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How to help your child or teen become less addicted to the screen




May 13, 2023

We know technology is a necessary (and sometimes wonderful!) part of everyday life for most of us, including our children and teens, so rest-assured that this is a judgment-free zone. We’re certainly not here to shame anyone’s tech usage, but instead, we’re all about finding family solutions and realistic boundaries that can help everyone in your household have healthier relationships with their devices. 

As a child, you weren’t scrolling through social media or watching YouTube videos to pass the time. So how in the world are you supposed to teach your child or teen healthy habits when it comes to technology? Well, it starts with educating yourself with articles like this so that you can have open and honest conversations as a family surrounding the confusing and sometimes addictive world of tech. 

Why excessive screen time can be a problem 

Like we said, using technology can benefit young people. It can allow them to connect with friends, learn in new and creative ways, and it can help them prepare for their future careers. But our devices, specifically smartphones, are designed to keep us hooked, and teens in particular are especially susceptible to chasing that dopamine hit, leading them to enter into that dreaded “scroll hole” for hours on end. 

One study found that U.S. teens spend more than eight hours a day on screens, and there's growing concern over how social media may be affecting their mental health (including an increase in self-harm).

These addictive behaviors can cause them to neglect homework or other responsibilities and to spend less time building rewarding connections in real life. That’s why it’s important for you as a caregiver to help them develop strategies for screen use that is balanced and healthy.

Why? Well, excessive screen time has been linked to a variety of problems. One study reported a link between screen time and higher rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnoses among preteens. While another study found that using electronic devices to calm young children when they’re upset may inhibit their ability to learn to soothe themselves, leading to more frequent, intense emotional outbursts. And then, there are findings on how tech usage can negatively affect a young person’s sleep cycle and lead to depressive symptoms. 

Remember that every child is different, but here are some common signs of excessive tech usage:

  • A child or teen consistently has trouble spending time without access to technology. They may complain that they are unhappy or bored. 
  • Screen time disrupts sleep, performance at school, and interpersonal relationships
  • A child or teen is accessing inappropriate or dangerous content online 

How to build healthier screen time habits as a family

Consider some of the strategies below to help curb your child or teen’s dependency on their devices. And don’t forget to be patient with everyone involved throughout the process, including yourself! 

  • Discuss online safety often. It’s important to start an open, honest conversation about staying safe online from a young age and to continue the discussion as your child gets older. Teach them to not share identifiable or sensitive information, to be wary of downloading files, and remind them that what goes online stays online. It’s easy to lie online, so make it clear that they are NEVER to meet up with someone they encounter online. Discuss bullying and let them know to alert a trusted adult if they encounter anyone being bullied online. Teach your child not to make purchases online without parental consent and educate them about online scams so that they stay alert. Above all else, encourage them to come to you if they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation.

  • Set tech boundaries as a family. Limits help children feel safe and teach them how to self-regulate. It can be beneficial to create a family media plan so that you can set clear, realistic limits together. Talk about app limits, parental controls, no tech times, and ways that you can all use technology in healthier ways. Everyone will feel empowered by being able to participate in the conversation.

  • Create morning and nighttime routines. It’s not always possible to oversee how much technology your child is using throughout the day, but you can play a part in helping them start off and end their days with positive habits. Help them write out their routines so that they can better manage their time. Set times when screens need to be turned off or put away and consider removing phones from your child or teen's bedroom, so they’re not on their devices right before they go to sleep or when they first wake up.

  • Be a role model. We know this one can be so hard when you’re trying to stay on top of deadlines and stay connected in your own relationships, but telling your teen to put down their phone while scrolling on yours isn’t likely to be effective. Our children learn A LOT just from watching us, so try your best to set limits for yourself and be honest with them about how you struggle with tech sometimes too. 
  • Discourage multitasking. Whether it’s scrolling on our phones while watching TV or answering emails while eating lunch, we’ve all gotten pretty used to using tech to do many things at once. But if your child is texting while doing homework or using social media while they’re at the dinner table, it’s time to have a conversation about how it could be affecting their ability to focus on one thing at a time. 
  • Find your balance. It can help to explain the concept of moderation to your child. You can use an example of eating a balanced diet. It’s important to eat nutritious foods and to enjoy treats or desserts in moderation. The same thing is true for spending time on screens — it’s okay sometimes, but not a healthy replacement for doing things you love or connecting with people in real time. 
  • Teach content curation. Talk to your child about the ways in which the content they consume can affect the way they feel. Encourage them to unfollow or mute social media accounts that make them feel inferior and to continue to be hyper aware of the impact of the information and images they take in.  
  • Encourage their IRL hobbies or activities. Encourage your child or teen to find a class, club, or activity that interests them. Make time to get outside as a family by planning a picnic, a hike, or a trip to the beach and plan “no screen” experiences as much as possible. 
  • Don’t invite phones to dinner. Encourage members of your family to keep their devices away from the dinner table and use this time to connect with one another without distractions. To get the conversation flowing, try asking your kids prompts like, “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” or “What’s something you’re looking forward to this week?”.

  • Schedule tech breaks. Is there one chunk of time that you can ask everyone in the family to unplug for a few hours? Maybe it’s taking Friday night as a “Tech Shabbat” so that you can all play games together or maybe it’s Sunday morning so you can all take a nature walk together. Make it a family tradition and really relish the time doing things you love together. Take some time to notice how you all feel afterward and celebrate tapping into a little mindfulness together! 

Most of us are guilty of being too tethered to our screens, so cut yourself some slack and know that make small changes can lead to big results. Weaning someone off social media or other tech outlets may be similar to having someone giving up a food, drug, gambling or alcohol addiction. Remember that Bend is here to help your family navigate tech addiction, so reach out anytime you need support.