Bored Teens and Social Media: How to Help Your Kids Find a “Sweet Spot” of Screen Time this Summer

Now that I’m raising teenagers, I frequently looking back at my own years spent rolling my eyes at my mom and compare how much easier it seemed to parent teens in the 1980s.  From a simpler and relaxed college application process, to far less academic pressure in high school, I feel like our parents had a much easier and less complicated transition into adulthood with us – particularly as it all happened without social media.

If there’s one stick in my craw that’s relentlessly twisted over and over again regarding parenting, it’s the difficulty of raising teens in our social media digital world. Think back to your summers in the 80s. You probably had a part-time job in a shopping mall, movie theatre, or frozen yogurt place, and when you weren’t working, you were probably hanging out with your friends at the shopping mall, movie theatre, or frozen yogurt place.

teen on phone
Bored teens and too much screen time can be a toxic combination. (Twenty20 @JJFarquitectos)

Your unsupervised free time was spent actually hanging out with your friends, or cruising around town looking for your next hangout spot. And while at-risk behaviors did take place (we were by no means angels), somehow they seemed like the normal, developmental “not good stuff” that teens just did.

During the summer we have the same potential threat for our teenagers to engage in risky behaviors. Yet now we have an additional threat that those behaviors are caught on a smartphone camera, and spread over a variety of social media accounts, potentially ruining a teen’s entire future.

More tech use during bored summer days brings about an entirely new set of at-risk behaviors that involve the overuse and misuse of smartphones, the internet, popular teen social apps like Instagram and Snapchat, as well as an increased risk for cyberbullying, pornography consumption, and peer online shaming, just to name a few. As fewer of today’s teens are working summer jobs, more are left home, bored, with free reign of their devices, and the potential dangerous online behaviors.

But the solution is not what you think. As much as we’d like not to admit it, most of our teens actually need social media in their lives, because for them it’s their normal (and honestly, ONLY) way of socializing. Taking it all away, or restricting its use too much because you fear the negative aspects of it, and you could end up spending your summer fending off resentment and anger from your teens, but allowing unlimited use is not the way to go either.

Diane Graber is a co-founder of Cyberwise, a resource site for parents who want to help youth use digital media safely and wisely. She is also the author of the newly released book, Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology, and she offers some advice on how to maintain a healthy social monitoring system with your teens during this especially vulnerable time of year.

In her book, Graber notes that although there are research studies that show a correlation between high levels of depression and anxiety and high levels of screen time, some of the same data reveals that the happiest teens are those who spend a small amount of time on electronic communication activities, not those who spend no time. She states, “Reducing screen time, not eliminating it, seems to be the best recipe for happy teens, and is a more realistic goal.”

During the summer, when teens have much more free time to use devices (and they’re experiencing plenty of FOMO- fear of missing out on all the cool summer vacay things their friends are doing) parents and teens need to work together to find what Graber states researchers are calling the “sweet spot” of screen time use.

She notes that studies reveal that screen time may benefit teens’ well-being by providing opportunities to develop social connections and skills. Teen’s well-being increases as teen screen time increases, but only up to a certain point. After that point, increased screen time is associated with decreased well-being.

The “sweet spot” amount of screen time during the school year may be different than what it is during the summer, and that’s ok, as long as parents and teens work together to find what amount of time appears to be beneficial during the summer months. But they also need to learn how to recognize when they’re just starring into screens for way too long, and when their phone use becomes a detrimental crutch to actually experiencing summer in real life and with real people.

Our kids only have 18 summers, right? I, for one, don’t want these last few summers at home with my teens to be spent with them looking into their phones, and not at the world. The beach is calling, and guess what? It actually is possible to go and not even take a picture of it!

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About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

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