Full Show Notes
Viewing Life From a Screen
Did you know the average teen spends over seven hours a day in front of a screen? And no—that doesn’t include mandatory screen time for school research, Zoom classes, and online assignments. The average teen screen time of seven hours a day is spent on video games, apps, social media, and other forms of aimless web browsing. Passive entertainment is taking up more and more of teens’ free time every day. In fact, some researchers estimate that teens spend as much as 40% of their life in front of a screen. This is a worrisome statistic for parents—and anyone invested in the next generation for that matter.
The teenage years are critical for cognitive brain development, forming positive relationships, and practicing social skills. So what happens if your teenager is stunting their cognitive development by staying up hours into the night playing video games, Snapchatting, and scrolling through Instagram? This oversaturization can have lasting negative effects on a teen’s brain. So should parents reduce the average teen screen time? Considering how much social media and other screen-based activities play a role in a teen’s social life—especially since COVID-19 has postponed many in-person activities—parents have to walk a fine line when monitoring their teens’ technology use. So what should parents do to balance phone and TV time with in person interactions?
This week I spoke with expert Joshua Wayne, author of The Simple Parenting Guide to Technology, to discuss how parents can monitor the average teen screen time. Wayne’s book provides parents with incredibly practical ways to approach screen time, and with COVID-19 spurring a massive increase in virtual connectivity, his perspective is more valuable now than ever. In our interview, Wayne explains how to create and implement a technology agreement and how it can be used to set guidelines for the average teen screen time.
Big Tech Problems
Technology has brought us access to a wealth of information we would otherwise have to search libraries upon libraries for. Think about how you would accomplish a book report on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War when you were a teen and computers and smartphones didn’t exist. You had to go to the library and check out four different books to compile enough information for your report. And then you’d have to write the whole thing without spellcheck—what a pain! In comparison, having access to this information instantly and without having to leave home saves us so much time. Wayne firmly believes that technology has brought more good than bad and that it’s here to stay. Fighting for the average teen screen time to be zero is not only futile, but unrealistic and impractical.
So with that in mind, should parents reduce the average teen screen time? Generally speaking, yes, but the amount and way it’s limited is up to the individual family. Wayne knows all families have different levels of reliance on technology. For a family with two kids heavily involved in varsity sports who aren’t particularly reliant on their phone, setting a two-hour limit per day works. However, for the family of a teen who isn’t big on extracurriculars but spends their time learning how to code software by watching Youtube videos, a four-hour limit a day is more realistic.
In this interview, Wayne uses a few simple guiding rules to help you decide what screen time limits are best for your specific situation. Parents need to acknowledge that the average teen screen time is seemingly high partially because of how important social media is to your kids. Although you might have Instagram or Facebook yourself, you might be wondering why your teen needs to waste their entire day messaging on social media and Snapchatting their friends. However, they might actually be having extremely meaningful conversation and developing strong bonds with their friends on these apps. These conversations have become even more precious to teens since the COVID-19 outbreak has prevented them from seeing their friends at school or on the weekends. They’re starved of a social outlet and what’s filling this gap is social media. It may be frustrating to see them on their phone constantly but ultimately, if your teen’s screen time is being spent on a healthy activity it might be better to make more room for it in their life.
Using electronic devices is part of everyday life, but getting outside, stowing phones at night, and in-person interactions are all productive ways to lower the average teen screen time. These suggestions should be included in your Family Tech Agreement, which is a plan Wayne developed to help parents create rules that’ll monitor their teen’s phone usage. The rules can be things like no phones after 11pm on weekdays or no social media on holidays that everyone in the family must abide by, even the parents. The rules in this agreement should be determined by the activities and responsibilities they need to accomplish, like sports practices or SAT Prep, before getting free time to use their devices. Wayne says to be prepared for pushback because in most cases, your teen won’t want to have any limitations on their screen time and will resist having to abide by an agreement. While there is plenty of room for negotiation between parent and teen in the Family Tech Agreement, listen in to hear how to maintain your authority while creating an Agreement that will reduce the average teen screen time.
