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Developing Healthy Social Media Use for Teenagers

By modeling what you expect and incentivizing appropriate screen time and device boundaries with fun alternatives, parents can bond with their teens in meaningful ways and empower them to make reasonable decisions for themselves.

The average American teenager engages in 7.5 hours of screen time. When factoring in academic-related screen time, that amounts to over half of their waking hours spent watching videos, scrolling through social media, and communicating with others.

In adolescence, teens begin to assert their independence and form their own identity. They are constantly comparing themselves with peers in their environments and across social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. While the internet can be an informative, empowering, and communal space for teenagers, too much screen time can have negative effects on their physical and mental health.

Four out of five teens keep their phones in their bedrooms overnight and a third sleep with their phones in their bed — this easy access can lead to insomnia for teens who cannot yet regulate their phone use. When teens use their cell phones before bed time, they delay the release of melatonin, a hormone associated with maintaining circadian rhythm. Blue light exposure and social media can also increase alertness, making it difficult to fall asleep. Disrupting the sleep-wake cycle can lead to poor academic performance, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and a weakened immune system. A sort of compounding effect occurs when teens substitute screen time for physical activity and in-person contact for digital socialization. Teen obesity rates have tripled within the last thirty years, in large part due to a more inert lifestyle. Additionally, one in three teens will experience some sort of anxiety disorder.

Such staggering statistics may be understandably alarming for parents who feel pressured to give their teens access to the latest devices and apps. Over 50% of American parents use punitive or invasive means to monitor their teen’s screen time, such as supervising the sites they peruse, auditing their calls and text messages, and withholding phones. Such responses, while protective in their intention, may create tension in the relationship and influence teens to shut parents out from their digital activity.

It is possible to instill sustainable screen time practices without making social media the enemy. Rather than taking an approach that encroaches on teens’ burgeoning desire for personal space and privacy, parents can start by modeling what they expect and adopting a fun and incentivized approach over one that teens could perceive as restrictive.

While teens begin to value their peers’ opinions and companionship more so than their parents, they are still learning from their parents’ behavior in the home. If parents are locked into their devices during and after meals and forgoing physical activity, it is likely that their children will follow suit. Modeling what you expect is the best way to teach healthy screen behaviors and maintain open lines of communication; otherwise, your teen may view your directives and comments as hypocritical.

Some teens may justify bringing their phones to bed because they function as alarm clocks. Model what you expect by leaving your phone in a common area — like the kitchen — before bed, and challenge your teen to do the same. Purchase a charging station and alarm clocks for you and your child — depending on how autonomous your teen is, they can wake themselves up, or you can take turns waking each other up in the morning. Challenge yourselves to get showered, dressed, fed, and attuned with one another before checking the phone and leaving for school.

If your teen is competitive, incentivize them with a reward system, wherein the person who can go the most consecutive days without checking their phone before school or work earns a prize (just make sure that the prize doesn’t revolve around more screen time). Many phones have the capacity to track screen time across various apps. Make it a game to see who can spend the least amount of time on a screen during the week, or better yet, see who can reduce their screen time usage over an extended period.

Many times, teens and adults alike will resort to scrolling through devices out of boredom. Develop a code word or signal that either of you can use when you recognize you’re in scroll mode. Create a “boredom jar” and fill it with ideas for how to spend your time in a more connected way. There are tons of free and fun activities you can do together or apart, like going on a walk or bike ride, playing sports in the backyard, tending to a garden, cooking or baking, playing a game, reading, or asking random questions to keep up with each other’s interests and evolving beliefs.

The time between dinner and bedtime is pivotal for establishing sound practices. Engage your teen and other children to come up with theme nights for certain days of the week. At the same time, make sure that you do afford space and time for your teen to complete academic assignments and socialize with friends, particularly on the weekends. If you notice that they’ve been texting for an extended time, ask if they want to hang out with the person they’re texting. If they’re watching a TikTok dance, ask if they can teach it to you. If they’re engrossed in a certain TV show, strike up a conversation about the plot and character dynamics.

Finally, encourage your teen to set and hold themselves accountable to their own rules. Adolescence is a time when the teen brain seeks rewards and simultaneously develops executive functioning skills like delayed gratification and impulse control. Encouraging your child to experiment with their own guidelines gives them an opportunity to make connections between screen time and poor health.

Ideally, teens and adults should spend less than two hours per day on a screen, and be active for at least 15 minutes of each hour spent online. By modeling what you expect and incentivizing appropriate screen time and device boundaries with fun alternatives, parents can bond with their teens in meaningful ways and empower them to make reasonable decisions for themselves.

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