Tweens, Teens, and Screens

Person holding phone
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

By Megan McQueen

As a parent of adolescents, I struggle with how much my kids are “plugged in.” When I consider my hopes for them – compassionate, curious lives with fulfilling relationships – I wonder if their time on screens will help encourage these lives or become a barrier to them. It is not always clear. Living far from extended family, I am incredibly grateful to technology for allowing us to stay close with regular video-chatting. I also see how much time my family and I spend online and want to create more space to allow time for hobbies away from screens. How can I create boundaries for my children that will help create a healthy balance in their lives? I turned to experts for advice. 

Read on for findings that help me think about this topic.

It is okay to set boundaries. Sometimes we need a reminder that borders are all right! We may get pushback from our teens who tell us their friends don’t have the same rules. Remember, this is their job right now. They look for the boundary line and try to see how far they can push it. I like to tell my kids that boundaries are like guardrails. They are there to keep us safe. We don’t always like them. Sometimes they hurt a bit when we push up against them, but they protect us. Many families let go of screen time rules during the height of the pandemic. We may have relied on screens to keep our kids busy so that we could complete a work task or take a break. That was okay then, and it is okay to “reset family patterns” now, as Tina Payne Bryson said in a recent talk on Supporting Families Post-Pandemic. I like to invite my children to share ideas in this process to help us all build empathy and flexibility skills. 

When Should My Kid Have a Phone? As expected, there is not a “right” answer to this question. Common Sense Media has a helpful list of questions to consider as you think about phones, such as, “Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons?” During quarantine, my teen helped us buy her phone. We all agreed that being able to text her friends was a meaningful way to connect. I love sending her a quick encouragement text, which was a perk I did not consider before she had her phone. Consider how and when your child will use their technology and set expectations. For example, using a watch to call a parent during the school day about a playground disagreement is not okay, but a text to a parent to let them know the bus is running 30 minutes late is helpful.

Social Media. Many of us spend a significant part of our days on a variety of social media apps. As I hiked with a friend, we talked about how some of our favorite parenting accounts entertain us and teach us about what is expected behavior from our children. We feel relieved when we hear other kids saying the same things as our own. Social media can help us connect with others in our community – our local friends and our identity groups. How powerful that teens can find an LBGTQ2SIA+ group online if they don’t have one locally! And, we know that social media can be harmful to teens, especially girls. Limits on time are helpful; app developers try to keep us scrolling. You may consider sitting with your child when they’re online and talking together about who they choose to follow and the algorithms at play. As Liz Gumbinner writes, including “tech talks” in our conversations with our children is crucial so they can think about how they are spending their time. There are even some worksheets to help us think through our social media usage and label our feelings. 

Adult Content. Many parents are concerned about their children accessing inappropriate sites online. Tweens and teens are curious about sex and may accidentally stumble on adult images when seeking answers to their questions. Please remind your children to come to you or another trusted adult to clarify what they hear from their friends. Share reputable sites with your kids that will help them get the information they need to avoid a random search. You may also want to talk with your kids about how to react when they do see porn. Friends may show your children videos when they hang out together. Dr. Lisa Amour discusses this in her podcast. She shares that your child may see confusing things. Sometimes their body reacts excitedly to what they see, but logically, it seems violent or wrong. We can help them create a phrase to get them out of that situation, such as, “I don’t want to watch this – let’s play video games.” Talking together about online porn is a perfect opportunity to share your family’s values about sex and healthy relationships.

Model What You Want to See. Try following the limits you set for your kids. Consider turning on a focus mode, SelfControl (Apple), or ColdTurkey (PC) apps to help yourself and your family stay focused. If you ask that phones not be used at dinner, that includes your own. My teen does not have her phone in her room at night. She quickly pointed out that I used mine as an alarm. I now plug mine in next to hers in the kitchen and use a separate alarm clock. Instead of looking at my phone, I now focus on how I want to spend my time. I prefer reading, talking with a friend, or playing a game with my family rather than zoning out on a screen. When I honestly analyze my screen usage, I realize how much of my time I’ve given away. I find it helpful to think about what I get to say “yes” to when I say “no” to my screen.

Acknowledging that technology can be helpful and risky creates a gentler starting point for conversations with my family. My kids want to connect with their friends and explore independently online, and I want to keep them safe and create healthy habits. We can meet all these needs when we talk honestly and develop plans together. 

Resources

Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, imparting a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup. 

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