In this episode, Wayne discusses how it’s not only important to limit average teen screen time, you also need to keep a watch on what your teen is consuming. It’s unpleasant to think that your teen is watching unwholesome videos or exchanging unsavory texts with people you don’t want them talking to—but it’s reality. The world wide web is a dark place where unmentionable things happen to unassuming teens every day. Because of this, there are plenty of parental control apps you can use to see what websites your teen is viewing as well as location apps to track their whereabouts.
At first thought, you might find these parental control apps to be invasive. You trust that your kid isn’t looking at inappropriate things and if they know you’re monitoring what they do online, they’ll think you don’t trust them. While it’s great that you trust your kid is only using their phone to look at pictures of puppies and send their grandmother nice emails on her birthday, you may be giving them too much credit. Even the most responsible teens come across websites with illicit or salacious content, whether on accident or intentionally. There are a myriad of risky things they can come across, like websites that’ll give them viruses, porn sites that operate under unassuming pseudonyms, or even websites that will sneakily take money from your teen. Waynes insists that you explain to your teen that you’re using parental control apps not to be intrusive but to keep them safe from content and people they simply shouldn’t have to put up with. In the episode, Wayne talks further about how to have open and honest conversations with teens about the dangers of technology.
On top of basic guidelines and approaches parents can bring into their to homes to limit the average teen screen time, Wayne also covers difficult topics like:
- Adjusting Screen Time Hours During the Pandemic
- What to do if a Teen gets Defiant about Screen Time Limits
- What to do if your Teen becomes an Online Sensation
- How to talk about the Big P—pornography
Technology is an integral part of family life in the 21st century, and it’s here to stay. However, overreliance on technology can be a barrier to a teen’s success in school and extracurriculars. Whether you need help reigning in the average teen screen time or just want a good set of guidelines to follow, Joshua Wayne offers some excellent insights on how parents can adjust to technology in the modern age in this episode.
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. If your teen reacts with protests to new rules around technology:
“Hey, I understand you don’t like this, I understand this isn’t your preference. I’m here to talk with you about it and hear your concerns. This is going to happen. But I’m open to discussing with you how it happens.”-Joshua Wayne
2. When your teen gets upset over new limits:(Members Only)
3. Add stipulation to your tech agreement to show you are reasonable:(Members Only)
4. Address your teen’s threats of self-harm right away:(Members Only)
5. If you find out your teen has been looking at pornographic images or video, start a conversation with:(Members Only)
6. Tell your teen that you’re trying to help them learn how to set limits, not control them:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: I made it through this simple parenting guide to technology. Great stuff in here. I’m curious where you got this information from and what inspired this to be the first guide in your series of simple parenting guides?
Josh: Well, I think it’s just mostly the fact that it’s the zeitgeists right now.
Josh: The device is like a fifth appendage for a lot of kids. But I talk to parents a lot, work with them. And as a parent myself, I see a lot of… Parents are struggling with it and not really sure what to do. And I see a lot of kids who are 14, 15, 16, and up, and their parents with the best of intentions, didn’t really set clear limits on it when they were younger, when they introduced the devices. Maybe just didn’t recognize that this thing could take on a life of its own.
Josh: And then you’ve got a teenager who’s on their devices literally until two, three o’clock in the morning on school nights doing, whether it’s social media, or gaming, or some combination of things and the parents just don’t know how to get the toothpaste back in the tube.
Josh: And it is hard at that age. So, I’ve just been talking to lots of parents and trying out different strategies with parents and trying to think it through as practically as I can. My general premise is that the problem isn’t technology, the problem is moderation. And that’s really where parents need a lot of help because it’s here to stay.
