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The 3 biggest mistakes parents make when discussing screen time

Few topics of conversation elicit stronger responses from teenagers than the subject of screen time. Even the slightest suggestion that a kid has a problem with their phone can lead to denial, stonewalling, and rolled eyes.

Naturally, many parents do one of two things: avoid the subject altogether or double down with strict rules and lectures. Both approaches can be counterproductive, but there is an alternative path. Believe it or not, most teens are open to discussing their tech use if the conversation is approached in the right way.

Having grown up with social media myself, I have seen the well-intentioned missteps parents often make when addressing tech use firsthand. I have also spent the better part of the last three years discussing screen time with teenagers. Through Project Reboot, a school assembly and guided digital detox program inspired by a course I taught at UC Berkeley, I have helped over 8,000 teens build better tech habits. In the process, I have learned where the disconnect between teens and parents originates and discovered strategies for engaging in more productive conversations about screen time.

Before we dive into the places parents often go wrong and the alternative approaches you can take, I need to give you some context. Most arguments about screen time stem from parents misunderstanding how kids view technology. To bridge that gap, let me walk you through my personal experience developing and overcoming an addiction to my phone.

My journey into and out of tech addiction

After getting my first iPhone and social media accounts in 6th grade, technology quickly became deeply integrated into my life. My screen time wasn’t insignificant, but it didn’t interfere with my academics, extracurriculars, or social time. So when parents raised concerns about my generation’s social media use, it seemed to me that they were simply out of touch with a new technology — blind to the ways that it enhanced our lives and scared of something that didn’t exist when they were growing up.

Although concerns about screen time seemed overblown when I was in high school, my perspective changed drastically when I went to college. The combination of imposter syndrome, stress, and anxiety that accompanied my freshman year led to me using my phone as a means of escaping discomfort. What seemed like mild procrastination at first snowballed into an addiction that damaged my college experience. By my second semester, I was scrolling more than I was studying.

Things got worse before they got better. Realizing the consequences of overusing social media only added more stress and anxiety, which I had developed a habit of running away from by using social media. Counterintuitively, learning about smartphone addiction and its consequences made my addiction worse.

Fortunately, I was given an opportunity to hit the reset button. I took time off school for an internship, deleted social media for a while, and learned to use technology in positive ways. Over the course of a few months, my screen time had lowered drastically, my mental and physical health had improved, and my devices became tools that enhanced my life without infringing upon it.

The four types of tech use

Looking back on the journey my relationship with technology has taken, it’s clear to me that two main variables were changing over the years:

  1. Awareness: My understanding of the risks, consequences, and benefits of using technology

  2. Intentionality: My ability to engage with technology in a manner that I perceived as healthy and productive

As such, there were four different stages that my relationship with tech went through:

  1. Intentional and Unaware: I first started using my phone and social media with a purpose, and for many years it was a tool that enhanced my life. However, I wasn’t aware of the addictive potential of social media or many of the ways that I could use technology to make my life easier.

  2. Addicted and Unaware: As the habit of turning to social media to avoid uncomfortable emotions became ingrained, my phone use became highly unintentional and I did not yet realize the consequences of this.

  3. Addicted and Aware: Realizing that I had become addicted to my phone and that it was seriously infringing on my happiness, success, and well-being initially made the addiction worse.

  4. Intentional and Aware: Hitting the reset button, paying close attention to my screen time, and learning to leverage the positive aspects of technology and social media enabled me to regain intentionality.

This journey can be summed up by the following diagram:

As a parent, your objective should be to help your child move towards the top right corner, regardless of where they are along this path:

This means you want to raise your child’s awareness about the costs and benefits of technology, but more importantly, you want to assist them in becoming more intentional.

With that context in mind, here are the three biggest mistakes that parents make when approaching the topic of screen time.

Mistake #1: Underestimating your child’s awareness

When parents see their kids staying up late playing video games, taking frequent homework breaks to look at social media, or scrolling through TikTok while (sort of) watching TV, they often assume that their child is in the bottom left corner of this map. That is, they think they are unaware of the fact that they are addicted and don’t understand the consequences of their screen time.

Here is a reality check: the vast majority of tech-addicted teens know that they are addicted; they just don’t talk about it. When I was struggling with my screen time, I was ashamed of my overuse of social media. I assumed that my inability to control my tech use was a result of my own shortcomings, and I blamed myself for my addiction. Those feelings of guilt and shame prevented me from bringing up my tech addiction with my friends, let alone my parents.

This feeling is shared by the majority of young adults. Ask a teen face-to-face if they are addicted to their phone, and you will be met with denial. Ask them anonymously, and you will get a different answer. According to a 2016 report by Common Sense Media, over 50% of US teens say they “feel addicted” to electronic devices. Keep in mind that this study was published 7 years ago, before COVID forced screen time through the roof.

