Parent Thinking Space: Managing and responding to teenage device use. (Advice within)

There is quiet in the house. Peace. Quiet laughter comes from a bedroom. You savour this moment of peace as you know that moments from now there will be screaming. You take deep breaths and prepare yourself and then call out “Off devices now. Come to the table it’s dinner time!” And the torrent of screaming, yelling and protesting begins. It’s like a creature from another world has possessed the young people in your family. Maybe this is a sign of addiction? Your mind worries. What have I done? Maybe I should ban all devices?



Once devices are in your child’s hands it is likely to cause some conflict at some point. It can feel like a logical solution to ban electronic devices altogether, however, strict parent-imposed bans on electronic devices are not always helpful. The first article in Parent Thinking Space about developing resilience (if you haven’t read it, I suggest you take a look now), outlined that our role as parents is to scaffold our teenagers. We are to be the safety there to hold a boundary and catch them if they fall, we are not the site manager of our teenagers’ lives. Electronic devices are in the world whether we like it or not, we need to help scaffold our young people so that they learn to manage their use of devices well as adults.


I have heard some parents, however, liken electronic devices use to drug addiction. We wouldn’t encourage our teenagers to have access to drugs to help them to manage in the “real world” so why would we let them have access to electronic devices. Electronic devices are different to illegal drugs, however, because they have more than one function. Phones can help keep our children safe. Phones allow us to know where our children are and allow our children to contact us if they need help. Laptops and tablets are also used for school work. Learning how to use technology is a crucial part of modern education and preparation for the workplace. Mobile phones today are like a mini world we carry around in our pockets. They contain good and bad, safety and danger, knowing how to relate to technology well is an important new task in adolescent development.


Internet addiction is one of the challenges that face teenagers and their families. Many parents I speak to worry when their child becomes angry, teary or verbally aggressive when asked to stop using their device. Kids screaming when they are told to stop using a device may be a sign of addiction, however, it is also a sign of normal human behaviour.


Let’s imagine for example that you are in the middle of your favourite television program. You have had a busy long day and are really enjoying downtime. Now imagine that your husband yells from the kitchen that you need to tidy up the kitchen. How do you feel? How are you likely to respond?

I can tell you I would not be getting up right away and I would likely say I will do it later. If my husband insisted that I come and do it “right now,” I am sure there would be an angry monster speaking on my behalf using my mouth as it’s microphone.


It is normal human behaviour to not like to be told what to do. We all like to have control and predictability. We all need down time, relaxation, and laughter. Devices contain so many things that meet many of our needs. Within a phone there is the possibility of connection with others, belonging, soothing, validation, entertainment, and fun. These are valid and important needs for us all. Our kids are more scheduled and busier than any generation before them. They need downtime to switch off, relax and unwind. They also need time to connect with friends. It can be hard for our children to leave the little world of entertainment, soothing and social support that is contained in their devices.


One problem with the current technology on our devices is that there is no in-built end point. Previously television programs had a scheduled time they were on each week. The program had a start time and an end time. There were inbuilt stop cues. There were also break cues. When an advertisement came on there was the chance to get up and get something to eat or drink or chat to a family member. Technology now has none of these break or end cues. When a program finishes it rolls right into another. It is easy to get lost on YouTube for hours with endless suggestions for what to watch next.


Conflict arises when we as parents attempt to take our child away from their devices when they are in the middle of doing something they want to do. It is hard for us because we can’t see what our children are doing. Our parents could see that a tv program was about to finish and then ask us to come to the table for dinner. TV programs were on at scheduled times and family activities were scheduled around them. Because there are not inbuilt end cues and because we cannot always see what they are doing, an important skill our children need to learn is how to create their own end points to device time.


The first step is to involve our kids in the discussion about end points and the need for limits to device time. We start by sitting with the young people in your house and ask them what they like to do on devices. Then ask them what else they need to do/want to do in their day and together work out how much time there is available to spend on a device. There is a lot of evidence that teenagers who sit down to a family meal at a table without devices are more resilient and have better outcomes.


There is also a lot of evidence that devices close to sleep time have a detrimental effect on sleep.

Talk about why these things are important and help your young person to understand why there is a need for a limit to devices time. The last video outlined why it is important for you and your child to be calm when having these types of conversations (if you haven’t watched that video then stop reading and have a look now). Having a planned calm conversation with your child when their frontal lobe is fully engaged is far more helpful than having this conversation with them at the point of flipping their lids.

Once you and your child have worked out an amount of time available for devices, then talk to your child about how to make this work. For example, if your child decides they have 45 minutes available in the afternoon, but they want to watch a tv show that goes for an hour you may ask your child how they will work out the stop time? Or if your child wants to play a game online and it is more fun with friends you may ask them how they can work out with friends to be on at the same time. You may also ask your child how they plan to let their friends know when it is almost time for them to stop playing? If young people know the end-point, have agreed to it and have a plan for how they will leave what they are doing, they are less likely to fight at the end of device time.


To support your child in implementing their plan, initially it may be helpful to remind your young person about the time limit they have agreed to well before the time they have agreed to stop. When there is 5- 10 mins left you may help them to end by reminding them that the time is coming to an end. If there is 12 minutes left of a program you may together decide that it is okay for the end point to be flexible. You will get less screaming if you allow the time on devices to finish at an end point of a program or a game. Below this article is a more detailed step-by-step outline for how to have these conversations with your child about devices.


Sometimes, however, you do all of this and there are still arguments and meltdowns at the end of device time. This is because devices are also soothing to our emotions. The repetitive scrolling motion used by many platforms has a calming effect on the brain and body. When we are feeling low or upset we can reach for a device to help us calm down. When a parent takes a device in those situations there is a sudden upwelling of the emotions that was being avoided. In this case it is not the device that caused the distress. The distress was there already but the device was masking it and when the device was taken all the emotions comes out. Having a calm conversation with your child where you ask them about what they are feeling and what is happening in their lives can be helpful in these situations. The tips from in Parenting Thinking Space about Teenage Meltdowns may also be helpful here.


Summary

Strict parent-imposed bans around electronic devices are not always helpful. Knowing how to relate to technology well is an important new task in adolescent development. One problem with the current technology on our devices is that there is no in-built end point. An important skill our children need to learn is how to create their own end points to device time. If young people know the end-point, have agreed to it and have a plan for how they will leave what they are doing, they are less likely to fight at the end of device time. Sometimes devices are sought to soothe distress and are not the cause



What’s next…

It is not just our children that look to devices to soothe emotions. As parents we do too. Modern day mothering is different to previous generations. It is very stressful, busy and overwhelming at times. When I asked mums what they would like help with, many of them confessed they often have meltdowns themselves. They worry about the effect this has on their children and want to find a way to stop their meltdowns. The next 10 minutes in Parent Thinking Space looks at how to reduce overwhelm related to yelling www.kirstinbarchia.com/thinking-space .


(note: the Parent Thinking Space site is password protected please visit www.kirstinbarchia.com/signup to gain your password for free access if you have been provided this content by a third party).


Tip sheet available below:

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Dr Kirstin Barchia PhD, MClinPsych, BPsych(Hons).



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