7 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Manage Phone Use

If it seems like your teen is always busy with their phone, you may be right — and there may be a reason. Teens are typically getting more than 200 alerts by phone daily, with some getting more than 4,000, according to a new report from Common Sense Media. That’s A LOT of notifications! It’s certainly an amount that could quickly become overwhelming and distracting for your teen.

Smartphones Can Impact Mental Health

While a mobile phone has important communication benefits, including timely access to key information or a person’s location, smartphones are not without issues if misused. Overuse can lead to poor quality sleep, heightened levels of stress or anxiety, and even depression. The easy 24-7 access to digital content may lead teens to question their lifestyles, looks, or choices. That can negatively impact mental health and well-being.

Checking our phones can be a rewarding or stressful experience, and sometimes both at the same time.

The content found on the phone and the act of frequently checking it can trigger a stress response in the body. When that happens, it releases cortisol. Too much cortisol can lead to anxiety. Dr. Andrew Pool, Research Scientist at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, explains, “Checking our phones can be a rewarding or stressful experience, and sometimes both at the same time. Getting likes on an Instagram photo or a nice message from a friend is rewarding. It can cause a little release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter from our brain’s reward center. However, seeing an upsetting image or getting a hurtful message can trigger a stress response. If either of these responses happens frequently over time, it can lead to real mental health problems for young people.”

Ways to Manage Smartphone Use

Smartphone addiction can take a toll on a young person’s – really any person’s — life. Parents and mental health providers should be aware of potential issues associated with smartphones so they can help young people better manage them. Here are seven ways parents and adults can help teens control their phone use.

1) Model good phone habits.

We know that teens often mimic our behavior – especially regarding screen use. Do you leave your phone on the side table when you go to sleep? Do you bring your phone to the dinner table or check it when someone is talking to you? If so, don’t be surprised if your teen thinks doing the same is okay. Your actions seemingly give them permission to form similar habits. Show your teen that your smartphone can be a good tool for communication, and practice good phone etiquette.

2) Establish smartphone rules together.

Set reasonable expectations about phone use. Discuss the rules before setting them to ensure they are realistic and attainable. Consider creating a family media agreement. When you establish a rule, make sure to follow it yourself. Also, be sure your teen knows their school’s policies for using a smartphone during the school day.

3) Turn off phone notifications.

Constant alerts, ranging from audible sounds to screens that light up, can create distractions, irritability, and stress. Encourage your teen to use the “do not disturb” settings. Charge the device overnight in a different room. Try to talk with your teen about how doing that makes them feel.

4) Help your teen recognize when they’ve been on the phone too long.

Setting timers or alarms can help teens realize when they’ve spent more time on the phone than intended. They can also use apps to track usage and block distracting sites after a certain time. Ask them if they can identify physical changes they notice about themselves when they have used it for too long. Do they have tight muscles or spasms in their neck? Do their eyes burn or itch? Do they experience blurred vision? What about any emotional changes? Do they lose track of time? Is their sleep disturbed because of how they’re feeling? Do they feel anxious during phone downtime?

5) Help your teen identify features that make apps hard to turn off.

Ask if they’ve noticed the different ways in which some apps may “work” to keep them on the phone. Push notifications, likes, tagging, gamification (making apps interactive in fun ways), and connecting one app to another are some features they can look for.  

6) Ask your teen about feelings surrounding phone use.

For example, ask how they feel when they don’t have their device. Do they feel like the room is too quiet? Does FOMO (fear of missing out) take over? Does the environment feel different? Help them become aware of emotions associated with having the phone on or off and how those emotions can affect them. 

7) Limit screen time to 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

By limiting the light from the screen and overstimulation that often comes from the content on the phone, kids will likely sleep better. Set devices to night mode to reduce the light at least two hours before turning in for bed. If they want an alternative way to “wind down” before sleeping, read a book (just not on their phone!). Books feed the brain while still helping the body relax. 

Common Sense followed the real-life phone use of 200 teens throughout the course of a week for its research. Take their lead and get to know your teen’s smartphone use to determine if it’s negatively affecting them. If so, you now have strategies to help them reach their smartphone use goals.

About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for Parentandteen.com. She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

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