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Teens and tech: How to set healthy screen-time boundaries as a family

Many teens rely on phones and tablets for staying in touch and making friends, so how can parents help their kids set sensible boundaries around screens?

Watching her 17-year-old daughter Ruby navigate the stresses and strains of the pandemic was tough for mum Alice. As well as the pressure of preparing for the HSC from home, Ruby was desperately missing her friends and the social life she usually thrived on. The one saving grace, says Alice, was Ruby’s phone.

“It was a gateway to a bit of normality. She could FaceTime her friends, do group chats and play games with a whole group. Without her phone, I think she would have been really lost.”

A 2021 eSafety report found that Aussie teens spend around 14.4 hours a week online, with more than 90% saying they spend that time chatting with friends, 77% play online games with others and 72% go online to read and respond to social media comments.  

And because tech is so present in our lives, it’s important that teens and parents know the potential risks and understand how to set healthy boundaries around screen time as a family.

The relationship between teens and technology

While PSYCH2U and private-practice clinical psychologist Michaela Young says there’s no evidence teenagers are more susceptible to the addictive side of technology, she warns that they could be more vulnerable to its emotional and psychological effects.

“There are a couple of things going on for teens developmentally that can impact their technology use,” she explains. “One is that their brains are still developing. The logical part of our brain that helps us problem solve, judge situations and regulate our emotions is still developing up to the age of about 30. That’s why teenagers are generally more impulsive, don’t necessarily think through their decisions, and their emotions can sometimes be a lot harder to cope with.”

In other words, teens are less likely to question and interrogate images and messaging they see online, and are more likely to feel affected by these messages. The need to feel like they’re a part of something can also make it more difficult to separate themselves from online activities like gaming and social media.

“Fitting in feels like life and death to many teenagers,” Michaela says. “Anything that feeds into that desire is going to trigger an emotional need in a teenager. Technology provides that in a way that may help some kids who perhaps don’t connect with children at their school – they can find other kids online who like the same game as them and make friends that way, for example. Others can stay connected to their friends all the time through tech. Tech can also be especially helpful for kids with anxiety or conditions such as autism, who may find it hard to connect with others. There are a lot of positives.”

However, there's now also plenty of research that points to the negative physical, emotional and wellbeing impacts of too much screen time and social media use.

One study published in the journal Sleep Medicine reported a link between tech use and sleep in teenagers, with more screen time associated with less hours of sleep. And a lack of sleep due to too much exposure to social media can cause several physical and emotional issues, including moodiness, trouble concentrating, anxiety and even depression.

That said, Michaela stresses that it’s not all negative. “Platforms like TikTok allow teens to be really creative and have fun, which is what the majority want to do. They’re being silly or funny with their friends. We need to give teenagers credit and realise that some tech helps them stay connected and happy.”

What role do parents play?

From a very young age children will model behaviours they see from their parents. It’s the same for teens. So, if you’re constantly on your phone checking work emails, your children will see this attachment to a device as the norm and mirror it.

“It’s important that parents check in with themselves,” says Michaela. “I’ve spoken to children who say they’re on their phones a lot less than their parents, but what they’re doing is seen as less important. Parents need to ask themselves if they really need to be checking their emails again, and if they’re actually using their phone as a way to deal with any stress or anxiety they may have.”

If parents are concerned that their teens are spending too much time on gaming or phones, setting boundaries for the whole family can help to normalise non-digital time and activities.

“Boundaries are crucial for teenagers. They need them to feel safe. And of course they shouldn’t be getting all of their social time or communication digitally. There needs to be a mix.”

Michaela recommends setting time limits around screens and devices for everyone at home, so it becomes less about telling your teen what to do, and more about improving family time for all.

“With teens, especially, it’s important not to lecture them,” she advises. “Parents need to recognise that activities like gaming or chatting online are really important to their kids – in the same way work might be to them.”

Rather than simply telling your teen it’s time to get off their phone and do something else, parents can help their child transition away from devices by providing alternatives. Suggest or plan things that don’t involve screens that you know your child likes to do, like heading out for a bike ride, cooking dinner together, kicking a footy outside, or booking tickets to go see a concert or sports match.

Ask your teens what they would like to do and when screen time is most important to them. Encouraging them to be part of the solution can be key to its success.

How to talk to teens about tech

Putting all tech under the same “bad” umbrella is unhelpful if we want to reduce our teens’ attachment, says Michaela. It’s better to ask questions and show a genuine interest in what they’re doing.

“If they love TikTok, ask them about it and find out more about it. If you’re concerned about some of the body images they’re seeing, ask questions like, ‘How do they make that person look like that?’ or ‘Do you think they’re paid to do that video?’”

Subtly highlighting the fact that there are filters and paid promotions across much of social media will encourage teens to question what they see – without criticising the tech they enjoy.

“The most important thing is working on your relationship with your teen,” says Michaela, explaining that most of the children she talks to want a better relationship with their parents.

“Parents can often be quite hurt or upset when a teenager is blunt, doesn’t want to talk or is a bit rude. But it’s important to recognise that’s part of how they learn to be independent and assert themselves. If you show an interest in them, their friends and what they like to do, you can help your teenagers find a way to open up about things that may be bothering them.”

With remote learning now at an end, Alice and her daughter Ruby have agreed to keep phones and iPads out of bedrooms at night and make an effort to do more outdoor activities on the weekend.

“She needs her phone, but she needs to do other things as well,” says Alice, who has also agreed to stick to the non-tech time. “I think as a parent it’s about being realistic and striking the right balance – tech isn’t an all-or-nothing thing for teenagers or adults.”

Tips for unplugging as a family

  • Practise what you preach. Telling your teens to get off their phone while you’re scrolling through work emails isn’t going to work. Prove to them that you can get by without tech by putting yours away when you don’t need it.
  • Agree on realistic boundaries. Sit down as a family and agree on times when everyone is happy to put phones and iPads away. Asking your kids to be part of this decision will make it feel less like an order.
  • Create some alternatives. Whether it’s skateboarding, a bike ride, watching a film or shooting some hoops, when it’s time to turn the tech off suggest something else to do that you know your kid enjoys, so it feels like less of a sacrifice.
  • Keep talking. Showing a genuine interest in what your kids are into, rather than dismissing it as a waste of time, will help to create a respectful understanding of their life and how they socialise and connect. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask them to explain it.

Reaching out for help

If you’re concerned about your teenager’s mental health and have noticed any significant shifts in their eating or sleeping patterns, how they interact with others, or a drop in their motivation or interest in things they used to enjoy, you can get help.

“Schools and school psychologists or counsellors are a great resource,” says Michaela. “Or you can speak to your GP who can put you in touch with a psychologist.”

HCF is making it easier and faster to access the mental-wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services give eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists and other allied health professionals.

Learn more about PSYCH2U

If you or your child are struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental-health support:

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published December 2021

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