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How To Talk to Teens about Screen Time

By Dr. Sireesha Kolli



As we venture deeper into the digital age, parenting encompasses a unique set of challenges. As the first generation navigating a landscape dominated by screens, managing our children’s screen time can feel overwhelming. This article provides guidelines to help parents have productive conversations with their teens about managing screen time, including phone, computer, and gaming use. These guidelines offer a structure to discuss screen time but feel free to adapt them to your family’s needs.

It’s important to sit down as a family when you are calm and not distracted to have these discussions. Regularly taking a moment to talk about technology — what we know about screen time, and how we’re using it ourselves — can normalize these discussions and teach your kids to have a regular open dialogue. This shouldn’t just be a one-time conversation but an ongoing dialogue that evolves with your family’s needs and the digital landscape.


Creating an Open Dialogue

When discussing screen time and setting limitations with teens, it’s crucial for parents to adopt a mindset of active listening, curiosity, and emotional validation. This approach helps create a collaborative environment where teens feel heard and respected, rather than feeling imposed upon. Instead of reacting defensively or dogmatically enforcing rules, parents should strive to understand their teen’s perspective. Active listening involves truly paying attention to what your teen is saying without interrupting, acknowledging their feelings, and showing empathy. Phrases like, “I understand that this is important to you” or “I can see how you feel this way” can validate their emotions and foster open communication.

Navigating defiance and refusal requires a calm and patient approach. Recognize that adolescence is a period of seeking independence, which often manifests as pushing back against parental controls. Rather than viewing defiance as mere rebellion, see it as an opportunity to guide your teen towards healthy habits through mutual respect and negotiation. Approach conversations with a spirit of collaboration, seeking to find a middle ground that respects your teen’s growing autonomy while maintaining necessary boundaries for their well-being. For example, instead of imposing strict rules, involve your teen in setting guidelines and explain the reasons behind them. This not only empowers them but also increases the likelihood of their cooperation. Emphasizing the shared goal of maintaining a healthy balance can transform potential conflicts into constructive discussions.


Setting Boundaries and Following Through

Managing screen time effectively requires setting clear, firm boundaries. Dr. Becky Kennedy, a renowned parenting expert, emphasizes that boundaries are actions we commit to that don’t require anything from others. They are not simply requests; they are statements of what we will do if our requests are not met. In the context of screen time, this means defining specific limits and being prepared to follow through with appropriate actions if those limits are not respected.

Why Boundaries Matter

Boundaries are essential because they provide structure and safety for our children. They help teens learn emotional regulation and understand the value of balance in their lives. When boundaries are set early and in a sturdy manner, they can help prevent conflicts and ensure that expectations are clear. Children and teens often crave these boundaries, even if they don’t always express it, because they provide a sense of security and help them navigate their world more confidently.

For instance, setting a boundary might involve stating, “We will turn off all screens an hour before bedtime to ensure we all get enough rest. If the screens are not turned off, I will collect them for the night.” This is different from making a request like, “Can you please turn off the screens before bed?” which might be ignored or negotiated away. A boundary is firm and consistent, ensuring that everyone knows what to expect and what the consequences will be if it’s not followed.

Empathy and Validation

While setting boundaries, it’s crucial to validate your teen’s feelings. Acknowledging their frustrations and emotions helps them feel seen and understood. Dr. Becky Kennedy suggests using phrases like, “I believe you” and “I’m glad you’re talking to me about this” to create a sense of safety and openness. This approach allows teens to express their feelings and concerns, making them more likely to cooperate with the established boundaries.

For example, if your teen expresses that the screen time limits are unfair and that none of their friends have such rules, you can respond by saying, “I understand it feels unfair, and I see that you’re upset. Every family has different rules, and our goal is to ensure that we all have a healthy balance. Let’s talk about how we can make this work for everyone.” This approach validates their emotions while also reinforcing the importance of the boundaries.

Balancing Autonomy and Boundaries

As parents, it’s our responsibility to strike a balance between allowing our teens’ autonomy and setting necessary boundaries. This means respecting their growing independence while also guiding them with clear expectations. A boundary is not about controlling their every action but about ensuring their well-being and helping them develop healthy habits.

Implementing these boundaries involves clear communication and consistent follow-through. For instance, if the agreed-upon boundary is that screens are turned off at dinner time, then parents should also adhere to this rule. By modeling the behavior we expect from our children, we demonstrate that these boundaries are important and applicable to everyone in the family.

