Is Technology Use a Problem for your Teen? How to Tame the Tech Monster

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One of the biggest struggles all families of tweens/teens face is how to manage technology at home. Smart phones, tablets and laptops are a big part of all of our work and school lives and their use offers us many advantages.

However, tech has many “addicting” qualities and the line between what is positive use vs overuse is blurry.

All of this tech is so new, most “experts” don’t have clear guidelines of answers of  how much is “too much.” And what can appear to be typical use can be problematic for some teens, but not for others.

How to tell if your child is overusing tech?

In my practice I have a few guidelines that inform my advice about technology use. They are as follows:

  1. Social experience
  2. Sleep
  3. Urgency

Let’s take each one in turn.

  1. Social experience. While it is true that many games and tasks online can be “social” involving chat, video and text, these virtual connections cannot fully replace face-to-face socialization. Kids miss a lot of social skill building experiences when they are not physically present with other kids. If your child’s social life revolves around tech-related experiences, it may be time to re-evaluate their use. The same holds for if they are online most of the weekend, evenings and other times when kids are typically socially engaged. However, if your child has a balance between online social time and face-to-face experiences you probably don’t  have to worry.
  2. Sleep. For tweens and teens there is no more important health issue than sleep. Their bodies and brains are growing and changing at such a fast rate that the require a great deal of sleep (at least 8 hours) to be rested for the day. When tech gets into the bed at night, sleep is at risk. This happens not only because they are up texting or watching videos way past their bedtime, but because the blue light from the screen can interrupt their natural circadian rhythms and delay sleep onset. If your child is tired and sleepless due to tech use, it’s time to re-evaluate their access and use.
  3. Urgency. Can your child use tech for awhile and then leave it be for long stretches? Or does he crave tech time in a way that is disruptive to his routine and family functioning? If your child is having tech-related meltdowns or glued to tech instead of participating in family time, social experiences, doing chores or managing basic hygiene, it’s time to reconsider the role tech plays in your child’s life.

How do we tame the tech monster?

In many families children are using too much tech, but parents are stuck on how to limit this use. I find it easier to manage tech boundaries and limits if there are clear rules all family members follow to stay tech healthy.

  1. Tech has a time and a place. Be clear with your kids when and where they can use their technology. Let them use it for homework if they can stay focused. If they can’t, it’s gone until they are done with homework. Allow an hour or so in the evening, a few over the weekend. If their use interrupts the 3 areas discussed above, limit it more. Tech also has a place where it can be used. This should be in family spaces, not bedrooms. No sneaky tech.Which brings us to….
  2. No tech at bedtime. Nothing good comes from having tech in bed. Nothing. The late night chats that get dramatic, unsupervised video/movie/TV watching, inadvertent lurking on shady sites…this all happens while you sleep. Make it a rule for EVERYONE…no tech at bedtime. You too. Get some sleep.
  3. Tech is a privilege not a right. Your child’s phone isn’t necessary for his survival. If you bought it and pay for data, technically it’s yours. I understand kids need privacy, but your kid’s phone isn’t going to be the place where she can store her deepest, darkest secrets. Know your child’s passwords, scan their phone regularly for anything “off” or clearly unsafe. When tech use is out of control, take it from them. Don’t say it’s a “punishment.” It is an adult helping them control something that is beyond their control at this time. No piece of technology should become so important a child feels pain when they can’t access it. Limit access so they don’t become so dependent.
  4. Shut it off—on purpose. I want to advocate that EVERY teen’s cell phone be turned off (yes, slide to off so it goes black) for 2 hours every day. Think of the freedom! Consider the relief! Watch homework get done and the sight of your child’s eyes as they look at your face! If every teen did this from say 4-6pm every evening no one would miss anything because all their friends would be “off” too. The reason your teen wants the phone always on is because of FOMO (fear of missing out). If every one of their friend’s phones is also off, they are not MO. However, we don’t live in a perfect world and this won’t become reality in most cases. But you can help your teen to feel OK about disconnecting for a few hours each day to focus on what they need to do.  I practice this with my 12 year old every night. For example when his friends start a group chat and he has homework to do, we turn his phone off. Two hours later, when he turns it back on he can see that the whole gist of the chat wasn’t momentous and he has free time now because his homework is done. It feels good to be productive and he can be social at the appropriate times.

Technology is a wonderful thing. It can also be too much of a good thing. Like all limits and boundaries we set for our children, (wear your seat belt, eat your veggies, go to bed by 10) we need to model and enforce rules with their technology, too. And remember, just because “everyone else is doing it” doesn’t make it right or healthy. You know your child best, so please feel empowered to do what is best for them.