The Teenage Technology Tightrope
From Susan Wilson, All Saints' College Psychologist
According to the 2021 Mission Australia Youth Survey, many young people between the ages of 5 and 17 had screen, exercise and sleep habits beyond the Australian physical activity and exercise guidelines. The survey reported that 77% spent more than five hours on screens per day, 67.4% engaged in less than seven hours of exercise per week, and 21.6% were getting six hours or less of sleep per night. These statistics are alarming, considering the impact it may have on the well-being of young people.
Students at All Saints' College experience various parenting approaches attempting to reduce technology overuse by them. They range from being allowed to manage the technology balance on their own, removing or restricting device usage before going to bed and during the day, to strict technology limits with potentially no access to a personal device. Some parents who choose to remove their child’s phone each evening may not realise that their child will go back and retrieve it later in the night. In addition, parents may not be aware that they have just as much access through their laptop or in some cases, their parents’ phones or computers. As a result, if a child’s tiredness is noted in school and remarked upon, the response is often about the Netflix series that they could not stop watching the previous evening or viewing TikTok, where one clip flicks to the next, leading to a passive state of brain numbness.
We hear about it on current affairs programs, we read about it in the paper, and we share our concerns with other parents, comparing and despairing, but what are we doing about it?
With the intrusion of COVID and the resulting need to isolate and learn online, young people’s screen time has increased significantly. Dr Anna Lembke, the author of Dopamine Nation, defines addiction as 'the continued compulsive use of a substance or behaviour despite harm to self or others'. She says that a simple way to break down what makes up an addiction is by using the four C’s: Control, Compulsion, Consequences and Craving.
Control (or lack of) means using more than you plan to, or in some cases, using for longer than you had intended.
Compulsion is using without being aware that you are using. An example of this is when a young person opens TikTok on autopilot, without any consideration or conscious thought.
Consequences are when bad things happen because you are using. An example of this is a young person’s overuse of screens impacts sleep, study and health, but they continue to use it anyway.
Craving is that intrusive urge to use. Sometimes there can be physiological symptoms such as sweating or agitation to get back on their device.
Dr Lembke reports that when one or more of these four C’s are presenting, then one may wish to further investigate whether there is an addiction to device and technology use.
When that balance is skewed, several areas may be impacted:
- Difficulty maintaining attention and focus
- Engagement in risk-taking behaviour (depending on the type of material viewed)
- Low mood, anxiety or depression
- Social media may be used as an unhealthy coping mechanism
- Avoiding tasks, homework and study in order to seek their device
- Reduced quality of sleep, particularly if devices are used just prior to going to bed.
There are many good things in how social media and screens allow us to connect in ways that we could not previously. However, does this improved contact and access to other people sometimes get out of hand?
As parents, how can we work toward a healthy balance of technology and engagement in other activities?
The following ideas may be an effective place to start:
Open communication and being involved
- Be curious and interested in what young people are doing online and on their devices. Start conversations about their online experiences and play an online game with them. This helps you to gauge the appropriateness of what they are doing and manage potential risks.
- A great habit to encourage is to ask your child to explain to you what they are planning to do online and how long they intend to be on there. I call this 'mind the gap'. It is a way of mindfully thinking about what you are about to do. It creates a gap between the thinking and the doing rather than being on automatic pilot.
Set device-free zones and times at home
Of course the right amount of screen time will depend on a range of factors, including your child’s age and maturity, the kind of content they are consuming, their learning needs and your family routine. However, the technology considerations you may be observing one day may suddenly change in a month’s time, and once you have relented, it is harder to return to your preferred limit.
- No devices in the bedroom for a younger child
- All screens off in bedrooms after a certain time for older children
- Charge devices overnight in a place your child cannot access (know that some may try to retrieve them when you are asleep!)
- Screen-free time at the dinner table
- All screens off at least one hour before planned bedtime
Try and hold onto these practices for as long as you can!
If you would like to read more about establishing a contract with your child, please read the links below:
Use technology to help manage their access
According to Brad Marshall in The Tech Diet for your Child and Teen, it is better to use technology tools to restrict device use rather than argue with your child directly to give you the device when they are over their limit, resulting in a very uncomfortable power struggle.
Be open about the process, which will be more effective when working with a child when they first receive their device. You can start with Manage your child's screen time - Google For Families Help for Android devices or Use parental controls on your child's iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch - Apple Support (IE) and Use Screen Time on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch – Apple Support (AU) for iPhone. Other useful supports are an app called Qustodio Premium | Qustodio and Nest Wifi - Mesh Router - Google Store which allow you to schedule when devices can have access to the internet.
Part of our role as parents is to set clear limitations and boundaries. Being clear and consistent about the consequences if limitations are not met is crucial to ensuring that young people lead a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Young people genuinely cannot do it on their own, especially when there is an addiction to technology involved. It is important for young people to be connected to their bodies – exercise, learn to develop frustration tolerance, not instant gratification and not always have access to an instant answer. This helps young people to learn the skills of emotional regulation and distress tolerance. Therefore, as parents we need to be active in ensuring that technology does not override their lives; we need to engage with young people and their activities when online, and step in when the balance has shifted.
Above all, we need to be mindful of these considerations in our own lives. As parents, we need to model a positive digital mindset and show our children that we control our device rather than the other way round. That is, we can put that device down too!
A number of parent and carer free webinars were recently released by the esafety commission and can be found below: