Teaching teens to connect without screens

Article at-a-glance:

  • Because screen use is an integral part of work, school, and personal time, learning a healthy balance in the pre-teen and teen years is important.
  • The rise of screens and social media has impacted how our kids’ generation makes and maintains relationships.
  • Helping your teens learn to connect without screens requires both creativity and clear expectations.

If you’ve heard the familiar refrain, “but everyone else has a smartphone,” it’s because they do. Pew Research reports a whopping seventy-one percent of teens own or have access to a smartphone.   A recent Harris Poll of first-year college students shows screen time as the number one stress management tool employed to cope with college life – the go-to solution for seventy-five percent of students.

With average teens spending five to seven hours a day immersed in a digital landscape, side effects can be varied and follow them into adulthood.

Decreased face-to-face interaction

Today’s teens meet up with friends online almost as often as they do in their homes or dorms. In fact, online socializing has edged out every other venue (malls, parks, sports clubs, church, and jobs) except school and is quickly gaining on homes as the place to socialize.

Not only are phones being used to replace traditional social interactions, teens use them to get through face-to-face meetings. In an awkward situation, a phone can be employed to make the user look busy or give them an excuse to leave.

Distorted relationships

Many of a relationship’s most difficult conversations are easier to have behind a screen. Everything from flirting with a classmate to dumping your girlfriend can be accomplished with relative comfort through a smartphone. Thirty-one percent of teens report being dumped through a text and 20 percent through some form of social media.

Romances now form and dissolve more rapidly and they can come with additional pressures. Eighty-five percent of teens surveyed expect their boyfriend or girlfriend to check in with them daily and 35 percent expect check-ins multiple times per day.

When they end, these digitally augmented relationships can have serious repercussions, especially if messages or photos shared in confidence are later posted on social media or texted to peers. After a breakup, teens can endure social media blocking, stalking, slander, and harassment.

Social pressure

Mainstream media and social media have combined into a one-two punch of societal pressure on today’s teen. Besides the impossible beauty standards and material wealth held up as “normal” in movies and advertising, Pew surveys report the following trends in teen social media use.

  • Twenty-one percent of teens report feeling worse about their own lives because of what their peers post on social media.
  • Five percent of high school students surveyed report being afraid to go to school because of online bullying.
  • Forty percent of teens report feeling pressure to post only things that make them look good.

Added stress

While a teen with their first phone may be delighted by each ding and buzz, this can quickly lead to a background level of stress they are unlikely to recognize. Being constantly on call and at the mercy of other’s needs is wearing. Being interrupted constantly by notifications fractures their attention and makes it difficult to focus on writing, reading, and real conversations.

Adults know this and strive for balance by turning off phones to enjoy downtime or work through a problem. High school and college students often have a harder time establishing these personal boundaries and even recognizing the need for them. In fact, most teens report keeping their phones on their nightstands while sleeping and within reach while studying.

What is a parent to do?

Screen time can seem impossible to police now that it’s become such a pervasive part of our work, school, and personal time. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently had to revise their screen time recommendations to reflect these new realities.

The online world is here to stay and will likely play a larger part in your teen’s adult life. Instead of only limiting screen time, here are some ways to help your kids manage that time.

1. Teach kids and teens to be good digital citizens

The same way we teach our kids rules for conducting themselves in society, we should lay down guidelines for how they conduct themselves online. Discuss your expectations regarding online etiquette, ethics, legality, and self-protection.

Explain the long-term ramifications of poor decisions and make sure your kids understand that everything they share online contributes to their digital footprint, an online legacy that will follow them into adulthood.

You may decide to create a digital citizenship contract that governs the online behavior of the entire family and have each family member sign it.

2. Engage with your teen’s digital life

According to McCaffee’s Digital Divide study, sixty-two percent of teens feel confident that they know how to hide their online activity from parents and Pew surveys show that seventy percent of teens have done so. This subterfuge is accomplished in several ways: by clearing browser histories, deleting texts, and setting up secret social media profiles.

Stay involved with your kids’ online life and take the time to familiarize yourself with the technology they use. Play their video games with them, follow them on social media, and be alert for suspicious signs like empty browser histories, changed passwords, and new social media app installs. Many families require that smartphones used by teens be accessible to parents at any time.

3. Define your family’s no-screens-allowed situations

Without clear rules about when it is and isn’t ok for teens to use their phones, we can easily settle into a pattern of nagging whenever we see their faces in a screen. Pick a few situations (mealtimes, homework, bed, etc.) in which screens are non-negotiable and resist the urge to nag when their screen use is simply annoying you.  The repetitive nagging cycle does little to encourage a healthy balance with technology and instead drives kids to use screens out of your sight.

4. Let poor choices be a teaching moment

Kids are human and they are going to mess up. When they do, talk about how they could have handled the situation better and how they can make it right. Your family’s digital citizenship contract can outline predetermined consequences for infractions so that rash punishments aren’t handed out in the heat of the moment.

5. Model balance and respect for others

Let your kids see you establishing healthy boundaries between screens and personal life. Make a point of turning your phone off before family meals, before taking that nice long bath, when driving, or going for a walk. Taking a brief moment to power off your phone when your teen asks to talk with you sends a powerful message about etiquette and mutual respect.

6. Keep screens out of the bedrooms

One of the simplest ways to avoid a variety of technology problems is to have teens check in their phones at bedtime. This removes the pressure for them to feel “on call” and the temptation to fall down the rabbit hole of online media. Several studies have shown links between screens in bedrooms and lower test scores, sleep problems, and more.

7. Alternatives for unstructured time

Many teens turn to screens because they are the closest entertainment option. Providing alternatives like after-school programs, school clubs, committees, sports, volunteer work, and even an after-school job will offer opportunities for social interaction and the chance to gain life skills.

8. Plan screen-free fun

  • Hiking away from cell service, visiting a water park, canoeing, biking, and camping can remind your teen there’s life away from screens without your saying a word.
  • Offer up a challenge to see how long your family can go without screens. Make it competitive and join in the fun over a weekend. The last person to check their screen gets out of dish duty for a week.
  • When your teen invites friends over, offer to spring for the pizza if everyone powers off their phones and checks them at the door for an hour.

9. Reduce availability

Some teens have no interest in establishing healthy boundaries with technology and may need a firmer hand to push them into socializing and exercising. If this is the case, you may want to dial back the flow of media in your house. Eliminating cable, reducing your internet speed, capping your data plan, and eliminating services like Netflix, Hulu and so on can help the whole family unplug and look for alternate sources of entertainment.

If everything you’ve tried has failed and your teen seems to have lost interest in real-life fun and socialization, speak with your pediatrician. It could be a sign of depression or another underlying problem.

The first posts in our college-prep series:

The last post in our college-prep series:


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