One Key to Helping Your Teen Manage Her Screen Time


Well, it’s happened. The one thing you were most worried about when you put a smartphone into your daughter’s hand. No, not bullying, not porn, not identity theft – you’ve put safeguards in place to help with all that. No, the real problem is much simpler: she just can’t seem to put the phone down. Watching her is both internally nerve-wracking and marginally entertaining. There she is, fingers tapping away, chuckling and muttering to herself, making that “duck face” at the camera again and again. She seems happy enough. Happy, that is, until she has to interact with someone who exists in the real world. Then everything breaks loose. She’s like a hangry T-Rex who just got pulled away from a five-course steak dinner. It’s starting to mess with your family and with the relationship you’ve labored to build over 14 long years. And you’re not happy about it.

If what I’ve described above even slightly reflects how you’re feeling, do us all a favor, and start by taking a big deep breath. Remember, you’ve put a lot into that girl (or boy) and a few months of too much media can’t possibly undo every good thing you’ve already done. Life doesn’t work that way. There is always a pathway back to where you want to be. The purpose of this article isn’t to give you all the answers. I can’t do that. Every situation is as unique as the individual people involved. But there is one key that may help you begin to turn your situation around.

In a Pew Research study published in August 2018, close to two-thirds of parents reported concern about the time their teens spend in front of digital screens. That statistic should give you some hope. You’re not alone. This battle is raging far beyond your living room, all across the United States and the world. The Pew study went on: “When asked to reflect on their teen’s cellphone use, a majority of parents (72%) feel their teen is at least sometimes distracted by their cellphone when they are trying to have a conversation with them. Indeed, 30% of parents say their teen often does this.” Yep. Parents all over the world are facing the same challenges you are, trying desperately to reconnect with teens who are caught in a digital takeover.

Now, we don’t know all the tactics that will be required to win this war, but there is one intuitive truth that may begin to make a big difference for you and for those you love. At the very heart, the trouble you’re facing may not actually be your daughter’s struggle alone. At some level, it might be yours, too. The same Pew study we’ve referenced discovered that 36% of parents feel that they spend too much time on their devices, themselves. In addition, when teens were asked about how technology influences their interactions with their parents, half of them responded that “their parent is distracted by their own phone at least sometimes during conversations between them (51%), with 14% of teens reporting that their parent is often distracted in this way.”

Child health experts responded to these findings with a reminder of the fundamental role that parents play in their kids' lives and the powerful influence of their example:

"Kids don't always do what we say, but they do as we do," said Donald Shifrin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who was not involved in the Pew study. "Parents are the door that kids will walk through on their way to the world."

So, if you’re wondering how to start turning the tide of too much screen time in your home, the place to begin is with yourself. “What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying,” said Emerson. Our kids see what we do with our phones. In many cases, they were watching us get caught in the time-sucking vortex of social media years before we ever placed their own devices in their hands. They do what they have seen us do. That’s a terrible truth, but it’s also a great blessing as this principle applies to the past as well as to the present. That’s right. You can start leading by example today. Start demonstrating how to put your phone down, how to really engage, how to have “off time.” Show how to use your device for things that really matter in the right places and at the right times. Demonstrate how a responsible adult who recognizes the value of modern technology (because she knows what it was like to live without it) manages herself and the device she carries. And soon, the “monkey see, monkey do” concept will begin to manifest itself in the lives of those who are constantly watching and learning from you, whether you know it or not.

Now, there’s one other piece of good news that may help you navigate your interactions with your screen-tied daughter. The truth is, secretly, she’s likely worried about her use of technology, too, though she may never express it to you. Pew researchers found that “roughly nine-in-ten teens view spending too much time online as a problem facing people their age, including 60% who say it is a major problem.” When it came to evaluating their own online habits, roughly half (54%) of the teens included in the study supposed that they were spending too much time on their cellphones, with 41% saying they spend too much time on social media.

You’re likely not the only one who sees the problem. And when everyone can see it, it becomes easier to solve. Your daughter (or son) likely already feels that she’s spending too much time on her phone, so you don’t have to come on too strong. Start by solving the problems you see in your own behavior. Model the way you want her to act. Lead by example. Then, after some time, when you feel that the moment is right, talk openly and humbly. Acknowledge your own faults and apologize for not being better. Seek her counsel about how you can improve. Draw out her fears and concerns. Seek solutions together. Soon, you’ll be on a mutual journey to reclaim what you’ve lost. The road there may be bumpy, but the destination will be worth it. All you have to do is begin today.

Read the full Pew Research study, “How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions” at