Should Teens have Smartphone Limits?

The U.S. Surgeon General recently issued an advisory that social media is hurting our nation’s children. Social media causes teens to lose sleep, withdraw from face-to-face interactions, spend too much time staring at screens, and engage with content that is making them anxious and depressed. Unfortunately, 95% of teens between 13 and 17 have a smartphone, so there’s a general feeling among parents of inevitability about social media use. The struggle between letting teens have a phone and begging them to put it down is real.

More than likely, your teen already has a smartphone and at least a couple of social media accounts. Your teen also probably spends more time than you want staring at screens. You might worry about the effects, but think it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s not necessarily true. If you believe it would be healthy for your teen to reduce their smartphone use, then this article is for you. Try these tips:

1. Encourage Youth to Explore the Wisdom of Social Media

Begin with an open conversation. An open conversation does not mean a lecture. Instead, share an idea with them (e.g. a newspaper article about the Surgeon General’s advisory) and ask their opinion. Listen to their thoughts with curiosity, asking questions so that you can fully understand their viewpoint.

Many teens know that social media can create stress and anxiety in their lives, so talk to them in meaningful ways that helps them to see how boundaries around social media could be helpful:

  • First, let them know about the most recent scientific research about social media, discuss the Surgeon General’s advisory, and explain that we should always adjust our lifestyles as new information comes to light. You can give the example that, in the 1950s everyone smoked cigarettes, but people began changing their habits when research came out in the 60s showing the health effects of smoking. Now that we know social media can harm adolescent brains, we should take action to protect them, which means new limits on social media.
  • Second, talk to them about balance. Not all social media is bad, and be clear that you’re not trying to take away social media. There just needs to be a balance in how much time is spent on it. Technology should help us, but should not interfere with sleep, physical activity, in-person time, schoolwork, or contributing around the house.
  • Third, ask them about their goals in life. What do they want to do or accomplish? You might suggest they create a pie chart of how much time they would like to allot for their responsibilities and activities and compare that to how they currently spend their time. Discuss how they feel when they watch TikTok versus doing an activity they love (playing guitar, skateboarding, drawing, etc). Help them to consider how much time they’re on social media now and what amount would allow them to still feel connected online while also having time for other hobbies or activities they enjoy.
  • Finally, talk to them about the wellness results from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study revealed that close relationships are better predictors of long and happy lives than money, fame, social class, our IQ, cholesterol levels, or our genetic makeup. You can read more about this on our previous blog, How to Raise Happy Kids. Establishing social media limits creates more time for youth to engage in true relationships. Let teens know that by practicing social interaction now, they will be setting themselves up for better quality relationships, which will ultimately make them happier throughout their lives.

2. Establish Appropriate Limits.

Once you’ve had the open conversation, ask them what they believe are reasonable limits to establish around social media. Don’t just decide for them what you think will work. Listen to their needs, concerns, and ideas. Work together to find limits that will truly work for your teen. Some suggested limits might be:

  • Agree to no phones at family meals.
  • Establish a curfew for technology, such as no phones in bedrooms after 11 p.m. (You can create a communal charging station for the family in a common area of the house, and everyone agrees to plug in their phone by the curfew time.)
  • Determine a maximum number of social media platforms. Your child does not need every type of social media account. Let them pick 1-3 that feel most important and stay off the rest.
  • Require a regular social media break. Taking a break from social media gives us a lot of perspective and a much needed mental health break. Ask your teen to pick a certain time every week to put down the phone.

3. Teach teens to Tailor their Content.

Users do not have to passively accept the content that the social media algorithms give. Many platforms offer built-in tools to modify your content. You can unfollow or mute people or accounts that are making you feel frustrated, angry or inadequate, or mute hashtags on Instagram and Twitter that present topics or issues that trigger negative thoughts. You can also add more positive content by following people and hashtags that have encouraging messages. Tell teens to pay attention to how they feel as they scroll through their feeds. If they notice that they always feel bad about themselves when they see a certain type of post, they should unfollow or mute those topics or people. Encourage your teen to use social media to connect with people who inspire them, share similar interests, or provide a sense of belonging.

4. Recruit Support.

Almost every parent is fighting the same battle with their teens. Consider talking to the parents of your teen’s best friends and/or teammates. If every parent decides together on a limit, the teens will have less ability to argue.

5. Role Model.

It’s important that parents role model positive social media use. If we are using it all the time and ignoring people in front of us, how can we expect our teens to do anything different? Try establishing a time of day where everyone in the family commits to being unplugged. Have a dinner conversation about current events. Play a board game on Sunday afternoons. Go for a walk as a family after dinner. Watch a movie together.

6. Encourage other Interests.

One of the best ways parents can combat the negative impacts of social media is to plan activities that make your children put down their phone! Do other fun things together – go shopping, hike outside, play sports, go to the movies, visit with friends, grab an ice cream cone, or anything else that gets your teen to be present for real life. The key is to find an activity that your specific teen really loves.

Final Thoughts…

While teens often try to break the rules and argue against limits, the truth is that most kids want discipline. They feel relief when there are firm, understandable boundaries. When we let youth have free rein, they feel out of control, which feels scary. Explain your rationale for smartphone limits, stick to your boundaries, and revisit how they feel in a month. It will do you both good!

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