Author: Alison Fung
with Dr. Guanghai Wang,
Clinical Psychologist and Sleep Specialist
and Lei Jin, Educational Psychologist
This third article in our series on technology and children focuses on tweens, teens, and screens, and what you can do to help curb addiction to their digital devices. Check out our first article, on how to introduce technology to infants, and our second article, on healthy screen habits for children over the age of five.
If you feel as though your teen is too engrossed with their screen, you’re not alone. According to Common Sense Media, 59% of parents in the US think their teenage children are addicted to their mobile phones, while 50% of teens were brave enough to admit it. (Think of the number of teens who didn’t fess up!) Most parents may feel out of touch with their children once they hit adolescence, but unlike with generations before, parents also have to contend with technology that is woven deeply into everyday life.
Studies have discovered a number of worrying results on the effect of screen time on the still-developing brains of adolescents. Research found that screen addiction leads to impaired brain structure and function, damaging the brain’s frontal lobe, which goes through important changes over the course of puberty up until the mid-twenties.
Furthermore, internet use can indirectly lead to a whole slew of physical health problems, such as bad posture, obesity, diabetes, sleep problems, and eye strain, not to mention mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, as a result of social media sites like Facebook or Instagram. Prioritizing social media or video games over school work can also result in poorer academic performance.
Growing up as digital natives, with technology playing an integral role in their lives, US teens are now spending nine hours a day on their devices. Meanwhile, here in China, internet addiction is now considered a clinical disorder. An estimated 16-27 million people in China are thought to be addicted to the internet, with parents sending their screen-addicted teens to the notorious rehab centers, where children spend months isolated from the internet, and at one point even reverting to electroshock therapy to treat addicts. (China is in the process of banning this.) This is undoubtedly an extreme measure, so what can parents do to help their teens get off their screens?
1. Let your teens speak up
When making decisions on how you and your family use technology, make sure you let your teens have a say. Create an ongoing discussion about what you and your children use technology for. Why do they use the sites or apps they use? What benefits are they receiving from being online? Of course, they’ll need to use the internet for homework, or maybe they have a passion for coding or graphic design, in which case you can encourage them. Maybe Facebook or WeChat is a way to gain validation and approval from their peers, or video games an approach to escape from the stress and pressure at school.
Don’t snoop on your children, as it will damage your relationship with them. Instead, build an atmosphere of trust and respect their independence. Make sure you have discussed internet safety and cyber bullying and let your children know you are there to help and not to judge. Encourage your children to talk about and question how media plays a role in their lives, and most importantly, listen to them.
2. Don’t just set time limits, find activities to replace screen time
Parents in Taiwan are legally obligated to limit how much time their children spend on screens, but should we be setting screen-time limits regardless of the law? Instead of restrictions (which will inevitably cause a lot of backlash), try engaging them in other activities. For instance, let them invite their friends over for a sleepover, encourage them to pursue a sport, or try a new hobby.
3. Switch off time
Studies have shown that technology can negatively impact sleep. Using social media sites, doing homework, and playing online games end up stimulating the brain, preventing teens from falling asleep. In addition, exposure to blue light affects the circadian clock and suppresses melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. An hour before bedtime, create a tech-free zone. Get your teens to switch off their phones, and encourage them to read or listen to music. (Also check out this guide we wrote to help students sleep better.)
4. Schedule an electronics-free day
Schedule one day a week or month to do something as a family. Maybe you can all go to a nearby park for a picnic, or maybe you can try out a new recipe together. Make sure you allow your teen to give input by letting them provide suggestions they will be interested in doing with the rest of the family.
5. Be a good role model
Lastly, make sure that as a parent, you set a good example. One study found that 70% of children thought their parents spent too much time on their devices. Put your phone away during dinner time and family time and make sure you’re present when your family needs you.
If there’s anything you should take away from this, it’s the importance of working together with your teenage children to reduce the time spent on screens and encourage more real life social interactions by spending quality time together as a family or with friends.
If you feel there are deeper issues at hand in the way your children are spending time on their devices, with a serious, negative impact on their mental health, consult an expert. You can contact us at ELG for a consultation with our specialists, Dr. Wang and Lei Jin, who can help you or your child overcome tech addiction.
 Someone is diagnosed as an internet addict if they spend more than six hours a day on the Internet, according to Dr. Tao Ran, the director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Beijing Military General Hospital.