Teens Want to Decrease Their Smartphone Use. Six Ways Parents Can Help

Parents of teens don’t need to read the current research findings to know that many adolescents are online constantly – we just need to glance into their messy bedrooms, or see them walking in the door, or ignoring our repeated questions – heads down and engrossed trance-like in their smartphones that seem surgically attached to the palms of their hands.

What is surprising however, is that according to the Teen Smartphone Addiction National Survey (based on research conducted from 2016 to 2018), most teens with smartphones now report that they wish they could spend less time on them.

The statistics from this report are both fascinating and distressing and provide parents with an inside look at teens’ thoughts and feelings – that perhaps may never be vocalized or even recognized by teens themselves.

Teen girl on bed with smartphone

Here are ten of the most poignant findings:

65% of teens wish they had a greater ability to self-limit the amount of time they spend on their phone.

69% of teens wish they could spend more time socializing with their close friends face-to-face, and less time socializing online.

60% of teens’ friends, in their estimation, are addicted to their phones.

71% of teens know that companies design apps to be addictive.

58% of teens feel that people generally expect them to respond immediately to notifications.

89% teens find it upsetting when they witness someone being bullied online.

73% of teens feel that social media use contributes to conditions that can result in school shootings.

42% of teens are fearful of being gossiped about online.

70% of teens have a list of 3-5 apps or sites that they continuously cycle through at any opportunity.

56% of teens get online every day with the intention of doing one thing and get sidetracked doing something else for an extended period of time.

Whether you agree or disagree with the term “addiction” being applied to smartphone use, these findings glaringly demonstrate that our teens acknowledge the negative consequences of their phone behaviors, yet many can’t seem to self-regulate.

Of course, parents can acknowledge the numerous benefits of smartphone use, and the enjoyment of social media apps. However, these are the places where teens experience some of their most negative feelings. Hurtful comments that are seen by hundreds of followers can wound deeply.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that our brains are hardwired to distort our perceptions surrounding negative experiences and information. It’s called the Negativity Bias and it’s why we all will give more psychological weight to that one negative comment instead of to the twenty positive ones. It’s no wonder then that our teens are impacted when they experience, or even simply just witness, any form of online bullying and judgement.

In addition, the endless barrage of hourly notifications our teens receive can easily result in a constant low-level state of anxiety and the compulsion to never be separated from their phones. This affects relationships, schoolwork, and sleep.

So, what can we do as parents to assist our teens in lessening the attachments they have to their smartphones? It’s far too late to completely close Pandora’s Box with all the phones stashed inside forever.

1. Remind them about who is paying the bill

To begin with, if you pay your teen’s smartphone bills, have a calm conversation that reminds them that ultimately, you control the device. Until they want to pay for it entirely, they’ll need to abide by your guidelines. Consider coming up with a written contract that limits screen time, and consistently enforce consequences if rules are broken.

2. Discuss making a few changes

Ask them if they feel their usage is causing any negative feelings or if they are often upset by what they see on social media sites. Suggest the possibility of deleting certain apps for a while to see if it makes a difference in their mood, or of turning off notifications for all social media.

3. Suggest more face-to-face time

Encourage your teen to talk with their friend group about “formally” establishing more face-to-face discussion time. Perhaps “Phone-Free Fridays” or “Let’s Talk Tuesdays” could become a thing or a club during their lunch breaks? (Expect the eye rolls but point out the positives.) Maybe your own family could enforce a “No Wi-Fi Weekend” once a month, allowing just a once-daily quick check for important messages?

4. Make a happiness note

To help counterbalance the negativity teens are exposed to online, share with them this tip from happiness expert Gretchen Rubin: Keep a little storage of happiness tucked into a small notebook or one of the Reminder apps on their phone. Have them compile at least 5 things that make them instantly happy – photos, quotes, saved text messages, or a wonderful memory. When they experience something hurtful online, remind them to go into their “happiness pocket” and think about those positive images and thoughts for at least 30 seconds. This clearly won’t change their entire mindset but making this a habit can help re-wire their brains and prevent negative thoughts from taking over.

5. Talk about JOMO – joy of missing out

And lastly, have a family discussion (because we ALL need to be mindful of this) about the benefits of ditching the FOMO- fear of missing out – and starting to focus on JOMO – the joy of missing out. Instead of spending so much time online and thinking about how to best portray our lives through social media, let’s try to be more in the moment, actually enjoying the people and scenery that are right in front of us, and not a tiny version of them on a screen.  Being a good practitioner of this is easier said than done, but our teens are watching us and can spot a hypocrite five miles away.

6. Put this into context 

Remind your kids that throughout their entire lives, there will always be things going on that they are not a part of. If they can focus on being present and grateful for whatever they are engaging in, their lives will be that much more satisfying and joyful.


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About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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