The 1 Simple Thing You Can Do To Cut Down On Your Teen’s Phone Use

Plus, how parents and teens feel about screen time — both their own and each other's.

If you spend any part of your day caring for children, chances are that you dedicate some portion of that time to managing their use of screens. In the case of teens, the screens in question are usually their own phones, site of the ever-shifting line between where a parent’s responsibility ends and a teen’s freedom begins.

A new study from the Pew Research Center sheds some light on what teens and parents believe about screen time — both their own and each other’s. One hopeful takeaway from the data is that teens and parents share some views of the challenges that screens present in our lives. We are all on the same boat, so to speak, when it comes to navigating these new waters. Parents today have a unique opportunity to shape the way that teens use their phones. In addition, experts say that the one thing parents control most — their own phone use — can be a powerful influence on teens’ relationship to technology.

The Pew researchers used a novel approach to collect data from parents and their teenage children, ages 13-17. They surveyed 1,453 teens and their parents in the fall of 2023.

“We asked [parents] a few questions about their own technology use, and then we asked them to think about one of their teens — if they had multiple teens, we randomly selected one — and then actually had them bring that teen to the computer so that the teen then could answer questions as well. So we’re able to pair responses from teens themselves with responses from their parents,” Colleen McClain, one of the lead researchers on the study, told HuffPost.

Teens’ opinions of their own screen use

A sizeable number of teens feel that they spend too much time on their phones. Thirty-eight percent said that they think they’re on their phones too much. Interestingly, while a slim majority (51%) say they’re spending just about the right amount of time on their phones, 74% said they sometimes or often feel happy when they don’t have their phones, and 72% said they sometimes or often feel peaceful when they’re away from their phones.

However, 44% said they sometimes or often feel anxious when they do not have their phones with them.

What to make of this befuddling data? “We found that teens’ screen time and their phone use is really far from one-size-fits-all.”

While a majority of teens (70%) believe that, overall, the benefits of smart phones outweigh the harms, the numbers break down differently depending which benefits or harms you’re asking about.

“When we ask them about things like pursuing hobbies and interests or being creative, there’s this positive sense of ‘smartphones make it easier for [kids] my age to do these kinds of things.’ Then when we ask them about things like developing friendships or learning good social skills, views are a bit more mixed,” McClain said.

Sixty-nine percent said phones make it easier to pursue hobbies and interests, and 65% said they make it easier to be creative. Thirty-seven percent say phones make it harder to develop healthy relationships, but another 31% say they make this task easier. Further muddying the waters, the remaining third (31%) said they make it neither easier nor harder. A clearer majority (42%) said phones make it harder to learn good social skills, yet 30% said they thought phones made learning social skills easier.

McClain characterises these survey results as “not monolithic at all.” They demonstrate, she continued, that “teen screen time is a complex issue. It’s one that’s really, really important, especially now, and this study was an exciting opportunity for us to really give voice to those teens and their parents and how they’re navigating these issues together.”

What parents think of screen use — their teens’ and their own

Parents clearly understand that there can be some downsides to excessive screen time. A majority of parents, 76%, said that monitoring their teens’ phone use was an important priority or a top priority.

Parents of younger teens (13-14) were more likely to set limits on their phone use. Overall, however, parents were divided on how to manage their teens’ screen time — both the quantity and the content.

Forty-seven percent of all parents surveyed said they set limits on their teens’ phone use, but an almost equal number (48%) said they didn’t. Parents were also evenly split when asked about whether or not they looked through their teen’s phone, though, again, parents of younger teens (13-14) were more likely to report doing so.

When it came to their own phone use, almost half of parents (47%) reported that they spend too much time on their phones. The higher a parent’s income, the more likely they were to report this. White parents were also more likely view their phone use this way than Black or Hispanic parents.

Interestingly, when asked how often they were distracted by their phones, parents and teens saw the situation differently. “Parents paint a slightly rosier picture than teens do,” McClain said. Thirty-one percent of parents admitted to being often or sometimes distracted by their phones when having a conversation with their teens, but 46% of teens reported that their parents were often or sometimes distracted by their phones when speaking with them.

Parents and teens agree: Phones are a source of conflict

One place where teens’ and parents’ opinions aligned entirely was conflict. Thirty-eight percent of teens and the same number of parents reported that teens’ time on the phone was often or regularly a source of conflict. Hispanic families (both teens and parents) were more likely to report arguing over phone time than white or Black families.

“We have parents saying this is a hard thing to do,” McClain said. “I think this comes across in you know the differences we see among parents and how they handle it.”

“These are issues that parents and teens are figuring out how to navigate together,” she continued.

Managing screen time should involve the whole family

It’s this sense of shared responsibility that experts would like to see parents bringing to screen time discussions in their families.

Dr Michael Rich is a paediatrician, founder of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, and author of The Mediatrician’s Guide: A Joyful Approach to Raising Healthy, Smart, Kind Kids In A Screen-Saturated World.

Rather than trying to limit screen time, which the sheer ubiquity of screens today makes near impossible, Rich told HuffPost: “What I basically recommend to people is that they have dedicated non-screen time every day.” This means no phones during certain activities and at certain times, such as the dinner table or in bed.

Some families, Rich said, have made a practice of observing a digital “Shabbat” or “Sabbath” and spending one 24-hour period per week screen free.

But here’s the catch: Parents have to put away their phones (tablets, smart watches and laptops), too.

“Kids listen to about 1% of what we say and 100% of what we do,” Rich said. Seeing a parent put away their phone, in other words, is a lot more effective than telling a kid that too much screen time is bad for you.

Instead of lecturing their kids, Rich suggests that parents and children work together to come up with common “expectations” rather than rules when it comes to screen use.

“Not only is expectations a kinder, gentler and more collective way of keeping the peace and figuring out how we want to behave, but I think that in its failures, it’s a shared failure, and you work it out together.”

These expectations are as simple as agreeing to no phones at the dinner table, and gently reminding each other when we slip. This means parents have to be open to having their kids remind them to put their phones away at a meal, at game night, or before going to bed — whatever screen-free spaces and moments your family has agreed upon.

The biggest worry for all of us, Rich explained, is when screen use “becomes a default behaviour.” Then it encroaches on time that we need to connect with others, not to mention those moments of boredom from which our creativity ensues.

“We get on an elevator, we’re walking down the street, we’re on a bus — the phone comes out,” he said. We have to work to break this habit from forming, and the way to do it, Rich believes, is to abstain from using our phones regularly.

“Tablets and smartphones are very powerful tools that can do incredible things in terms of education and communication, connection, living in a larger world. But just like other power tools, say like an automobile, they should be introduced when the child needs that tool and when the child can use it in ways that are responsible and respectful of themselves and others.”

Instead, we treat screens as a toy, or some kind of a reward. Instead, we should treat them more like cars — making sure kids understand that they can also do great harm.

The devices, Rich believes, are here to stay. And while seeking legislation to protect young users, and better protections from tech companies are worthy goals, they will take time. Our kids need help managing their screen time right now.

“We have to really shift as a society and understand that we are changed in positive and negative ways by the screens we use and how we use them. That means we need to use them wisely and compassionately for ourselves and others,” Rich said.