By Christine Elder, M.Ed, PLPC (in progress)
Are you worried that your teenager is using too much technology? If so, you are not alone. According to recent research, American tweens spend an average of six hours per day in front of a screen, and teenagers spend almost nine hours per day. That is a lot of time, but how do you know how much is too much? First, it’s important to understand why they feel drawn to the screen.
It makes sense why teenagers love their devices. In their stage of development, the social needs of love and belonging, peer approval, and perceived self importance are at their peak. During the teen years, peer relations are a number one priority, and teens need to be connected to others, feel liked, and be validated. It should come as no surprise, then, that technology, especially social media, fills each of those needs in many ways.
Now that you understand why your teen might be drawn to use their device so much, what can you do? As a parent, how do you know how much is too much?
3 Ways to Tell If Your Teen is Using Too Much Technology
- Your teen is isolating themselves. Needing time alone and taking a break from time to time is typical for anyone, especially for teens. Some people even need time alone to regain their energy to be around others. However, if you notice that your teen begins to isolate themselves, such as hiding in their room with their device for a long period of time or refusing to be in the same place as you, this is a sign that there may be a bigger problem. Problematic internet use is often comorbid with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. If your teen is already experiencing these issues in conjunction with excessive internet use, it may be time to seek help.
- Your teen is using their device as a form of coping. If you notice your teen clinging to their device to get their needs met, this might be a red flag. If a teen is feeling anxious or upset, they may gravitate to their devices to self-soothe. For many teens, their device can mimic a safe place for protection or control. If a teen does not know where else to go to get their needs met, they may begin to depend on their needs getting met through the device. In turn, this can make finding ways to cope in the off-line world more difficult.
- Your teen becomes argumentative if you suggest cutting down. At first read, you may be thinking, “what teen wouldn’t become irritable or argumentative when their device gets taken away?” While it may be common for them to defend their devices, if it happens consistently and often escalates to a full-blown argument or tantrum, this could be a sign of a bigger problem. Most often, parents believe the solution to excessive internet use is taking their kid’s phone away. In reality, it is not that simple. It takes a lot more to fix a habit that has persisted for so long.
How are you feeling after reading this? If you’re feeling ready to take an action to help your teen, here are some ideas:
- Set an example. If children see their parents overusing technology, how could they be expected to do any different? Check on your boundaries with technology: Are you up at all hours on your phone? Do you use texting as your main form of communication? Do you text while driving? If so, then it makes sense that your teen would likely do the same. Adults are role models to teens, and parents should be conscious of how they engage with technology and media.
- Take responsibility. As parents, it is important to own our part of the conflict. One way to address this could be simply acknowledging the situation: “I am the one who gave you the phone, I am the one who knows how much time you spend on your phone, and I apologize for letting it get to this point.” Or: “As a family, it is time to start setting limitations because I care about you and I miss spending time with you.”
- Promote balanced media habits. A healthy digital lifestyle should include thoughtful and intentional uses of media and technology. Setting ground rules is often the best way to begin a new habit with technology. This could look like carving out times to disconnect; for example, maybe a ground rule is to not bring phones to the dinner table. Find replacements for screen time with board games, puzzles, or games that promote conversation.
Your teen deserves to learn how to connect in the real world. Building a healthy relationship with technology takes time, but re-fostering a nurturing relationship with our children is priceless. You are helping to build the memories that will last their lifetime.
Christine will be leading an 8-week in-person course for teens who are struggling with managing their screen use, or are overusing technology. Teens and Screens will start Friday, April 1st from 4-5pm.