Follow these constructive strategies to ensure your kids use their smartphones and their time wisely.
All parents want their teens to use their screen time wisely. In reality though, parents need to be partners in their kids’ digital content consumption too — and not just around time limits.
“Smartphones are a third arm to many tweens and teens — it’s their whole lives,” says Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, founder and president of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, a nonprofit organization focused on the impact of digital media on children.
Nearly 60% of teens worry about how much time they spend online, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet teens also point to a lot of positive outcomes from using social media and online platforms such as stronger friendships, learning about new ideas, and opinions, and the ability to support each other.
Still, limits are essential. With the right tools and approach, parents can be less their kids’ digital gatekeepers, and more their digital partners.
In 2018, The American Academy of Pediatrics changed their guidelines: No more than one hour of screen time for children ages 2 to 5; and for children and teens, there’s no specific limit set, other than a caution against “too much.”
Neuroscientists argue that with too many hours of exposure, the so-called blue light emanating from digital devices can impact sleep patterns. Teens who spend significantly more than two hours per day glued to their screens are also at greater risk to suffer symptoms related to depression, compared to teens who get at least one hour of daily outdoor activity, according to the Journal of Mental Health and Activity.
Smartphones are a third arm to many tweens and teens — it’s their whole lives.
- Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra
Other studies indicate too much screen time can influence the depth and quality of teens’ personal relationships. “Many parents struggle with suddenly non-verbal children who seem to be distracted and not paying attention,” notes Hurst Della-Pietra. “They’re alarmed because when they were that age, they spent hours talking on the phone with their friends. Today’s kids text and interact over social media.”
Before cracking down on their kids’ device usage, however, parents have to take a look in the mirror, according to Dr. Tom Brunner, a child psychologist and behavioral scientist. “Kids learn through modeling,” he says. “You can’t say to your kids, ‘Don’t do this,’ when you regularly do it. Parents must model incredible restraint—not easy to do when the boss is texting you at dinnertime.”
Luckily, parents can lean on some innovative digital tools to help them manage their kids’ screen time. Parental-control apps prevent kids from texting with strangers and accessing inappropriate content. Meantime, filters can be adjusted based on what parents consider age-appropriate for their kids.
Older teenagers, however, are likely to rebel against these kind of controls, viewing them as unwelcome interference. To combat this, both Dr. Brunner and Hurst Della-Pietra recommend creating a media contract with teens, outlining acceptable device usage and online behaviors.
“The contract should be specific and granular, laying out the ground rules for the kids’ screen time,” says Dr. Brunner. “For instance, my contract with our children (ages 10 and 12) stipulates absolutely no technology use at the dinner table, when we eat out together as a family, and when we’re in the car.”
Parents must model incredible restraint — not easy to do when the boss is texting you at dinnertime.
- Dr. Tom Brunner, Child Psychologist and Behavioral Scientist
While there may be more room for negotiation with teens, the document should still be considered the “source of truth.” Teens must know that it’s in their best interest to limit their screen time — for all the mentioned health and wellness benefits.
Dr. Brunner also says consequences should be clear to children who break the rules. “Give them a specific list of chores that they can choose from if they break the contract, such as doing the laundry, mowing the lawn or doing the dishes,” he says. “Three evenings in a row washing the dishes can do wonders.”
Though Dr. Brunner sees a time when devices will automatically address screen-time limits on different devices to children at different ages, today’s parents are in “uncharted territory.”
“We’re the first generation to have young kids with smartphones in their hands,” he says. “We’re all worried about our children losing sense of how to socially interact and are concerned about the neurological impact of too much exposure.”
That makes it doubly important for parents to have an honest talk with their teens about what they use their devices for. Do they really need to spend that much time playing a game? Would their online time be better spent reading an article about something that interests them?
“My best advice is time-tested: Talk to your kids about their screen time and your concerns,” Dr. Brunner says. “Establish daily periods of 1-on-1 time to sit down and have truly meaningful conversations, where they become the most important thing in your world, and they know it.”
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