6 Truths About Teens and Screen Time

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We see the headlines and hear murmurs from friends and school organizations - we know that there are some issues with screen time and our kids, but is it really that serious? Dr. Tim Jordan, the author of Sleeping Beauties, Awakened Women: Guiding the Transformation of Adolescent Girls notes below how teens' screen time use has evolved for Generation Z.

Past generations of parents hung out with friends down the street or at skating rinks etc. Today, we have shrunken teen’s geographic freedom because of our fears, and their busy, supervised schedules don’t allow for down time. So we have forced them to hang out online, even though every teen I know would rather socialize in person. - Dr. Tim Jordan, Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrician

Depending on the source, you’ll likely be able to yield conflicting reports when plugging screen time and teens into a search engine; some sources will say that teens reap the benefits of digital devices, while others will say that using screen devices is to their detriment. The reality is that unchecked, unmoderated, unlimited screen time is not healthy for teens. What we can all agree on is that moderation is key.

Parents need to know that screen time poses real risks to our children. In fact, screen time before bed is linked to higher BMIs in kids. Blue light exposure before bed leads to poor sleep quality, which leads to fatigue and a host of other problems the next day -- and so on, and so forth. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that can be stopped if parents heed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for screen time (and enforce them at home). Not only should children ages six and older have consistent limits on their screen time, but parents should also ensure that they have media-free time as well.

Need more help managing screen time? Read A Parent’s Guide to Demystifying Screen Time.

How Much Screen Time is Okay?

If you’re looking for screen time recommendations for young children, you can readily find that information online, but as far as guidelines for teens, well, you have to do a little digging there. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there is no one-size-fits-all approach to healthy media use in school-age children; in fact, the recommendation is for parents to model appropriate online and screen use behavior, as well as to create a family media contract.

To create a custom media plan for your children, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents first track what media their child uses, and then use that to place limits. Once a healthy balance is achieved, parents should consistently enforce time limits for the number of hours their child is allowed to use their devices, as well as limits per media used (i.e., social media).

The AAP stresses the importance of regularly communicating with your children about their online lives and checking in regularly. The lack of a firm number of hours of screen time that is safe can be confusing to parents, especially when they do not have the foundation to create a media contract and establish limits.

In order to react and respond, we have to take a look at the real impact screen time is having on our kids, so here are six truths about teens and screen time.

  1. 50% of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices.
    According to a poll conducted by the PEW Research Center, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone and 45% of teens report almost constantly being on their devices. I think about how often I check my mobile device, which is pretty regularly, but it is nowhere near as crucial to my daily life as it is for teens. To be checking your device almost constantly during your waking hours has got to be downright exhausting.

    To better understand what this mobile device addiction among teens means, consider the implications of the compulsion to check a device regularly. When driven by addiction -- or compulsion -- teens may be prone to checking their mobile devices at inopportune moments, causing distracted walking or driving. Viewed in terms of risk, 54% of teens say they spend too much time on their phones and also means that those same teens are at risk of being distracted by their devices, which can have serious physical consequences.
  2. The majority of socialization takes place through social media.
    According to Pew, 60% of teens spend time online with friends on a daily basis. With texting as the number one method of communication among teens, it’s easy to see how pervasive the use of screen devices is among teens. And for those teens who do not have mobile devices, there are the very real effects of FOMO, or fear of missing out.

    In fact, it can be psychologically damaging to take away screen time from your teen as a means of punishment. While you may be frustrated by your teen’s seemingly constant use of social media and overdependence on their smartphone, it can be anxiety-inducing for a teen to have it taken away from them. When you take away your teen’s mobile device, you sever their connection to the real world, no matter how tenuous that digital connection may seem to you.
  3. Increased screen time is linked to depression and suicidal thoughts.
    After analyzing data from over 500,000 teens, scientists found a link between increased screen time and depression in teens. Of those teens, ages 13 to 18, females had the highest reported rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, suggesting that girls are more susceptible than boys to the effects of screen time.

    The good news, however, is that the same researchers had study findings that linked less or limited screen time, in-person socialization, and exercise, to fewer depressive symptoms. In essence, the less our teen’s lives are spent with screens, the happier they are. It’s sad that we need a study to point out what most of us already know - less time tied to monitors and devices leads to a better quality of life and overall happiness.
  4. Screen time is robbing teens of sleep.
    In recent years, there has been a movement to push back the start of the school day for high schools, to allow for optimal hours of sleep during the school week. Critics argue that many teens are simply going to bed later as a result of the later school start time, so the point is moot.

    Regardless of your teen’s school start time, if they stay up spending time on their devices, their quality of sleep is sabotaged. In fact, simplyusing a screen device within an hour of bedtime negatively impacts healthy sleep patterns, which can result in sleep deprivation (and a slew of related problems).
  5. Teens are being treated for tech addiction.
    I should add that many facilities are open to adults, but the fact that teens are being sent to tech rehabs is scary. On the one hand, I’m glad that this resource is available for parents who feel they have no other options, on the other, what does this say about our society?

