This week, Children and Screens asked our experts to share their best advice for parents raising adolescents in the midst of the global pandemic. Just when parents thought that their teens couldn’t be on their devices for more hours in the day, initial data indicates that screen time among youth has increased dramatically during this time. Like younger kids, teens need guidance in managing their cognitive, emotional and physical health during this challenging and uncertain time, as well as boundaries and schedules for staying connected both on and off line. This age group is particularly susceptible to developing bad habits and addictions, so it’s more important than ever to continue encouraging a healthy relationship with screens and to give them the support they need.
Read on to learn the best ways to talk with your kids about technology and share beneficial screen time with your family.
THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS
While it’s important to monitor the amount of time your child spends with screens, it’s even more important to monitor what they’re actually doing with that time. Talking with friends? Encourage it. Writing a journal? Experimenting with music? Wonderful. Support your child’s need for friendship and creativity while also helping them understand that time away from distractions, time for solitude and mind-wandering, is something you value. Screens open our worlds except when they take us away from ourselves. Getting this balance right means you and your children are talking, and in my view, if that’s happening, the rest will follow. And what really helps: no screens at dinner. Consider dinner to be a sacred space, a place for conversation. – Sherry Turkle, Professor, MIT. Author, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.
LEAD THE WAY
With everyone cooped up at home, now is a great time for parents to play video games, watch movies and TV shows, and explore the world of social media with their kids. This kind of active media supervision allows parents to guide their children through the world of screens, and it’s been shown to have tremendous benefits in terms of behavior, academic success, and even physical health. This process also allows parents to understand more about the fantasy world of their kids, and it offers the chance for a healthy role reversal, one in which the child becomes the teacher and the parent can model good learning practices. – Paul Weigle, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist, associate medical director of Natchaug Hospital, Hartford HealthCare
TURN OFF THE NEWS
Daily smartphone use has skyrocketed since mid-March, and students have noted that their largest increases come with apps devoted to communication and the news. One makes kids happy; the other scares them. In order to focus on the positive, older children should reach out to others through Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc. for at least an hour a day. Neuroscientists say this calms an overloaded brain. In order to limit the negative, try setting limits on their time reading news apps. At a certain point, they’re more likely to raise their blood pressure and increase their anxiety by mindlessly bingeing the news than they are to actually learn anything. – Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology
ROUTINES FOR TEENS
The world feels like a chaotic and unpredictable place right now. Trying to maintain a routine can give children and families a sense of normalcy. This is especially important since, by necessity, schools have shifted a lot of the responsibility for education to students and families. Right now, schoolwork and entertainment are often happening on the same devices. Structure and routine can help kids prioritize schoolwork, so they take care of those responsibilities before shifting to entertainment or socializing with friends. It’s also important to maintain routines around bedtime and to encourage kids to turn off their electronics at least an hour before bed. A good night’s sleep does wonders for mood and anxiety. – Dr. Dale Peeples, Associate Professor at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University
EMBRACE THE ANALOG
More time at home means more time for valuable family activities such as cooking, home repair, spring cleaning, yard work, gardening, and landscaping. Adolescents can also unleash their creativity via painting, making music, or crafts. For those with access, the dearth of cars allows for safer and more enjoyable bike rides and long walks. This is also a special opportunity to learn about family history. Teens can interview their extended relatives and create memorabilia such as scrapbooks or cookbooks. – Kristopher Kaliebe, MD, Associate Professor, University of South Florida
TAKE A BREAK
Don’t feel guilty about the increase in your child’s screen time. As the New York Times recently reported: Coronavirus ended the screen time debate, and screens won. It’s not just children’s screen time that’s surged lately, though. Parents rely on screens to follow the news, buy groceries, teach their children, talk with colleagues and friends, and keep up with elderly family members, who they’re no longer allowed to see in person. That means kids and parents alike face increased risk for physical side effects, including nearsightedness, computer vision syndrome, and neck and back problems. Although it’s difficult to limit total screen time at the moment, parents should insist on regular breaks, both for their kids and themselves. – Professor Patti M. Valkenburg, University of Amsterdam
