Three questions parents should consider before setting boundaries around teen electronic use
One of the most common sources of conflict I see in families, especially in families with teens, somehow involves the use of electronics. This can be a tricky conversation for many reasons. Naturally, parents want to protect their teens and encourage healthy habits. Thus, setting some sort of boundary around their adolescent’s electronic use is widely accepted as a part of what it means to be a parent in 2022. However, knowing exactly where the appropriate boundary is can feel challenging, as an increasing amount of everyday life is exchanged via some sort of electronic medium, and even the research literature regarding the potential risks of electronic use in teens yields mixed results and is beginning to challenge commonly held beliefs. For example, Orben, et al. (2021) recently found minimal associations between technology use among adolescents and mental health issues over the past 30 years. And according to an article from Ogen and Jensen (2020), published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, “The most recent and rigorous large-scale preregistered studies report small associations between the amount of daily digital technology usage and adolescents’ well-being that do not offer a way of distinguishing cause from effect and, as estimated, are unlikely to be of clinical or practical significance (p. 336).”
While it can be hard to draw black-and-white conclusions and find the answer to ‘what’ and ‘how much’ is too much, when it comes to setting boundaries around teen electronic use, what parents can control is how they approach these conversations with their teen. How parents approach these conversations can be a big determining factor in whether this topic becomes a source of power struggle and tension, or an opportunity to facilitate learning, growth, and connection. Here are three reflective questions parents can consider before setting boundaries around electronic use with their teen.
What purpose do electronic devices serve for your teen?
In other words, what is it doing for them? Take a minute to shift from a lens of right vs. wrong and try to focus on identifying the function of the electronics device in your teen’s life. Are they using it because they’re bored? Are they finding meaningful connections through an online community that they’re struggling to find at school? Are they trying to distract from more painful thoughts and feelings? Keeping your focus on the function of the behavior will help you gain insight and understanding into your teen’s world, which will go a long way in developing a collaborative stance when you approach your teen, as well as help decrease the overall emotional charge that can accompany this topic.
What are your specific concerns?
Okay, so you’ve identified that you’re concerned about your teen’s electronic use. But what is your specific concern? Are you concerned about the content they are being exposed to? What about this concerns you? Are you concerned they may be developing a negative self-image? Or not being exposed to diverse opinions? Are you concerned about their safety? For example, let’s say you’ve identified your specific concern to be the amount of time your teen is spending on their electronic device? Why is this concerning to you? Are you concerned they may not be getting enough time outside? That they’re not developing other skills and interests? Great, now you’ve identified a specific behavior you can help your teen increase, rather than just focusing on decreasing electronic use and what you don’t want. Being specific and stating your concerns positively can help decrease power struggles and build collaboration with your teen.
What behaviors do you and/or the other adults in the home model?
This one can be tough. Many parents (understandably) feel like, ‘well, I’m an adult and enjoy many other responsibilities and privileges that my teen doesn’t, so why is this important?’ While this may be very true and valid, keep in mind a lot of learning at this age happens via social observation, and teens are adept at trying on the behaviors of others while they work to clarify their inner sense of ‘self.’ Teens also are preparing to be adults and crave more and more responsibilities that help them feel confident to navigate the adult world. This doesn’t mean that no limit setting is needed from parents, but in an effort to build collaboration with your teen, it can be helpful for parents to begin by simply reflecting on what covert messages they may be sending to their teen via their own electronic use. These messages are often not explicitly discussed (covert), and using this as a point of reflection may help build more empathy and understanding into your teen’s beliefs around electronics (which are also probably covert or outside of current conscious awareness). And given adolescents’ stage of development and the way learning occurs best at this age, parents are likely to get a lot more ‘buy-in’ from their teen if they practice what they preach.
Odgers, C.L., & Jensen, M. R. (2020). Annual research review: adolescent mental health in the digital age: facts, fears, and future directions. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61(3), 346-348. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13190.
Orben, A., Przybylski, A. K., & Vuorre, M. (2021). There is no evidence that associations between adolescents’ digital technology engagement and mental health problems have increased. Clinical Psychological Science, 9(5) 823–835. doi:10.1177/2167702621994549.