Josh: We’re not going to go back to being a horse and buggy society, nor should we, given that this is the new reality. And there’s a lot of great that comes from this. I love my smartphone as much as anybody. There’s a lot of great things that come out of having this technology at our fingertips. It’s really quite remarkable. But if it doesn’t have some limits, particularly for kids who aren’t good at setting limits for themselves, then it becomes problematic pretty quickly. I like to say the tech is kind of like sugar, once they get a taste, it’s really all they want.
Andy: So, I love this guide because it’s really practical and you don’t waste a lot of time on theories philosophizing. You just get right to the point and you go through the steps of how would you actually put together a family-tech agreement? How would you decide what’s going to be on it? And then how would you go ahead and implement that in your family?
Andy: I thought it was really savvy. And one of the first things that you talk about in here is, well, if you’re going to be having an agreement, probably one of the biggest things you’re going to be doing is trying to limit the amount of usage of technology. So, what should that look like and how much time is appropriate for a kid to be on their devices?
Josh: So, what I’m going to offer right now, are the general guidelines that are out there. And it’s a combination of, a little bit of a blended soup between what the American Academy of Pediatrics has put out there over the years and some other organizations and just my own observations.
Josh: But I also believe that parents have to make this work for their home. But generally speaking, until the time they’re about 12, the general guidance is about an hour a day on school days. You can, I think, be a little more loose and flexible on weekends, up to two hours. And then through their teen years, the general guidance that’s out there is up to two hours a day of entertainment screen time. Right? Not including the time they need to spend on it for school.
Josh: What’s tricky though, and this is where some of the caveats come in, is that the data right now that’s out there is showing that the average teen… And this comes from Common Sense Media, which is a great resource. And they’ve done, I think, the most comprehensive research that I’ve seen any way on the topic. Is that the average teen is spending about seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen doing non-school work related activities.
Josh: And just to put that into perspective, if you do the math on that over the course of a year, it’s 40% of their life is spent in front of a device for entertainment purposes. And not 40% of the time they’re awake, 40% of the time they’re breathing. It’s pretty incredible. And I’ve had parents say to me, that if their kid would only be on a device seven and a half hours a day, they’d be delighted. Because it’s 10, 12, 13 hours a day that these kids are on it. And again, this is where I say that these parents are certainly well-intentioned, but it just got out of hand and then they don’t know how to reel it back in.
Andy: Right? Yeah. It’s like once it gets started, it’s really hard to stop it.
Josh: Yeah. Obviously the time you want to really build in a family tech agreement, ideally, is when they’re getting their first device.
Andy: When you’re first getting it, you have leverage, you can say, Hey, okay, we’ll get it all under these conditions.
Andy: So, that’s a shock to the system then trying to go from seven and a half or 10 hours a day down to just a measly two. So, is that part of what you would take into consideration when you’re trying to decide what should be on your tech agreement?
Josh: Yes. Yeah, because… So, I stand by those numbers as being the ideal. I think that is what is healthiest, that you keep them to roughly two hours a day. That said, especially if they’re teenagers… Here’s one of the rubs of this whole thing is that teens, their entire social at this point, especially now when we’re on lockdown, is happening on social media.
Andy: Yeah. Yeah.
Josh: That is the new playground or whatever you want to call it. That is the new hangout place, is social media. And teens, so 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds, are in a phase of their life where developmentally, what they should be doing is learning how to have positive, healthy relationships with others and with their friends.
Josh: And so now if you’re telling them you can only be on your phone two hours a day, you could wind up in a situation where they’re feeling socially isolated and could lead to other problems.
Josh: So, I don’t want to contradict myself, but you have to look at the whole picture of what’s healthy for your kid right now. What’s the right balance? Because you don’t want your kid being the only one who isn’t able to interact and have positive social time with their friends.
Josh: So, you got to find the right balance. So, maybe for some kids, it is going to work to be on for two hours and they’re going to get enough of the social contact they need, and it’s going to be fine and they have enough sports or hobbies or other things going on, or they’re really into school. Then you can keep it down to that level. Maybe for some kids, it’s going to be three or four hours. You’re going to have to make a judgment call.