KEEP SCREEN TIME AND BEDTIME SEPARATE
Don’t let your child’s normal bedtime shift too much later during this quarantine period. One way to enforce bedtime is to shut off screens at least one hour before lights out. When kids (and adults) use screens before bedtime, they’re more likely to want to “watch another episode,” further delaying their bedtime. They also may become psychologically stimulated by something they read or see, which may make it harder for them to fall asleep, even if they go to bed on time. In addition, bright light from screens can suppress the natural release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. In other words, protect bedtime by reducing evening screen time. – Lauren Hale, Ph.D. – Professor, Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine Program, Program in Public Health, Renaissance School of Medicine, Stony Brook University
THIS TOO SHALL PASS
Both you and your adolescent may find yourselves feeling anxious right now. Emphasize that regular life is sometimes interrupted in unexpected ways, but that things will eventually go back to normal. Help them avoid bingeing on COVID-19 news by steering them toward more healthy and enriching content, and remind them that now is a time for everyone to come together and help each other out. – Elizabeth K. Englander, PhD Director, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, Bridgewater State University
HIT THE RESET BUTTON
Everyone’s a bit stressed these days, and kids can sense it. Many will turn to their favorite passive activities, especially those involving screens, as a way of managing their fears. If your children suddenly can’t tear themselves away from YouTube, more frequent check-ins with a gradual decrease in daily screen time may help to reset their “digital programming.” – Meredith Gansner, MD, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Cambridge Health Alliance
APPRECIATE THE LITTLE THINGS
Recognize that during this time, you will not be as efficient at your job, and your child will likely not learn as much as they would if they were physically attending school. This is all okay. The greatest lesson you can teach your teen, and learn with them, is that you are resilient. You can take a scary and chaotic situation and find beauty, purpose, and connection. – Colleen Kraft, MD
ASK FOR HELP
Now is a time when those teens who already struggle with their screen use are at risk of seriously losing control. Once an adolescent has fallen into addiction, tremendous family conflict is likely to ensue as parents try to take control. With families confined in their homes without a ready way to ease the tension, the situation may become volatile. Following the suggestions found here to create structure, build connections, and encourage creative and social uses of tech and non-tech time may salvage the situation. But, if parents do find themselves dealing with an out-of-control teen and can’t seem to lead them onto healthier ground, there are counselors and coaches who specialize in internet addiction. Telehealth is not an ideal way to begin a helping relationship, but it may be what saves your sanity. – Dr. Hilarie Cash, Chief Clinical Officer and Co-Founder of reSTART Life, PLLC
DANGER AND OPPORTUNITY
Compared to adults, children and adolescents are typically less future-oriented, so present-moment experiences are particularly salient for them. As such, children and adolescents may be more inclined during the pandemic to turn to the internet for immediate gratification. There is potential danger in this: kids can get into patterns of gaming or social media consumption that may involve many hours of screen time, generate habits that may be problematic or difficult to break once the pandemic subsides, or engage in boundary-pushing or risky behavior without parental knowledge. However, there is also the opportunity here to involve youth in more adaptive patterns of internet use. For example, in the coming weeks and months, families may be foregoing in-person meetings in favor of remote holiday gatherings over the internet. Encouraging adolescents to help arrange and organize such events may provide opportunities for empowering youth to engage in more healthy forms of internet use. – Marc N Potenza, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry, Child Study and Neuroscience, Yale School of Medicine
As kids get older, their needs continue to evolve, but as our experts point out, many of the basic tenets of parenting in the digital age remain the same. With the independence of college and adulthood on the horizon, it’s important to reinforce thoughtful decision-making and responsible online behavior, and we hope these tips can help guide you and your family towards a healthy future together. For more tips, and to have your questions answered by experts, don’t forget to register for our virtual workshop here.
About Children and Screens
Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development is a 501C(3) national non-profit organization founded by Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra. Children and Screens advances interdisciplinary research, supports human capital in the field, informs and educates the public, and advocates for sound public policy for child health and wellness.