Just when you thought your teen couldn’t spend more time online, COVID-19 struck. Researchers were already documenting unprecedented levels of teen screen time prior to the pandemic. Early data suggests those rates have increased significantly.
In a report from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, sixty-three percent of parents reported their teens are using social media more often during the pandemic. Eighty percent said they’ve relaxed the rules around social media use.
What’s the impact of this additional screen time?
So far, results are mixed.
What Parents Say
More than half of parents surveyed said social media is having a negative impact on their kids. Some of the most-cited effects include:
- Inadequate sleep and exercise
- Distraction from schoolwork
- An unhealthy need for attention or approval
- Not enough face-to-face interaction
- Being too sexual, insensitive, aggressive, or reckless
- Hate speech and bullying
What Teens Say
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison got teens’ perspectives on screen time during COVID-19 by meeting with the Youth Advisory Board in one of its adolescent mental wellness programs. The teens surfaced a variety of concerns including:
Teens acknowledged excessive screen time during the pandemic, and that their tech use has had consequences such as difficulty falling asleep.
Teens surveyed expressed concerns over misinformation on social media. There was an abundance of news but some of it turned out to be incorrect. This left teens unsure what to do, feel, or how to get the whole story.
Some teens felt pressured to do something special during quarantine such as learn a new skill or get in better shape. At a time when just getting by has been difficult, this pressure leaves some teens feeling stressed and inadequate.
Tips for Managing Screen Time During COVID-19
To date, research into how digital technology affects teens has been inconclusive. For example, social media can have a negative influence on teens’ social and mental well-being. It can also be a lifeline to the social connection that enriches their lives. Teens report that technology has provided distraction, escape, and a way to lighten the mood during COVID-19. For some, the internet has been their only outlet for social interaction while social distancing.
So, how can parents help their teens reap the benefits of screen time without falling into the traps?
Here are a few tips for parents during the pandemic:
1. Take a Deeper Look
Instead of evaluating how many hours your kids spend online, consider how they’re using technology. Do they use video games or social media to talk with friends? Are they working on art projects, journaling, or exploring music? If so, their time online may be enriching.
Are they playing solitary video games or watching news for long periods? Have you noticed changes that worry you? If so, set rules around when, where, and how they use devices. Talk to your teen about your concerns.
Give yourself a break if you’ve allowed more screen time than usual. You aren’t alone, and it’s understandable given that many of our activities, such as school, grocery shopping, socializing and work, require us to be online right now.
2. Set a Good Example
Most parents admit they’ve spent more time on screens during COVID-19 as well. In a 2020 Pew report, more than half of parents with young children said they spend too much time on their phone and that this has interfered with quality family time. Kids do as they see, so set healthy limits on screen time for yourself and your children will be more likely to follow suit.
3. Keep Talking
Living through a pandemic is strange for everyone. Teens may need help navigating these times. Check in regularly and have ongoing conversations about how to safely use social media and technology. Monitoring how much time they spend online is important, but it’s even more effective to talk about what they’re doing online and how it impacts them.
4. Seek to Understand
About 8 in 10 parents set limits on technology use and take away screen privileges as a form of discipline. Setting limits, such as no screens at the dinner table or right before bed, helps kids moderate their use. But experts believe the family conflict that sometimes arises from strict enforcement of these rules may be more harmful to teen mental health than the screen time itself. Focus on the purpose technology is serving for your teen and talk through healthy ways to meet their needs.
5. Become a Student
Ask your teen to teach you about a social media platform or share a favorite movie or TV show with you. This healthy role reversal will boost their confidence, give you insight into their digital world, and let you model how to be a good learner.
6. Maintain Healthy Routines
Teens crave a sense of normalcy, especially during these abnormal times. Stick to a daily routine that includes time for exercise, schoolwork, meals, and catching up with the family before teens turn their attention to electronics. When limits on screen time are built into the structure of each day, there’s less chance for conflict.
7. Get Help
Teens who struggled before the pandemic may be at risk of losing control. If you’re dealing with serious family conflict or notice worrisome changes in your teen, talk to a counselor. There are professionals who specialize in teen issues, including excess internet and video game use. Many offer virtual support during COVID-19.
Practice and Model Resilience
One of the most important lessons we can all take from the pandemic is resilience. Even in uncertain times, we can find joyful moments, develop new skills, and stay connected to the people we love. Social media and technology can play a role, if teens are smart about the way they use it and have parents who help guide them.