Holiday havoc or harmony? Helping teens and parents navigate screen time boundaries during the long summer break | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Holiday havoc or harmony? Helping teens and parents navigate screen time boundaries during the long summer break

In the immortal words penned by Alice Cooper... school's out for the summer!

Along with the much-anticipated lazy days of summer comes an abundance of free time for many children and young people, and often, frustration for parents on how to help their teen balance screen time with other healthier activities.

We asked UniSC Associate Professor Michael Nagel, an expert in child and adolescent development and learning, for advice on how parents and teens can navigate screen time boundaries, for a harmonious (not havoc-filled) holiday.

Q: By now, most have heard the evidence that excessive screen time is damaging to mental health, and you mentioned teens themselves are generally aware of it too but need a parent to be the "bad guy". Can you tell me about this? 

Associate Professor Michael (Mike) Nagel: 

In 2018, we surveyed 2,150 teens (aged 13-17) from across Australia and New Zealand. In one part of the survey related to smartphone use, 1,372 students stated that smartphones were contributing to the following issues; tiredness/poor sleep (91%), inactivity (65%), decline in school grades (64%), reduction in social activity (63%), anxiety (58%), attention problems (56%) and depression (56%).

The students knew that smartphones were problematic, but of interest is what came from subsequent interviews.

The vast majority of students were not prepared to make changes themselves…that would ‘not be cool' as one student noted. However, they were happy to curtail their usage if their parents forced them. In other words, they knew there was a problem but they would not do anything unless they could blame their parents.

This makes sense as it allows them to self-help and save their street ‘cred’ by telling their friends their parents were the ‘problem’ and not their phone.

Q: What advice do you have for parents on standing their ground when it comes to screen usage? Any practical tips you can give?

Dr Nagel: 

It is important for parents to remember that every generation has experienced teens being unhappy with parents. I’m sure readers can relate back to a time when they were angry with mum and/or dad…sometimes for long periods of time. This is natural and a part of a teen’s innate push to become independent and autonomous.

Parents will be disliked by their teens and they will get over it. To that end, standing one’s ground is important…when a parent buckles under pressure, that tells the teen that they can get their way with just the right amount of anger. However, parents can lessen the blow by being proactive.

Start by negotiating the boundaries and modelling the desired behaviour… a parent will be fighting a losing battle if they have one set of rule for their teens regarding screen use and another for themselves. Parents can provide a bit of a reality check by setting limits on phone and screen usage that the whole family follows.

Here are a few things that might help when setting boundaries around screen time and indeed with many other issues:

  1. Be sure to validate their feelings. The need to know that you understand their angst if having to give up screen time…don’t try to solve that problem at that time…just listen.
  2. Tell them – and show them – you trust them. Give them a chance to demonstrate commitment, but if they do try to bend or break the rules they need to know what the consequences might be beforehand.
  3. Avoid looking like a dictator. Parents set the rules but must be prepared to explain them…pushing the boundaries is natural for teenagers so having a considered and thoughtful explanation about why the rules exist is better than reacting after the fact.
  4. Praise positive behaviour. We do this a great deal with young children but teens need to hear a parent’s praise as well. Always remember that while we know peers are important to teens, they do care about what their parents think and seek parental approval and affirmation.
  5. Keep calm and carry on! It’s easy for tempers to flare but keeping cool is important to model and really important for a parent’s own sanity!
Q: What are some practical ways to counterbalance screen time?

Dr Nagel:

Part of parenting means offering alternatives… parents can do some homework and look for things outside of the home that might appeal to their teen. Doing things together is an added bonus.

Being outdoors and doing some measure of physical activity is not only good for the body but also good for the mind. Study after study tells us that nature is a great buffer against negative emotions such as anxiety and stress.

It is also important to note that simply doing 30 minute walk three times a week has great therapeutic benefits and is an easy way to nurture a relationship with a teen.

Q: You mentioned giving teens a voice is important. How can parents do that when it comes to negotiating screen time?

Dr Nagel:

Most teens are aware that there are issues around screen time so setting boundaries should be a negotiated process. The important thing for parents to keep in the back of their minds as they co-create the rules, is that they want to shift the balance from too much time on screens to doing other things with other people in real time.

Q: Is setting a routine during the holidays helpful?

Dr Nagel:

Yes and no. Teen’s lives are fairly regimented most of the year so they do need some down time…and boredom can actually be healthy as it gives the brain to down tools and relax.

Setting routines really depends on what is going on as a family and for the teen. If they have a part-time job or involved in regular activities, they will have some routine. It is however important to build routines as summer ends and school looms. A week before school starts is a good time to put routines in place.

Q: Can you shed any light (no pun intended) on screens, blue light and sleep for teens?

Dr Nagel:

Teens are chronically sleep deprived at a time when it is very important. The teen brain is under construction and part of this sees a shift in sleep patterns.

Teens will be awake later due to a delayed release of melatonin as compared to adults. The paradox is that while many teens get less sleep than younger children, there is actually an increase in sleep needs during the teenage years (about 9+ hours per night)… so most teens are in the midst of ‘sleep debt’. They are chronically sleep deprived and screen devices contribute to sleep problems.

The blue light emitted from screens keeps the brain awake and no amount of commercial filters fixes that problem. Some might think that a lack of sleep is not a big deal and teens can catch up but the brain does not work that way. Sleeping in on weekends does not make-up for time lost during the week.

The blue light emitted from screens keeps the brain awake and no amount of commercial filters fixes that problem. Some might think that a lack of sleep is not a big deal and teens can catch up but the brain does not work that way. Sleeping in on weekends does not make-up for time lost during the week.

And, lack of sleep in teens:

• Negatively affects memory, concentration, hearing and can also increase aggressive behaviours
• Makes them more susceptible to acne and illness
• Negatively affects eating patterns, heightens effects of alcohol, and can increase use of caffeine/nicotine.

Associate Professor Michael Nagel’s research and teaching focuses primarily on human development and the psychology of learning. He's authored 20 books focusing broadly on aspects of educational psychology and child development.

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