Navigating Screen-Related Addictions and Teenagers in the Midst of COVID-19

With schools closed for the rest of the school year, data says that most children ages 6-12 are spending at least 50% more time online, with no definitive statistic for teenagers. But as I talk to our teenagers, and use my instincts from my personal increased screen time, I can guess that that most of our tweens and teens are spending most of their days online.

It’s no one’s fault, really, that our whole lives have turned into online lives. Everything we do now happens there – our learning, our work, our television, our hangouts with friends, even ordering our food. Our entire lives have gone almost completely digital, and in many ways it’s helping us feel more connected.

But there are many dangers that happen when we increase our screen time–

  • Exposure to pornography, which happens for the first time at an average of 8-11 years old
  • Being “numbed” by the violence and sexualization of television shows and movies
  • Feeling fatigued by online meetings and gatherings, even adding to long-term loss of emotional or social intelligence
  • Poor eating habits as we snack while Netflix’ing
  • Depression from over-exposure to sad news

These dangers are increased for our teenagers, whose prefrontal cortexes are not fully developed until age 25. Teenagers are in a crucial stage where what they consume can actually define the way their brain looks for the rest of their life. Psychologists call this the “use it or lose it” principle; that what you are exposed to in the teenage years lasts forever, and the parts of your brain that you engage are the parts you engage for your lifetime. This is why we often teach foreign languages for the first time in middle school – because this is when your brain is the most vulnerable to keeping new pieces of information.

Of course, addiction to bad behaviors can happen at any age, but considering most of our students’ screen time is unsupervised and the risk they are especially under, my point is to be cautionary during this period of time.

So what can you do?

MONITOR WHAT THEY’RE TAKING IN

I cannot say it enough: Look at your students’ search history. Take a look at what’s in their feed on Instagram or Tik Tok from their phone so you can see what is advertised to them. While Instagram can be an innocent app, you might be surprised as to who is messaging them or what is on their search page – that is the content they look at!

There are even ways to monitor their phones. If you have open communication with your teen (which hear me: is not easy to have), ask them what they look at. Ask them if they’ve ever seen a pornographic image. Open up the dialogue and see what they say.

LIMIT THEIR SCREEN TIME

A feature I find cool on Apple Products is the Screen Time feature – you can limit how much time is spent each day on it. You can password protect that time, as well. I have it set so that I only spend a certain amount of time each day on social media and games.

I also encourage you to set limits like no screens after a certain time or screens only in certain rooms of the house. And unless your child relies on their phone as an alarm clock, I encourage you to remove screens at bedtime.

CHANGE THE TYPE OF SCREEN ACTIVITIES THEY DO

Often when I tell parents about the “use it or lose it” principle, one of the first questions I get is, “So, should our kids play video games?”

My answer? Actually, yes! But consider the games they play and what it is teaching their brains. Games that involve strategy or physical movement or healthy competition could be really great for teens. Games like first-person shooter games should be more limited. I think Fortnite is a blast, but I also think it should have time limits and “real life” should be returned to.

GIVE THEM OTHER ACTIVITIES TO DO

“Back in my day, all I had were Barbie Dolls and Legos.” It’s true, the world has changed a lot in 20 years. When I was a teenager, I’d ride my bike all over the neighborhood, get in trouble for coming into the house covered in mud, and on rainy days I would read books and make crafts.

This is a great time to get a little old-school. I’ve loved watching families sew masks together, play Monopoly, and garden. I’m curious if this is the time to do more activities where we step away from our screens and get creative!

I also think taking breaks during the day is important, too! Taking an hour to paint or have a 15-minute dance party just to get away from the grind of E-learning is a fun way to give the eyes a break.

ENFORCE A BEDTIME

Students have shared with me (and they could be making this up, who knows?!) that they’ve been staying up until 3am, even 5am, on their devices, and then sleeping until 1pm.

I waiver on the issue of trying to keep as much normalcy as possible, because like, we are going through a global trauma right now. Just this evening my friends had to give in and let their kindergartner have bubbles in her bath, even though that’s a “Saturday thing.” Each day we pick our battles and some things just aren’t worth fighting for.

But when we think about teens and what they need, they actually need more sleep than any other age group; 9-10 hours! Enforcing a solid sleep schedule with our teens (and giving them grace to sleep in, since they usually get far less than this), is really important.

WALK THE WALK

When I talk to teenagers about their screen usage, they totally throw their parents under the bus. They talk about how their parents are always looking at their phones, taking business calls, etc. And look, no judgment; my husband and I have conversations about screens and how it impacts our relationship often. And while screens seem like an easy escape when we are annoyed with one another, I have noticed that screens actually cause us to disconnect more.

When I was a teenager, my mom would say to me, “Do as I say, not as I do” and I would retort, “Actions speak louder than words.” Teenagers are brilliant. And so, if we have an expectation for them, it is fair that we follow that expectation ourselves.

I love the way the book Right Click approaches this topic, as they talk about creating a family covenant for screen time. This makes it so that it’s not just on the teenager to create better habits, but so that it’s for the whole family.

This time is unprecedented. There is no research that tells us what to do or how to behave. But six weeks in, we are beginning to notice that some habits are forming in our teenagers that have the potential to cause damage permanently.

Heather Lea Kenison
Heather Lea Kenison

Heather serves as the Director of Student Ministries at St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband and two cat children. Heather is the Founder of Women in Youth Ministry and is passionate about women finding community so that their voices will be heard. Heather is a devout follower of Jesus, the St. Louis Cardinals, and Youtube beauty gurus. Follow her cats and Enneagram 8 things on her social media @heatherlea17

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