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How much screen time is okay for teenagers?

Today’s teenagers are the third generation of people raised with screens in their lives: their grandparents grew up with television, their parents plugged the first gaming consoles into those TVs, and now adolescents have access to more screens in more places than we could have ever imagined.

That makes “screen time” a big concern for parents today. But, as we learn from OhioHealth Behavioral Health psychiatrist Moses Ijaz, DO, the conversation around screen time and teens is more complex than you might think, and the answer isn’t as simple as an egg timer. Dr. Ijaz shares the big picture and gives us some tips on how to manage the mobile use of teenagers.

Brains in beta

Understating the impact of mobile devices on teenagers begins with understanding how their brains function. “Evolutionarily, the adolescent brain is much different than a child’s or adult’s brain,” says Dr. Ijaz. “Teen brains are in a state of plasticity, experiencing rapid development, establishing connections, adapting, absorbing information. Teens begin transitioning from a parental affiliation to a peer one. It’s a time of risk-taking, individuation, questioning authority, sensation seeking and addictive behavior.”

It’s this addictive component of adolescent brain development, Dr. Ijaz explains, that can keep teens in front of mobile phones and video games for hours at a clip. “Social media interaction and validation, and especially task-oriented video games, stimulate the reward centers of the brain and keep us coming back for more. Unfortunately, this region also facilitates addiction, as most gamers or gambling addicts will tell you they can’t stop once they start.”

Not only can screen time be addictive, but according to a recent article in Preventative Medicine Reports, heavy screen usage leads to a decline in teenagers’ psychological well-being. This study also found that teens who have the highest screen time have a harder time focusing and making friends, and they are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

Finding quality in the quantity

Dr. Ijaz says when we discuss establishing boundaries around screen time with our teens, we need to recognize that we often use the same devices for education, entertainment and social interaction. “We as parents use our phones and laptops for more than work; kids can do the same. They use the same devices to access Kahn Academy to research a paper as they do to watch videos or post to Instagram, so not all screen time should be counted the same.”

“The pros to these mobile devices is that they can be a window to discovering the world for teens, and this is a very wonderful age for learning and discovery,” continues Dr. Ijaz, “but adolescents may not understand the context or symbolism of what they’re reading or watching, or may not apply critical thinking, so it helps to know what they’re interested in and what their opinions are of what they see, so we as parents can have a conversation about values.”

“One of the cons with these devices is that they can be a form of passive learning that takes time away from developing more adaptive skills of amusement, like playing music or reading,” adds Ijaz. “Imagination is rarely cultivated through passive entertainment like it is with other activities.”

The social brain on social media

Dr. Ijaz also stresses that excessive time spent interacting with the world through a screen is affecting adolescent social behavior. “That’s another big con to screen time I’ve been seeing in my practice. The human brain is a social brain. But what we’re seeing in millennials and younger people is a lack of social interaction skills in person-to-person settings. When you speak to other people, you develop an understanding of social cues, you listen to a person’s inflection, you look at how their body is moving … a lack of social graces is something that can hinder them as they enter adult life.”

Ijaz says teens also face overexposure to violent and sexual imagery online, as well as bullying on social media, that is divorced from face-to-face consequences. “Teens going through puberty often seek out sexual content, and many video games popular with teens glorify violence toward others. Parents should be aware of what their kids are doing and who they are communicating with online, be open to questions, and take seriously any news of bullying directed at them or others.” Ijaz says that suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents, and it is important that parents understand the effect that online bullying can have on teens.

Pew Research Center also studied aspects of how social media affects teenagers. They surveyed teenagers aged 13-17 about their social media experiences and habits. Nearly half of the teenagers surveyed said they felt “overwhelmed by the drama on social media” and pressured to “only post content that makes them look good to others.”

On the other hand, not all aspects of social media may be as worrisome as you might think. Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of teenagers felt “more connected to their friends” and nearly 70 percent felt it allowed them to “interact with a more diverse group of people” and that they “have people who will support them through tough times.” This survey also found that as a result of social media, 71 percent of teenagers feel more included and 69 percent feel more confident.

Tips for healthy mobile device use in adolescents

Now that we better understand the causes and consequences of mobile device overuse in adolescents, Dr. Ijaz offers these helpful tips for healthy behaviors.

  1. Establish no-go zones for screens.

Keep phones away from the dinner table, even your own phone. Make meal time a time for face-to-face conversation, even if you’re talking about what you read on your phone! Consider keeping screens out of kids’ bedrooms too. “Adolescents need much more sleep than children,” says Dr. Ijaz. “Keeping phones silenced and on a charger in the family room or kitchen can help teens develop healthy sleep habits.”

  1. Monitor your teen’s online activity and understand the technology.

“I am surprised by the number of parents I talk to who don’t know the password to their teen’s phone, let alone their social media passwords,” says Dr. Ijaz. “There’s a balance to be struck between fostering individuation and providing guidance. But to provide that guidance, parents have to understand the technology. Check the websites your teen visits, know how to set parental controls on the devices in your home, and have them use their devices where you can see them. Check their social media profiles, what they post there, who follows them. Learn how Twitter works, how Snapchat works. Understand what is involved in cyberbullying, and let your teen know that they can have honest, non-judgmental conversations with you any time. You can’t completely shelter your adolescents from all this exposure to information, but you can give them the direction they need.”

  1. Walk the talk.

Remember the old anti-drug PSA? (“You, alright?! I learned it by watching you!”) Our kids are watching our mobile use, too, and they will model their behavior after ours. “Be a role model for your teens, and exhibit the behavior you want to see in them,” says Dr. Ijaz. “Don’t have distracted conversations, and don’t use your phone while you drive. If you have to use or check devices for work, explain why that is different than personal use, but be honest, don’t use work as an excuse.”

  1. Make time for quiet, not just time without screens.

“Our devices stimulate our brains, but so do quiet moments of contemplation or meditation,” says Dr. Ijaz. “It’s good to put your phone in your pocket and interact with the world and each other, but it’s also good to take some time for mental relaxation and mindfulness.”

“It’s important to keep in mind that your teen is not a child, but also not yet an adult,” says Ijaz. “A brain develops like the heating system in your home: The child’s brain builds the furnace, the adolescent brain assembles the ductwork that connects all the rooms, and the adult brain has the thermostat for control. Your adolescent is establishing the brain connectivity that will aid their lifelong growth and development, and your guidance can make that a rewarding process for you both.”

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