Follow-Through and Support

Consistency is key when enforcing boundaries. If a boundary is crossed, calmly remind your teen of the agreement and follow through with the pre-set consequences. This might mean temporarily restricting screen access or having a family discussion about how to better adhere to the boundaries in the future. It’s important to stay calm and supportive, helping your teen understand that boundaries are not punitive but protective.

Ultimately, setting boundaries and following through are about creating a safe and supportive environment where your teen can thrive. This balance of empathy, validation, and clear expectations helps them develop resilience and a sense of responsibility. It teaches them that while their feelings are valid and important, there are also necessary limits that ensure their well-being.

If navigating these conversations and boundaries feels overwhelming, remember that you’re not alone. Kolli Psychiatric and Associates is here to help. We can provide tailored strategies to manage screen time effectively and address any underlying issues related to technology use. By working together, we can help your teen find a harmonious balance between their digital and offline lives, ensuring they grow into well-rounded and healthy individuals.

Script for Discussing Screen Time with Teens


Step 1: Taking Inventory and Starting the Conversation

Parent: “Hey, can we talk about how much time we’re both spending on our screens, including our phones, computers, iPads, and gaming consoles? It might help us understand how to balance our days better.”

Alternative Starters:

  1. Parent: “I’ve been thinking about how we use our screens, and I thought it would be a good idea for us to track our screen time for a week. What do you think?”
  2. Parent: “I read something interesting about screen time and its effects, and I realized I don’t really know how much time I spend on my devices. Want to figure it out together?”
  3. Parent: “Let’s try an experiment for a week to see how much time we’re spending on screens. It might be eye-opening for both of us.”

Defiant Teen Responses:

  1. Teen: “I already know how much time I spend. Why do we need to go over this?
  2. Teen: “This is pointless. I don’t see any problem with my screen time.”
  3. Teen: “All my friends are online just as much. Why should I cut back?”

Parent: “I get it. I also sometimes feel like I know my usage, but seeing it can give us a clearer picture. Let’s use a tool to track our screen time this week. We can both do it and then discuss what we find.”

Alternative Responses:

  1. Parent: “I’ll do it too because I think I can improve how I spend my screen time. If you don’t want to track it, we can talk about why. The goal is to help find a balance, not to control.”
  2. Parent: “Let’s just try it for a week and see what we learn. We can adjust things based on what we find out.”
  3. Parent: “It’s just an experiment to see if there are ways we can improve our time together and individually. No harm in trying, right?”


Step 2: Engaging in Collaborative Dialogue

Parent: “Now that we have an idea of our screen time, let’s talk about how it fits into our daily lives. How do you feel about the amount of time you’re spending on your phone, games, and computer?”

Teen: “I don’t see a problem. My friends use their screens just as much.”

Parent: “That’s understandable. Everyone’s habits are different, but every family needs to find what works best for them. It’s important to think about how screen time can affect us. Excessive screen time can impact your ability to interact with others, develop new interests, and even handle boredom. Spending too much time on screens can make it harder to focus on schoolwork or enjoy non-digital activities. It can also lead to needing constant stimulation, which makes it difficult to relax or be content without screens. Let’s find one small change to start with, like reducing screen time before bed, and see how it feels.”


Step 3: Establishing Family Rules and Making Changes

Parent: “Let’s create some family guidelines around screen time that we can all agree on. How do you feel about having tech-free zones in certain areas, like the dining room or bedrooms?”

Teen: “Why do we need rules? I can handle my own time.”

Parent: “I believe you can. These guidelines help all of us stay balanced and ensure screens don’t take over. It’s about creating a balance that works for everyone.”

Teen: “But I like to check my phone and play games after dinner.”

Parent: “I understand. How about we set specific times for gaming and phone use but also agree to have screen-free times, like during meals or before bed? It’s about making sure there’s time for everything, including rest and family.”

Alternative Approach: Parent: “We need to set some guidelines to ensure we all have time for other important things like family time, homework, and rest. Let’s come up with some rules together that feel fair to everyone.”


Step 4: Using Technology to Manage Technology

Parent: “There are tools that can help us manage screen time better. Apps like Screen Time for Apple devices or Family Link for Android can help track our usage and set limits. What do you think about trying one of these?”

Teen: “I don’t need an app to tell me what to do.”

Parent: “These tools aren’t about telling you what to do but helping us both see how we’re spending our time. They can ensure we have a good balance between screen time and other activities.”

Teen: “It feels like you don’t trust me to manage my own time.”

