Dear Parents: What we always wanted to tell you about our cell phones!
By Adrienne Principe, Founder and Executive Director of Turning Life On
When I first started researching the impacts of screen time and smartphones on children and teens, my oldest children were still in elementary school. As the years have passed, they’ve listened to podcasts, watched documentaries and eavesdropped on my conversations about digital wellness. We’ve delayed smartphones, set limits on school-issued devices and encouraged time offline. I have always hoped that all the talk was making a difference.
We recently sat down together to watch the Action Network Live Youth Panel Discussion. Here’s what my middle schoolers had to say about it.
Panel Discussion Topic One: Parental Restrictions vs. Self-imposed Restrictions
We have rules in our house about when and where devices can be used but with Sophia, my 14-year-old 8th grader, I rarely have to enforce these rules. Sure, I have to remind her every now and again but for the most part, she follows the rules on her own. I find her phone on the kitchen counter or in the hall outside my bedroom door at the end of the day. I ask her why she sets her own limits.
Sophia: Can we put a screen time limit on Instagram reels and then don’t tell me what the screen time password is?
I’m surprised she knows the password but I let her continue.
Sophia: They keep popping up on my phone, and then I just end up watching them. We could set a limit for an hour a day but I’d rather we just figured out how to get rid of reels all together.
I push her on why she sets her own limits.
Sophia: My phone just distracts me from getting work done. I want to go on it but I don’t want to go on it because I know I need to sleep. And I know I should set limits because I know what it does when I am on it. It can make me sad and changes normal behaviors.
I ask her how she knows this.
Sophia: Because you told me.
Yes! She’s listening.
Sophia: I have also observed what happens when I am on it for a long time. It makes me tired and I have low energy. Trying to resist the phone doesn’t work either. You have to physically separate yourself from it. That’s why I put it in the hallway or in your room.
What we’ve learned: Self-reflection is key to helping kids balance technology on their own. But how do we help kids develop this? Ask open, honest questions then listen. Without passing judgement or lecturing, ask teens how technology makes them feel – good and bad – and why. And don’t reveal the screen time password.
Panel Discussion Topic Two: Using Technology to Unwind vs. Escape.
I turn to my 12-year-old son to talk about this one. I always catch him watching Dude Perfect when he’s supposed to be doing homework.
Tyler: It’s not Dude Perfect, Mom, it’s Mr. Beast.
Glad we cleared that up.
Tyler: Mr. Beast is funny and entertaining and homework is boring.
Tyler: But I know it’s not a good idea to watch Mr. Beast while I’m supposed to be doing homework.
Tyler: Because then I’ll be up later doing homework, and I won’t be able to fall asleep because of the blue light.
Sweet, he’s been listening, too.
Tyler: But that’s not enough to get me to stop watching because it’s entertaining and fun, and because my friends watch it and we like to talk about it during recess. I want to be caught up.
I tell him I understand. This is one of the biggest challenges with social media. It’s part of the culture.
Tyler: It feels better when I’m watching it with permission instead of sneaking it. It’s more enjoyable when I’m not afraid someone is going to sneak up and catch me.
Guilty. I totally do this.
Tyler: I won’t sneak it, if I can watch it after I do my homework.
This is fair but I pose this question: Even if we allow it, what’s going to stop you from watching YouTube when you’re supposed to be doing homework?
Tyler: When I get older and my brain grows more, I’ll be more responsible.
I ask him when we can expect that to happen.
Tyler: High school…. It’s terrible using an iPad everyday for homework. I would rather use paper because staring at a screen makes paying attention harder. The screen makes me tired, and the lights and ads and YouTube are distracting.
Doesn’t homework in general make you tired?
Tyler: I’m not tired when I’m doing work with pen and paper. But my hand hurts after 10 minutes of writing, and I can type faster. And I need to know how to do that because when I get a job, I’ll need to type.
This echoes what the panelists say about tech being a tool that improves productivity but also a distraction that reduces productivity.
What we’ve learned: Middle schoolers need their parents to set limits and enforce them when necessary. Studies show that implementing a “Technology Break,” meaning a set time to check in online (generally 10-15 minutes), can relieve internal distractions. Students are less likely to be distracted by the uncertainty of when they can use their devices. Encourage your student to establish reasonable technology breaks, preferably in a different location than where homework is done, but set a timer so students don’t get sucked in. And talk to your child’s school about getting homework offline, especially in middle school.
Sophia only has Instagram and still seeks approval before posting pictures, which is not often. I ask her about real vs. doctored posts, and if she ever sees posts on Instagram that make her feel bad.
Sophia: Sometimes I see ballet pics and videos on Instagram of very young girls, and they’re really good. Those make me feel like I’m not good enough. But I tell myself that they’re probably in Russia and enrolled in some crazy ballet school that they attend all the time.
I tell her that when I was growing up, my friends and I would compare ourselves to the models we would see in magazines. It didn’t bother us too much because we didn’t know them personally. They weren’t our peers. She confirms that this is how she feels. I ask her why she uses social media.
Sophia: I like to be up to date on what my friends are doing and the pictures they’re posting. I also like to see baking pictures to get inspiration for my own baking. And I like to watch ballet videos of professional performances because we can’t see performances live right now.
I tell her that it sounds like she’s found positive ways to enjoy social media, and ask her if she has any advice for other middle schoolers about using social media in a positive way.
Sophia: Watch things that you’re interested in, and save videos that make you feel good or laugh so you can go back and watch them later. If there are people you follow that make you feel sad or bad about yourself, try to unfollow them or skip past them on our feed.
I ask her what parents and other adults can do to support teen mental health.
Sophia: I agree with what the panelists said. Parents really should listen to what their kids have to say before just saying no.
I ask Tyler if he thinks kids want to talk with their parents about technology.
Tyler: If parents really showed an interest in their kids’ technology use, they would want to talk about it. They would want to talk about the games they are playing and if they are good at them. Because then they can have something to talk about.
In the digital wellness world, we call this “co-teching.” It’s using technology with your kids so you can gain a better understanding of how they’re engaged with it. “Co-teching” can also improve parent-child relationships.
Sophia: If parents show that they care and listen, then kids will feel more confident about what they’re doing and less ashamed. Then they would probably feel more confident making better choices on their own.
What we learned: Conversation is really important. So is compassion and understanding. This is a topic that comes up again and again with the panelists. Sounds like we could all use a refresher on how to be an active listener. Technology use is complicated. Kids need boundaries but they also need support. The youth panelists discuss this and offer solid suggestions for parents. Establishing a *Family* Media Plan that incorporates feedback and follow through from the whole family can also be a launching pad for starting and continuing the conversation. For information about talking with your kids about creating a Family Media plan, check out this Turning Life On resource.
Living in the Digital Age is complicated. For everyone. There is no question that we all need to come together to support our collective ability to balance digital technology in a way that optimizes our health, enhances our relationships, privacy and safety and improves learning and productivity. As adults, we are uniquely positioned to listen to youth, support their quest for digital wellness, and elevate their voices so they can inspire each other, and us. Just as the panelists did in this Action Live Event. Today, we can create a safe space for the conversation to begin.