    Mobile devices have created a society that’s constantly connected -- to news, videos, games, chats, email -- which is why it’s no surprise that teens are being treated for tech addiction; shocking, perhaps, but unsurprising. Today’s teens have grown up with smartphones and tablets and have integrated technology into the very fabric of their lives. Social media is how they socialize, and often gauge self-worth, which is egged-on by reaping digital rewards.

    Take Snapchat, for instance; designed for quick bytes of information and status updates, Snapchat is a focal point in today’s teens’ lives. Snapchat rewards daily users for Snapchat streaks, or Snapstreaks, in which users who communicate through the app daily are awarded special emojis when they reach high levels of consecutive snap-swaps. Bragging rights and a special digital reward are enough to create addictive behavior. It’s also telling that one of the most popular social media apps among teens is iMessage since for teens, technology is how they communicate with one another.
  6. Tech and social media developers limit their kids’ access to the technology they create.
    Yep. Steve Jobs’ kids weren’t allowed to use the iPad when it came out, and he was candid about the fact that he and his wife limited the technology their kids were allowed to use at home. Bill Gates? He and his wife limited screen time in the house after his daughter developed an unhealthy gaming habit.

    It’s scary to think that the creators of the most popular devices today knew enough to keep their kids away from what they were creating, and it’s frightening to see how much screen time is affecting our teens.

How Teens Spend Their Time with Screens

At the last report roughly three years ago, teens spent an average of nine hours per day online. Nine hours is shocking enough, but what is it, exactly, that teens are doing online all day? It’s pretty simple. Teens are online each day playing games, checking in on social media, curbing perceived boredom, gauging their popularity, and socializing with their friends.

Teens and Social Media

While study findings are three years old, CNN’s “Being 13” report provides substantial insight into our teens’ daily online lives and habits. FOMO -- or fear of missing out -- is real and is a catalyst for kid’s obsessive online habits. Our teens are checking to see what their friends are up to, in addition to checking social media to see if they’re being talked about -- positively or negatively. Teens are also using their time online to digitally hang out with their friends, be it through messaging apps, video chats or social media exchanges.

Sadly, boredom is reported to be the number one reason our kids are spending so much time online. Again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise because these kids have been raised with digital devices and non-stop access to the internet.

Teen Apps

The majority of your teen’s screen time is spent navigating through a series of apps on their mobile device, most of which are aimed at being social. Whether they’re gaming or connecting with their peers, mobile apps are the gateways through which they enter. As for what apps your teen is using, 2018 crowned a new app to reign supreme: YouTube.

The study by Pew Research Center also noted that the app our teens are spending the most time on is YouTube, followed closely by Instagram and Snapchat. While Facebook once beat out the competition, it’s now ranked fourth among teens, followed by Twitter. What this means is that our kids are spending most of their time using visual apps -- one featuring videos, the other with photos.

From time to time, you’ll see your teen using an app you’ve never heard of before -- teens are often on the pulse of new digital apps. When an app appears that you don’t recognize, you can easily find out what you need to know by using our App Advisor to give you the run-down.

Screen Time Resources for Teens

You can now add “managing screen time” to the list of skills you need to teach your child, preferably before they reach high school. Without boundaries, children can quickly get sucked into the screen time vortex, which paves the way for a possible tech addiction. Don’t worry –

we’re here to support you. Check out some of the following tools you can use to arm yourself, in your quest to teach your children to use their digital devices responsibly.

Use a Social Media Contract for Tweens and Teens

Teens want to feel that they have a voice and a say in decision-making when it comes to setting house rules and guidelines. When you use a social media contract, you can communicate with your teen to reach a consensus for usage guideline, as well as to ensure that all expectations are put into writing. While it may seem formal, it helps eliminate any gray area when it comes to teens and social media (trust me, they’ll attempt to exploit it!).

We provide a social media contract that sets expectations for both parents and children, clearly defining each party’s responsibilities when it comes to teens and social media. Most importantly, you need to remember that you should be modeling appropriate digital behavior for your children because after all, actions speak louder than words.

Consider Using a Screen Time App

To enforce daily screen time limits, you might consider using a screen time app that manages your child’s time, directly on their device. While some mobile devices have native screen time controls, they aren’t complete solutions and may still require an additional option to manage screen time. Learn about the free Zift app and see if it’s the right fit for your family.

The reality is that many American families, including my own, can greatly benefit from analyzing their own time with devices. When you’re ready to make a change, know that setting tech boundaries can help set families on the path to less screen time and greater quality of life.

Learn how to limit your own screen time by reading How to Detox from Your Social Media Addiction.

About Lauren B. Stevens

Lauren B. Stevens is a writer, editor & digital parent, whose pieces have been published across the internet and featured in several print anthologies. Lauren lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and son, and enjoys spending her family time hiking and traveling.

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