Teens & Screens: Where Do We Even Start?

By Jamieko Lane, MFT & Lisa Palley, MFT

Imagine growing up in a world where instant gratification and screens were a part of everyday life. Take a moment to think about this: YouTube debuted in 2005, the iPhone in 2007, and Instagram in 2010. This means that our young people have, in a literal sense, always had screens and social media. They have never lived a life where answers weren’t readily at their fingertips or where pleasure and fulfillment were delayed. Simple pastimes like talking on the phone and playing outside have been supplanted by Snapchat, TikTok, and Discord, and dominate how our teens interact with one another and the outside world.

During this same time, our adult worlds have also transitioned to screens. We have an instantaneous connection to everyone we know through text, emails and telephone calls via a device that stays by our side 24/7. We are constantly experiencing life through posts, “likes,” shares and stories. Unlike teens, we are adults with a fully developed frontal cortex and impulse control, and yet we are probably guilty of looking at our phone multiple times an hour too.

Now teens and parents are stuck at home, together, with “nothing” to do. We’re not allowed to leave our home to go to school or work, or to engage in fun pursuits. We are resigned to bingeing Netflix, mastering that new videogame, or going down a YouTube rabbit hole. This is 2020. There are a lot of jokes circulating that 2020 got canceled, and, to be honest, it feels that way sometimes. With so much uncertainty in the world today, it’s hard to know what is right, what is wrong, and how one parents effectively after over 100 days with their QuaranTeen.

Important Conversations

In order to start addressing some of the very real concerns 2020 and the pandemic have thrown our way, including how much time our teens are spending on their screens, it is important for the parents of the household to have a conversation first. Here are some questions to consider:

• As parents/guardians, what is your relationship with screens? Can you commit to time off of your devices? We want to be mindful of what we are modeling to our teens; it’s hard for them to understand the importance of breaking free from technology, especially if we aren’t breaking free from it ourselves.

•As parents/guardians, what are you looking for from your teen in terms of how they are spending their time?

•How much daily screen time is reasonable? How much time, or what warning signs, indicate there might be a problem?

•Do you know what type of socializer you have? Keep in mind that not every teen is going to want to hang out at the park with their friends or go to a social gathering in real-time. Some teens feel most comfortable socializing from a distance, which the apps provide. If you severely limit their screen time, you may be robbing them of their preferred modality to connect with peers, which is a developmental necessity.

•As parents/guardians, are the two of you on the same page? Is your messaging consistent? If not, your first order of business is to become a united front.

After determining your expectations and limits as parents, the next step is to talk with your teen(s) and allow them to be a part of the conversation. Grant them space to share their feelings and opinions about how much screen time they feel is appropriate. Then, try to reach a compromise as a family, knowing that not every family is going to have the same views on what constitutes the “right” amount of time to be on screens. That is OKAY!

Connections During COVID-19

So, we’ve decided that breaks from screens are good, but so is peer connection. And there’s this pesky thing called COVID-19 casting a pall on everything. Given that many traditional socializing opportunities have been curtailed due to the pandemic, finding ways for your teen to connect with their peers offline might require an extra dose of creativity.

• If your teen is tactile or enjoys baking, encourage them to make care packages for their friends and do no-contact drop-offs at their homes.

• If your teen is kinesthetic, recommend that they go on a socially distant hike, play tennis, or engage in some other activity that serves the dual purpose of allowing them to move and see their friends, while still following government mandates and remaining safe.

• For those teens that prefer more sedentary activities or have health conditions that limit their mobility, see if there is a drive-through movie theater nearby where teens can “watch together” in separate cars.

Screen Boundaries

Another way to set boundaries around screen use is by having your teen adhere to a daily schedule and routine. This is especially important as summer winds down and school resumes, because your teen will be expected to attend classes and complete assignments soon, whether virtually or in person. Since many of us are no longer leaving the house to go to work, school, or other activities, it falls on us as individuals and families to create the structure and stability that the pandemic wrested away. Although this can feel like a daunting proposition, the following tweaks can make a world of difference:

• Have your teens wake up at a reasonable time each day. Start this process 1-2 weeks before the school year starts so they are better prepared come mid-August.

• Set timers on your teens’ phones to ensure they are taking breaks from academics and screens to engage in pro-health activities such as exercise, art, and talking to their family members in-vivo (you can help your teen create this list and post it somewhere they can easily access).

• Model screen-free behavior. Have set family dinners throughout the week where phones are put away (this means you, too, parents!)

• Have everyone in the family turn in their phones at night to a designated place under parental supervision to ensure that your teen is getting adequate rest.

Tools to Help

Still struggling with screen boundary-setting? There’s an app for that! It might seem counterintuitive to use an app or device to monitor or limit our teen’s screen use, but if the technology exists and can provide a parental assist, why not? Here are a few we have recommended to the families we work with:

•The Circle (manage and monitor screen time, websites, and apps across your family’s devices): https://meetcircle.com/

•Forest (your teen can help plant real trees on Earth by staying focused!): https://www.forestapp.cc/

• 1Focus (set the apps/websites you want to block and the duration you wish to block them for): https://onefocusapp.com/

• Cold Turkey (lock your block so you can’t cheat it): https://getcoldturkey.com/


Although there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to managing your teen’s screen use, the aforementioned techniques can help your family strike a balance between reducing time online while recognizing devices as vital, age-appropriate tools for social connection and creative pursuits. Should you find that your teen is isolating beyond what is customary, experiencing an uptick in challenging behaviors, or struggling to get through their day, professional therapeutic support might be warranted and is available to help you and your teen navigate these challenging times.

Teen Therapy Center is here to help families virtually throughout California. Contact us at 408.389.3538 x1 or email us to learn more about how we can help.

About the Author

Jamieko Lane, MFT

Teen Therapy Center of Silicon Valley

Jamieko Lane, MFT is a Therapist and Clinical Director at Teen Therapy Center of Silicon Valley. Click here to learn more about her on their website.

Lisa Palley, MFT

Teen Therapy Center of Silicon Valley

Lisa Palley, MFT is an In-Home Teen and Family Coach at Teen Therapy Center of Silicon Valley. Click here to learn more about her on their website.