Josh: That said, there’s one rule. What I say to parents is, find the amount that’s going to work reasonably. You don’t want to destroy your relationship with your child over this. But there is one rule that I think is really smart to follow. If you can do nothing else, and that’s to make sure that devices go to bed at night, too.
Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Josh: That you’ve got a shutdown point in your home, whether it’s nine, 10, 11, o’clock, whatever’s right in reasonable for your family. And that’s it. And everybody shuts them down and that’s it for the night. And I generally recommend that parents go through the house, I call it the trick or treat method with a pillow case. And you gather up all the devices, everybody drops their phone or their iPad or whatever into it. And if the issue is big screens from desktop computers, then go through with the laundry basket. But you get the idea, gather everything up.
Josh: My experience is… And some kids manage it. I’m not going to say that there’s no kid to manage it. But my experience, if I had to generalize, my experience is that most kids, having a device within arms reach at night, is an almost unbearable temptation.
Andy: Yeah, that’s really, really difficult.
Josh: So, my general advice is just build the expectation and the habit that the devices go down at a certain point, and they’re out of the room, and you get it back at seven o’clock the next morning or whatever is reasonable to give it back to them.
Josh: If you can do nothing else, I say to parents, that is the one major rule to really, really work towards implementing. Because, if kid’s sleep gets off, just about everything else in their life is at risk for just getting off track. School, mental health, sleep cycles, physical health, behavior starts to deteriorate. If you can do nothing else, do that.
Andy: I wonder how these rules should change during a time like this, where people are quarantined in homes and have less time to be interacting in person. So, if you had a family tech agreement in place, would you then go back and say, “Hey, okay. well, for the next couple of weeks, while this quarantine thing is happening, maybe we could adjust this a little bit.”I guess. How would you handle that with the kids during this quarantine?
Josh: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a great question. I think everyone’s trying to figure this out. I think now it’s definitely a time to relax on the rules a bit.
Josh: I think right now that the priority right now is physical and mental health for everybody, getting everybody through this thing in one piece. I think now is a time to try to be as connected to kids and not fight battles that that just aren’t priority right now. I think everybody needs, I think family harmony is a lot more important right now. And if that means kids are on their devices a few extra hours a day, then I don’t think it’s a big deal.
Josh: Again, I come back to what I just shared before. I think if you can do nothing else right now, I still think that just having a shutdown period at night, so everyone’s sleeping, is really the one rule you should follow.
Josh: And I’m going to contradict myself now. Because again, I want to be practical for parents that… I talked to my sister, for example, the other day, and she’s got a 16 year old and an almost 18 year old. So, the way she’s thinking about it right now is that she works first shift and they work third shift. And basically as long as they’re being respectful, and they’re not being noisy when they’re gaming in the wee hours of the morning, and they’re putting their dishes in the dishwasher, and they’re not leaving a mess all over the house, that she’s okay with it.
Josh: And I think that you just have to make some concessions that are going to work for your family. It wouldn’t be probably how I would handle it with my family, but who am I to judge if that’s working in their family, if that’s what it takes to get them through this difficult time? And the kids are being respectful their level of family harmony is pretty high, who am I to judge?
Josh: So, I think you got to find a way to thread the needle, right now, that’s going to work for you. Again, my personal bias is that it’s still better to have everybody get a decent amount of sleep at night and to not be totally nocturnal. Because it’s easy for teens to go into that nocturnal rhythm.
Andy: Yeah. It really is though, right?
Josh: Yeah. But again, I don’t think you want to be in drag down screaming matches with your kid right now around this. If you can get to a place of balance where they’re being respectful, you’re cohabiting together, you are hopefully having some, at least some nice quality family time and some meals together, and getting outside together and going for a bike ride, or whatever it is to just recharge your batteries together in some way.
Josh: I think those are really healthy and smart things to be doing right now. But I think you’ve got to find out what’s going to make it work. And again, my priority is getting everybody through this in one piece positively in a healthy way, physically and mentally and emotionally. And then the rest of it is gravy at this point.