Parent: “It’s not about trust. It’s about making sure we all have healthy habits. Just like we have bedtimes to ensure enough sleep, these tools can help manage screen time. We can adjust the settings together as we find what works best.”


Step 5: Encouraging Alternative Activities

Parent: “What activities do you enjoy outside of screens, like gaming or social media? Maybe we can find more time for those.”

Teen: “I don’t really do much else. I like being on my computer or phone.”

Parent: “That’s okay. How about we explore some new interests together? Maybe try out a new sport, join a club, or even just take walks. It could be fun to find something new that you enjoy.”

Teen: “I guess, but I’m not really interested in those things.”

Parent: “Let’s start small. We can try doing something you already enjoy but in a different way, like cooking together if you like watching cooking videos. Or maybe we can find an activity related to your favorite games.”


Step 6: Leading by Example

Parent: “I know I also need to work on my screen time. How about we all agree to put away our devices during meals and before bed? I’ll do it with you.”

Teen: “But you’re always on your phone or computer too!”

Parent: “You’re right, and I’m working on it. Let’s make this a family effort. We can remind each other and help each other stick to our screen-free times.”

Parent: “By setting these times together, we can all benefit from more quality time and better rest. Plus, it shows that we’re all in this together.”


Handling Reluctance and Opposition

Teen: “None of my friends have these restrictions. It’s not fair.”

Parent: “I understand it feels unfair. Every family sets their own rules based on what they believe is best. Our goal is to find a balance that works for us and supports your well-being.”

Teen: “These rules are going to make it hard for me to keep up with my friends.”

Parent: “I know it’s important to stay connected with your friends. We’re not trying to stop that. We’re just looking to make sure there’s time for other important things too. We can work together to find a balance that allows you to socialize and also have time for other activities.”

Teen: “Why can’t I just manage my own time? I’m not a kid anymore.”

Parent: “I know you’re growing up and becoming more responsible. These guidelines are here to help make sure you have a healthy balance. We can adjust them as you show you can manage your time well.”


If Teens Refuse to Follow Limits

Teen: “I’m not going to follow these rules. They’re stupid.”
Parent: “I understand you’re frustrated. Let’s talk about why you feel this way. It’s important to find a solution that works for both of us.”

Teen: “There’s no point in talking. I’m just going to do what I want.”

Parent: “Ignoring the rules isn’t an option. We need to work together to find a balance that you’re comfortable with and that supports your well-being. Let’s sit down and see if there’s a compromise we can reach.”

Teen: “No one else has these dumb rules.”

Parent: “I get that it feels unfair. But these rules are about making sure you have a healthy balance. If we can agree on some basic guidelines, we can adjust them over time based on what works.”

Teen: “I’ll just use my devices when you’re not around. You can’t stop me.”

Parent: “I want to trust that we can work together on this. If you’re feeling that way, it’s a sign we need to keep talking. Let’s find a way to make these guidelines something we both agree on.”

Taking a Break During Heated Discussions

Sometimes, discussions about screen time can become very intense, leading to an impasse. If you find that the conversation is getting too heated or you’re reaching a standstill, it’s okay to take a break. You can say something like, “I see we’re both getting really upset right now. Let’s pause this conversation and come back to it later when we’re both calmer. It’s important to find a solution that works for both of us, and I want to make sure we’re in the right frame of mind to do that.” Taking a break can give everyone a chance to cool down and think things over, making it easier to resume the conversation productively later. Remember, regular, calm discussions about screen time can help normalize these talks and build a healthier dialogue over time.


Conclusion: Building a Healthy Digital Balance Together

Navigating the complexities of screen time in today’s digital age requires patience, understanding, and collaboration. As parents, our goal is to create a balanced approach that incorporates empathy, clear communication, and consistent boundaries. By actively listening to our teens and involving them in the process, we foster a sense of responsibility and self-regulation.

Remember, these conversations are not about imposing strict rules but about guiding your teen towards healthier habits. The journey towards a balanced digital life is ongoing and requires regular check-ins and adjustments based on your family’s evolving needs. Encourage open dialogue, validate their feelings, and work together to find solutions that everyone can agree on.

If you find these discussions challenging or need additional support, consider reaching out to professionals like Kolli Psychiatric and Associates. They can provide personalized strategies to help manage screen time effectively and address any underlying issues related to technology use. By working together, we can help our teens navigate the digital landscape healthily and positively, ensuring they grow into well-rounded and resilient individuals.

Do you need help managing your teen’s screen time?

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