This means that a kid you look at as being entirely unaware of their tech addiction is likely quite aware but too ashamed to talk about it with you. As such, your perception of how your child views their tech use is likely misguided:

Mistake #2: Dwelling on the negative

If you are under the impression your kid is addicted and unaware, you will likely feel a responsibility to wake them up by saying things along the lines of:

“You are addicted to your phone”

“You are spending way too much time on social media”

“Instagram is bad for your mental health”

“Don’t you know what TikTok is doing to your attention span?”

Although the intention behind these statements is good, the outcome is often bad. Remember, your objective should be to increase their awareness while helping them become more intentional. Although telling them they are addicted and informing them about the consequences of tech use may raise their awareness, it will likely make them less intentional.

Most kids who use their phones unintentionally do so because it has become their coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable emotions. All of the above statements incite guilt, shame, stress, and anxiety. How will they handle those emotions? By turning to their phone even more.

The method through which you raise your child’s awareness will determine whether they move left or right on the map:

Mistake #3: Cultivating a “me vs. you” mindset

Another temptation that you have probably felt is to take control of your child’s tech use. While I do believe screen time limits and household tech rules are important, the method through which you implement them will determine whether or not they are effective.

By imposing rules upon your child without their consent, you are positioning yourself as their enemy and making technology more attractive to them. Although this may seem effective in the short term, you are setting them up for failure in the long term.

A better approach is to cultivate an “us vs. big tech” mindset. Help them see that if they are using technology unintentionally, that is not their fault. Rather, they are being manipulated for profit by tech companies that do not have their best interests at heart.

Get them to view social media as something they pay for with their time (because they do), and help them get a good deal out of it. Ask them what value they get from social media and how much of their time it is worth.

Remember that your objective should be to help them build an informed and intentional relationship with technology so they can maintain healthy tech habits for the long term. By definition, their tech use will not be intentional if you do not allow them to set their own intentions.

Do not be a judge that imposes rules on them; be a guide that helps them determine what their optimal relationship with tech looks like and hold them accountable to that ideal.

Ways to change the conversation

Now that you know the biggest mistakes parents make, here are some ways to encourage healthy tech use in your household.

#1: Be vulnerable

Kids are not going to listen to you on this topic if they do not think you are on their team. Rather than being condescending, be vulnerable. Here is an example of how to do this:

“I got sucked down a Facebook rabbit hole today. I think my relationship with it could use some work.”

Let’s be real. Kids are not the only ones struggling with their screen time. It’s very likely that your tech use has room for improvement too. Don’t hide that from them. Use it as an opportunity to show them they are not alone and put yourself on their team. This reinforces the “us vs. big tech” mindset.

#2: Be curious and open-minded

Despite the negative aspects of social media, kids are using it in some amazing ways, many of which you may not be aware of. If you cast a negative light on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, you lose credibility in your kid's eyes. Instead, approach these conversations with curiosity. Ask them questions like:

“Can you show me some of your favorite TikToks?”

“Who are your favorite influencers and why?”

“What role does Instagram play in your social life?”

By asking these questions without judgment, you acknowledge the fact that you, unsurprisingly, have some blind spots that they can help you fill in. This makes attempts to help them maintain healthy tech use feel collaborative as opposed to condescending.

#3: Plant more than you prune

You are not going to change whether or not your child will use technology, but you can change how they use it. The most effective way to do that isn’t by restricting the negative aspects of the internet (pruning); it’s by instilling a desire to leverage the positive aspects of it (planting).

The internet is the greatest learning resource that has ever been created, and those that leverage it are in a great position to succeed. Explore ways to take advantage of it with your child to encourage them to become a lifelong learner. You can do this by:

  • Signing up for a Masterclass - There are classes on cooking, drawing, wilderness survival, magic, rock climbing, and so much more!

  • Helping them create content on a topic they are passionate about - Building a personal website, writing blog posts, or creating a youtube channel are all great ways to exercise creativity, not to mention they will look great on college apps.

  • Watching a TV series with them - This might be counterintuitive, but it’s a great way to nudge them toward healthier content consumption. Consuming long-form entertainment is far better for your attention span than scrolling through TikTok, and studies have shown that following stories can actually make you more empathetic.

It’s not too late to help

Today’s parents have been dealt a tough hand. Mass adoption of smartphones and social media has dramatically altered the social lives of children, opened the floodgates to a never-ending stream of difficult-to-moderate content, and resulted in millions of tech-addicted teens. Given the fact that all of this has happened in less than 20 years, it’s no surprise that most parents struggle to manage screen time. There has never been a larger generation gap, so don’t blame yourself if you have made any of the mistakes listed above.

Fortunately, it is possible for teens to overcome tech addictions. I’ve personally seen hundreds of teenagers and college students reduce their screen time by over 50% after completing Project Reboot. These transformations happen when kids engage in open conversations around their screen time, clarify their intentions regarding social media use, and have others hold them accountable. By applying the advice above, you can help them do all three.

If you want additional support or are interested in bringing Project Reboot to your community, don’t hesitate to email me or set up a Zoom chat using this link.

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