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Andy: Okay. So, I really like this stuff you have in here about handling objections. You’re going to spend a lot of time figuring out exactly what you want to have on your family tech agreement. And you’re going to be so excited about it. And you’re going to go share it with your teenager. And then of course, they’re going to say, “What! No, this sucks. This is stupid. We don’t want… Two hours! Mom! Come on!”
Andy: So, that conversation is not going to go well necessarily. It’s going to be difficult and you’re going to get some pushback. So, what’s the best way to handle that when it comes up.
Josh: I think there’s a couple of things. One is that if you’re going to introduce some new rules and some guidelines, if you’re going to create a family tech agreement… Through the book I provide a template that’s preloaded, that parents can just adapt to their situation and fill in the blanks for their rules.
Josh: The first thing is, when you do it… Again, I think there’s two different scenarios. One is when they’re getting their first device. At that point, they’re going to be so excited to be getting their first iPhone that they’ll pretty much do just anything you ask. They’ll jump over whatever hurdles you’re going to give them because they’re foaming at the mouth, so excited to get their hands on them.
Andy: Totally. Yeah.
Josh: So, that’s one scenario. The more challenging scenario is, you got kids that are a bit older and they’ve maybe developed some less than ideal habits and you’re trying to reel it back in.
Josh: So, I think there’s a couple of things you have to do. I think the first thing is, before you actually implement it, you need to give them some heads up that this is coming. There needs to be some conversation. I don’t think it’s going to work well to say, “Hey, we’ve been talking about tech a bunch and I would like to see some more limits on it. And starting tomorrow, you’re going to have, instead of being able to stay up till two o’clock in the morning, everything’s going to get shut down at nine o’clock and you’re going to have two or three hours a day.” Or whenever you land.
Josh: That’s probably not going to go so well, right? So, you need to give them a week or so to start to acclimate to the idea, to put a draft of the family tech agreement in front of them, and to have some conversations, have some hopefully calm and respectful conversations about it. And maybe there’s even some room for negotiation around it.
Josh: I think the more you can make it collaborative, the more you can give them a chance to chime in to what the contents of it are going to be, the more likely you’re going to get them to buy in to what’s actually in it. Now that all said, I also, and this is a common theme throughout the book is that… And this is hard for a lot of parents.
Josh: And I don’t want to trivialize this, because this can be difficult, but the tone you have to set, is that… You’re not living in a pure democracy. You’re living in a benevolent dictatorship. And I’m going to provide love, and I’m going to be calm, and I’m going to be empathetic to your process around this. But at a certain point, as the parents, we have to make the call that this is what’s happening.
Josh: And in spite of their pushback that, hey listen, I think it’s important to be empathetic, and to say things like, “Hey, I understand you don’t look like this. I understand this. Isn’t your preference. I’m here to talk with you about it and hear your concerns. This is going to happen, but I’m open to discussing with you how it happens.” And just sending that message, that calm, assertive message, that this is where we’re going. There may be some wiggle room in here on how we do this, but we’re going to have some more clear concrete rules in our home around this.
Josh: And being consistent with that. Staying calm with that, but being consistent with that. I think those are the two things, is give it some time to digest this, be clear, be assertive, and you have to wear your parenting hat in this scenario.
Josh: So, this is just for you to say, “These are the rules. These are the rules of the home.” When the kid was young, they don’t just to get to generally go to the pantry and just eat anything they want. There’s going to be some level of expectations around what you’re eating. Because again, otherwise they’ll just eat crap all day.
Josh: So, this is a critical role that we have to play as parents, is to set appropriate limits around this.
Andy: So, what if you got a kid who’s a gamer, who’s going to be a professional gamer, and they’re actually practicing for their career? Or what if you got a kid who’s on social media, has tons of followers, and they want to be an influencer? So, this is important homework and research that they’re doing for their future career. How do you step on that balance as a parent?
