be miss out on real time socialisation due to technology, then don’t let yourself be interrupted by text messages and updates on you phone.

If you want your teen to develop the habit of focusing on one thing at a time, consider not browsing Facebook while watching TV.

Do you check your email or social media accounts before you say good morning to your family? Do you take your laptop to bed? Do you spend a day binge watching your favourite TV series? Can you wait in line, or sit by yourself without reaching for your smartphone to pass the time?

If any of the above are true for you, then you need to consider what limits you are putting on your teen and the example you are setting, and more explaining to teens when and why what you do is okay and why it might not be okay for them.

So there are some basic principles of how to set limits on screens for your teenagers. What is your approach? Have you got a rule of thumb that you find useful, or a tactic that has helped you and your teenager? Please let us all know in the comments section below.

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  • Andressa Andrade

    Great article! I liked a lot how you talked about different types of screen time. I remember that growing up, my mom would often complain about how much time I spent in front of the computer, while for a lot of that time, I was actually practicing writing. I have discovered my love of writing at an early age and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if it wasn’t for all that early practice.

    I also loved how you exposed the need to practice what one preaches. One thing I know about teenagers is that they often think adults are hypocrites because they say one thing, and do otherwise. And you know what? They are totally right!

    One thing that I would LOVE to read — or to write, if you’d accept guest posts — about would be of the need to educate our teens about technology. Because they are “digital natives”, we tend to believe they know everything about technology, more than we ourselves do. But that is not true. I mean, I don’t know how things are there in Australia, but here in Brazil, it is not true.

    Last year, I had the chance to teach a 9th grade class. My students were between 14 and 17 years old. For one activity, I needed them to open their email account and accept my invitation to an online platform group. I was shocked to find out that they had no idea how to use an email inbox. My sister is 17. The other day, I needed to teach her how to use a pen-drive. And then how to format a Word file. And how to print it. She spends the whole day on her phone, yet she is completely clueless about basic hardware and software. I can’t imagine how she’s going to survive college next year.

  • Vivienne Storey

    Great article thank you, very helpful. One thing I’d be interested in having your opinion on is how to manage homework when the majority is online? I’m finding it challenging to say “no screen time until your homework is done” when the homework is all online. I know that homework then gets mixed in with other online activities and the 3 hours of necessary homeowrk on the weekend includes leisure time.

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