Someone in The Homeschool Sanity Circle group on Facebook asked about phones and screen time for teens. After I shared my experience, I was asked if I could share more. I foolishly agreed!
First, I’m not perfect.
So, if you’re looking for someone who has an A+ rating in this area to give advice, someone who can guarantee good results for your kids, stop reading now and look for another expert. My kids and I will severely disappoint you. Meanwhile, anything we have done well has not been our doing but is by the grace of God.
Acknowledge that screen time is a challenge.
The first step, I think, is to acknowledge what a great challenge screen time is for most people. There are certainly people who successfully set themselves apart and have allowed few screens into their lives. In many respects I envy them, but I also see many positive ways the Lord has used screens in my family. One reason screens are such a dilemma in my opinion is their power to be used for the Gospel–making them a favorite tool of the enemy.
We recently watched the documentary The Social Dilemma, which explains how social media takes advantage of human psychology to increase usage. Although this particular documentary didn’t mention other mediums, we know that game developers and media companies like Netflix use similar strategies to keep people engaged, even when they have good reason not to be.
Unfortunately, simply being told how screen purveyors use tricks to suck you in isn’t enough to stop a compulsion. But explaining this to our kids at least helps them see that the deck is stacked against them. Maintaining healthy screen boundaries requires concerted and consistent effort. And it’s harder for some kids than others.
Develop teens’ social skills.
In an article I wrote on alternatives to video games, I mentioned research that connects poor social skills to screen time addiction. If you have a teen who struggles to make friends, developing social skills is a top priority.
The best way I found to help my kids develop social skills is to have them involved in a home-based co-op. A few families did classes together once a week in our home for years. As a result, my kids had the opportunity to develop close friendships that have continued into adulthood. But the parents were also there to work through conflicts and take advantage of teaching moments.
Classes in larger learning centers have not had the same results for us. Kids tend to form cliques just as they do in school. It’s difficult for kids to make friends unless they spend a lot of time on campus. Parents generally aren’t there to supervise. Instead, learning center teachers and administrators set and enforce the rules and make judgements about who is at fault. And yes, I am speaking from experience.
Participating in a homeschool P.E. class was another excellent way of building social skills for our teens. Friendships and conflicts both developed, and again parents were there to supervise and take advantage of teaching moments. A dad from the class, whom we knew, called my husband and explained that our son was bullying his son. I told you my family isn’t perfect! We addressed the matter with our son and the problem was solved. This kind of resolution is less likely in a large learning center.
Having our kids work outside jobs has been another fantastic social skill builder. Kids will be exposed to others who don’t share your family’s values, but this can be eye opening for them. They learn how to work with difficult people. And working outside jobs also teaches responsibility. For example, they learn not to stay up late using screens when they have to be at work early.
Why I don’t use tech tools to limit my teens’ screen time
Developing social skills in our homeschool has been more important than strategies to limit screen time or inappropriate content. Earlier on in my homeschooling, I tried many website and screen blockers for computers and kids’ devices. When the program became a nightmare to use, I would search for something that was simple. Invariably I would read a review of how the kids could circumvent the new system I was considering. That’s when I realized something: I didn’t want to keep trying to outsmart my kids’ use of devices when the real issue was their poor boundaries.
This is where I depart from homeschoolers who desire to keep all teen screen use under control. I am not saying that this approach never succeeds. I have seen families who make it work. But these are the reasons I have stopped controlling teen screen time in a Stalinist manner:
First, this approach backfires with many strong-willed kids. I have some of those. I didn’t want to risk removing the power of relationship to influence my kids. I have seen some strong-willed kids go into full rebellion over this issue of screens and I didn’t want that.
Second, this approach puts the responsibility on me as parent instead of on my kids. I knew that without tech solutions and controls from me that my kids would struggle with screen time, and they have. But if I keep them from every struggle, how will they ever learn to seek God? Believe me, I don’t want my kids to experience any of the horrors associated with screen time. But an even greater horror to me is that my kids would leave my home thinking that they don’t need God.
Third, my kids will be making independent choices soon. My kids go to college out of town and I have no idea how late they’re using screens or what kinds of sites they’re visiting. I want them to have my help managing screens and handling consequences of poor decisions before they leave home.
What I do to guide and protect my teens’ screen time
You may be curious then about what I do to guide and protect my kids with screen time.
The first principle I rely on is coaching. When our kids became teens, we took on more of a coaching than an authoritarian role. Reb Bradly has some excellent parenting videos on this changing role. Rather than switching off the Internet at night, we have asked our teens who struggle with going to bed early what an appropriate bedtime is for his work and life. We have pointed out the problems with staying up all hours playing games and even doing homework. We have made our case for an earlier time and have negotiated a reasonable time.
Coaching has included having our kids watch documentaries on the risks of excessive screen time and inappropriate use of social media. It has also included discussions of God’s Word with respect to sexuality and the dangers of pornography.
Excellent coaching includes if-then questions. For example, “If you miss work because you stayed up late watching a movie, what will you do? If you stumble on to a pornographic site, what will you do? If someone messages you something inappropriate, what will you do? What have you done?” These kinds of questions can help you guage the maturity of your teen.
The second principle I rely on is safety in numbers. I have six kids who still play games together, though one son lives on his own and two are in college. My kids know what the others are up to, frequently call them out on it, and sometimes tattle on them. In addition, they connect with friends whose parents I know well. Several times I have been alerted to a problem that another parent has discovered and vice versa. I don’t feel comfortable having a teen spend time online without friends or family members being there for safety. That hasn’t been an issue in our family but if it were, I would make having a friend participate a rule.
The third principle I rely on is intervention. Rather than trying to prevent our teens from making mistakes, we intervene when we discover bad judgment and poor boundaries. When there is evidence of poor choices, we have reviewed our teens’ posts and usage. We have had our kids delete posts and write formal apologies for things they have shared. We have taken devices away for short periods and enforced earlier bedtimes. We follow up intervention with more coaching on how to make better choices.
I see a lot of discussion on what age is appropriate for a teen to have a phone and which kinds of phones and games are appropriate. I don’t think details on what we do will be useful because some of you will think we’re too stringent and others will think we are too lax. My advice is to consider your children as individuals. I have kids who were mature enough at 13 to handle having a phone and others who had struggles at 18. I also think we have to consider each teen’s motivation for using screens. For example, I had a child who felt entitled to a phone. That child didn’t get one until the attitude and motivation changed. I had another who benefited from the humility of having to borrow phones until he was an older teen.
If you are disappointed that I didn’t tell you which types of screens your teen should have at certain ages and for how long, and that I didn’t give you a list of tech solutions to keep their screen time under control, I am sorry. If you feel strongly that these kinds of controls are what you need, I will provide some resources below. I don’t know your kids and your circumstances, and I am in no position to judge another family’s choices on screen time.
But if that’s not your situation, I hope that I have given you some encouragement. I am much more relaxed now that I know the primary responsibility for screen usage and management is my teen’s. I believe it is our job to train them up in the way they should go rather than making sure that’s the way they go.