By Jackie Woods
Recent data has revealed that teenagers spend nearly 4-5 hours daily on their phones. Gone are the days of late-night conversations with friends on a spiral phone cord attached to the kitchen wall. This shift has given rise to heightened tension between teens and their parents, often resulting in power struggles and conflict in the home. As a middle school counselor, I frequently encounter concerns from parents and students.
Parents ask: “How much screen time is enough?” and “When should I give my child social media?” are common questions, and many parents worry their kids will become addicted to screens.
Teenagers respond: “My parents don't understand how much I need my phone,” “I am not addicted, but my parents think I am - they are so strict.” Teenagers often feel that their parents don’t understand how vital their phones are, and they assert that they are not addicted, despite their parents’ opinion.
The abundance of information available on this topic, from books, articles, and podcasts can be overwhelming, making it difficult to navigate the sea of advice and differentiate what is best for their family in the digital age. To simplify the wealth of information available and provide a practical framework, I would like to break it down into a simple equation:
Know your child + Know yourself (as a parent) = Trust and Communication.
Know your child
As parents, we can acknowledge and observe that our children are unique individuals, distinct from us. Even siblings within the same family can be vastly different. Understanding your child involves recognizing their strengths and weaknesses at their current stage of development and how these factors impact their relationship with the digital world. Questions to consider include: Does your child know their limits, and can they self-regulate? Are they deeply focused on tasks or easily distracted? These traits significantly influence their digital behaviors. A child who can self-regulate may excel at time management and understand when its time to put away their screen. In contrast, a child who becomes overly absorbed in a task may need help developing metacognitive skills to recognize when it's time to step away from their screen.
Extracurricular activities also play a crucial role in this equation. Some children have schedules packed with various activities, leaving them with limited time for homework and social interactions. Teenagers crave opportunities to connect with friends, which can create challenging decisions between focusing on academics or engaging with their phone. Yet, when they return home tired and in need of a break, the strong urge to connect with friends may seem more appealing as a form of respite compared to delving into homework. It is important to recognize the phone can be BOTH a healthy distraction and a negative influence, and finding the balance that makes the most sense for your child is a shared responsibility between both teens and parents.
Know yourself as a parent.
Modern parenting is a demanding task, and parents often wear many hats, from emotional caregivers, to chauffeurs, and sometimes tutors. As Jennifer Wallace in Never Enough poignantly states: “I thought my job was to run myself into the ground for my kids..”. Parents are also increasingly expected to take on the role of their children’s social media and digital world supervisors. Understanding where you fit on this spectrum is important. If you’re uncertain about your competence in monitoring your child's digital interactions, consider alternative tools, boundaries, or seeking external support to understand your child's needs in this digital era. Conversely, if you have the time, resources, and confidence to engage regularly with your teenager on these topics, it is strongly recommended. Regardless of your strengths and weaknesses, recognizing you are a capable and loving parent wherever you fall on this spectrum is essential.
In the middle school years, some level of monitoring screen time is crucial. Whether you use apps, Wi-Fi surveillance, or share weekly conversations where you can look at your child’s phone together - parents can’t expect teenagers to navigate this new world independently. Being honest about your role in this context lays the foundation for healthy digital interactions with your teenager.
Knowing your child and yourself as a parent ideally equates to building trust and keeping lines of communication open between you and your children.
Building and maintaining trust and communication is invaluable between teenagers and their parents. Every family brings with it its own culture, rules, and values. You throw this into the melting pot with #1 (knowing your child) and #2 (knowing yourself), and ideally, you come out with a stew that appeals to everyone. In such an environment, the trust that weaves within this family stew is a two-way street- one where parents trust their child, and their child can trust them in return. Open lines of communication and established boundaries and/or consequences in case of breaches are critical. Parents have to trust their children to be responsible and make healthy choices, while teenagers can hopefully feel like parents are there to catch them when they fall instead of micromanaging all their decisions. This mutual trust empowers teenagers to think independently, develop autonomy, and know their parents have their best interests at heart. Open communication bridges generational gaps and fosters a greater understanding of each other's perspectives. Ultimately this combination serves as a framework for nurturing the family’s well-being and strengthening the connections and conversations around a teenagers’ relationship with the digital world.