Josh: Yeah. This is a great question. There’s a couple ways to approach that. One is, if you believe that this is really a healthy activity for them and that this is something you want to support them doing into their future, then maybe you’re just going to make room for it as a part of their life. And you’re going to create more allowances.
Josh: This is why I said, I’m offering general guidelines that are out there from doctors and researchers that are saying, here’s what we think the smart amounts are. But every parent’s got to make a judgment call.
Josh: And if they say they want to be a gamer, and you’re supportive of that, and you think this is a healthy pursuit for them, then maybe you’re going to make more room for it. And you’re going to say, “Hey, listen, we’re going to create six hours a day for you to do this instead of two.” Again, I think that’s a very personal choice about where you land on that.
Andy: And also you could add stipulations. AS long as you’re able to keep your grades here, here, and here and do this, this and this, then we’ll grant you extra time. But if these things start to slip, then we’re going to have to reassess that.
Josh: Real it in.
Josh: Yeah. That’s where I was going next, is that I think the other thing that you should be asking yourself though, is well, what other things should they be doing? If I’m going to make this allowance for them to have more gaming time or for posting videos on YouTube or Instagram or whatever, and becoming an influencer… Who am I to say that that’s not a good thing for your kid to be doing?
Josh: But I generally believe that kids should also have some more balance in their life. For example, the one thing that I just think is good for every kid to be doing, is to be physically active. I think it’s good for their physical health. I think it’s good for their mental health.
Josh: So, maybe you say as long as you’re involved in a sport, or you have a part time job, or you’re involved in theater for a kid who maybe isn’t athletically inclined, as long as there’s some other thing you have and do, that’s non-digital, that’s not online. Where you’re out interacting with people offline and having those social skills and just getting those different inputs in your brain and just doing other activities and building skill sets and other ways, or maybe it’s just keeping your grades up, whatever it is, my experience is that pushing them to have that level of balance is still really important.
Josh: So, if you’re going to make allowances say, hey listen, I think my kid has a chance to do this professionally and maybe they’ll be successful. I don’t know what the percentages are of kids who… There’s millions and millions and millions of kids out there who love video games and think they may have a shot at this. But there’s also millions, and millions, and millions of kids on the basketball court and only a fraction of a percentage of them are going to go to the NBA.
Josh: So, I don’t know enough to say that this it’s a frivolous endeavor for most kids. Maybe for a lot of kids, if they can really commit to it, then they can make a career out of it. And again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t or I wouldn’t veto that as an idea. I just push parents towards, your major role is to insist on balance and to help them find balance.
Andy: Yeah, Like you say, the moderation is the problem. It’s addicting. And video games are built specifically to be addicting and to be really hard to put down. So, drop a kid into that environment and-
Josh: And we know that particularly video games, the intense stimulation really overstimulates the neocortex. That’s just the part of our brain that is really responsible for our cognitive development. And it just hyper stimulates it. And again, it’s not that it’s a bad thing, but it just needs to be balanced. It needs to be balanced by being outside and getting fresh air, and doing other activities and sports, and just having other inputs.
Josh: I think if they’re doing those things, then I generally am less concerned about them spending more time on games. I get concerned as a professional, and certainly I would as a parent, if that’s just all they’re doing.
About Joshua Wayne
Joshua Wayne is the author of The Simple Parenting Guide to Technology and co-creator of the One Caring Adult online community. He holds a Masters Degree in Counselor Education, is a Nationally Certified Counselor, and has been featured as a Life Coach on the Style Network.
Since 1996, Joshua has worked with kids in just about every setting imaginable: drug and alcohol treatment, with at-risk foster youth, community mental health, private practice and as a Director of Special Education at District of Columbia Public Schools. He has trained and consulted across the country for police departments, school districts, state and local governments, and youth organizations on how to work effectively with teens and their families.
He lives with his wife Bettina and son Hunter in Washington, D.C.