How Much Screen Time Is Healthy for a Teenager?
Teens are spending more time on their devices than ever before. Nearly half of children and teens are online more than six hours a day—an increase of 500 percent from 2019, according to a ParentsTogether survey. And, with each additional hour spent online, the risk of gaming disorder and social media addiction increases, along with the negative emotions associated with online interaction. Therefore, a parent’s ability to limit screen time for teens is essential.
Healthy device management focuses on helping teens to build a more balanced relationship with technology, including social media, gaming, or other types of device use. In order to establish these healthier habits, teens often need professional support to understand the benefits of limiting screen time, explore underlying issues prompting their behavior, and make changes that enhance their well-being and allow them to make more real-life connections.
When to Seek Help: Warning Signs of the Need to Limit Screen Time for Teens
How much screen time is healthy for a teenager? That depends on what behaviors they’re exhibiting both on and off their phones or other devices. It’s different for every teenager, and parents and professionals need to look at the teen as a whole to determine when device use is becoming a problem.
These eight warning signs indicate that a teenager may be experiencing gaming disorder, social media use, or other problematic struggles with their online engagement:
- Preoccupation with social media, video games, or other digital activities, along with a loss of interest in IRL activities they used to enjoy
- Withdrawal symptoms like irritability, sadness, and anxiety when deprived of devices or internet access
- Increased tolerance—a need and ability to spend more and more time online
- Inability to control the frequency and length of their time online, even when it’s creating problems in real life
- Lying to family members about the amount of time spent on gaming or other online activities
- Using technology to escape from, relieve, or self-medicate negative moods, such as grief, anxiety, or hopelessness
- Ignoring personal hygiene, nutrition, and other self-care behaviors as a result of tech use
- Losing a job or doing poorly in school due to device dependence.
For teens who exhibit these behaviors, the next step is to schedule an assessment with a qualified device-use behavioral expert, to determine whether device management treatment with the support of a professional is warranted.
Know the Facts
Increase in time spent online for teens from 2019 to 2020.
Teen boys and girls with internet gaming disorder.
How Technology Affects Teenagers’ Lives
A growing body of research is revealing how technology affects teenagers’ lives, including its impact on the body, mind, and nervous system. Here are some of those findings:
- Frequent use of social media is linked with increased depression, primarily as a result of social comparison as teens measure themselves against their peers’ highly curated self-representations.
- Young people with internet gaming disorder—by some counts, as many as 12 percent of teen boys and 7 percent of girls—have a higher prevalence of loneliness and psychological distress.
- According to the American Psychiatric Association, particular pathways in the brains of video gamers and frequent social media users react in the same way that the brain of an individual with substance use disorder reacts to a particular drug. Therefore, digital overuse can prime the brain for other addictions.
- Too much time online exacerbates existing psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
Because teenagers’ brains are not yet fully mature and their identity and self-image is still developing, they are more susceptible to these negative effects. That’s why limiting screen time for teens is so important.
Teens and Screens: What Is Gaming Disorder?
One of the most prevalent issues requiring device management is gaming disorder. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) globally recognized gaming disorder as a legitimate and diagnosable mental illness. WHO defines the disorder as a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by impaired control over gaming, to the extent that it takes precedence over other interests and activities despite negative life consequences.
Treatment for Teen Device Management Issues
The three primary factors in healthy device management for teens are 1) teaching teens the benefits of limiting screen time and helping them establish healthy screen and device-driven habits, 2) addressing the root causes of their screen and/or device mismanagement or overuse, and 3) identifying and treating any co-occurring issues, such as underlying depression or anxiety that may be driving screen overuse.
First, teens need to recognize that their use of digital technology may not be best serving their interests and goals, and then be willing to try creating new, healthier habits that take into consideration how much screen time is healthy for a teenager. In order for these new device management behaviors to take hold and prove sustainable, however, teens may also need to explore the emotions and experiences they may be (even unwittingly) avoiding by using their devices as a distraction.
This may entail working with a mental health professional to address the root causes of their device overuse, such as trauma, depression, ADHD, self-esteem struggles, or social anxiety. As with treatment for other recognized substance and process-based struggles, teen device management often requires identifying and healing the underlying issues, not just the symptoms.
Teens and Screens: What Is Good Digital Citizenship?
“Good digital citizenship” is another important part of healthy device management for teens. According to Dr. Don Grant, Newport’s National Advisor of Healthy Device Management, it means behaving online as you would IRL (in real life), with respectful and positive online interactions in social media, gaming, texting, online messaging, emails, etc.
Why is good digital citizenship important? For Dr. Grant, good digital citizenship is the most powerful enemy of cyberbullying, which is known to cause significant psychological distress for both victims and perpetrators.
5 Ways Parents Can Limit Screen Time for Teens
Here are five strategies parents can use to help teens develop healthier technology habits:
Lead by example
When parents model responsible technology use, teens are more likely to do the same. Healthy device management includes prioritizing real-life connections and experiences over online interaction.
Use technology together
Instead of letting teens withdraw into their devices, get involved in their world. Learn more about what your teen loves about Snapchat or TikTok, and, as much as possible, make online experiences something you can enjoy as a family.
Create house rules
Work with your teen to establish boundaries and routines that include unplugged time, such as during meals or before bed. Establish agreed-upon sessions for online time; for example, one hour of gaming a day, with clear start and end times.
Educate teens about the platforms they’re using
When teens understand that the apps they’re using are designed to keep them online, they may have more motivation to take back the control. Explain how artificial intelligence works to engage them and keep them scrolling in order to make tech companies more money.
Encourage young people to make other choices to fill their needs
Guide your teen to expand their awareness of their emotions and needs, and to recognize the triggers that send them to their devices. Then help them to develop a list of real-life activities that can fill those needs, whether that’s time with friends, physical activity, or talking with a parent or therapist about what they’re going through.
Device Management at Newport Academy: What to Expect
Like our treatment model for substance abuse, eating disorders, and other negative coping skills, our approach to healthy device management reveals and heals the root causes of these co-occurring disorders, guiding teens toward deeper self-awareness and freedom from old patterns.
Dr. Grant’s approach equips teens with the skills and self-knowledge to address the maladaptive behaviors, underlying causes, and negative consequences associated with problematic device use. His clinical model for healthy device management for teens involves the following steps:
1. A self-audit and professional assessment to understand how often teens use their devices and what they use them for, including developing awareness of how time spent on devices makes them feel—how screen time is affecting their mood and how anxious they feel when they’re away from their devices. The self-audit can also include an examination of their reasons for device use, and whether they are using time online to deflect painful emotions or avoid problems. Dr. Grant also does a complete comprehensive assessment with his patients as necessary, and invites parents to complete a “matching” assessment instrument, to glean a more comprehensive perspective of any potential device-driven issues.
2. Making a commitment to behavior change: When teens realize how much they are actually being controlled by their devices, and how bad that ultimately makes them feel, they are often more willing to commit to meaningful behavior change. As they observe their mood and well-being improving as their device engagement decreases, their motivation to continue these new habits will increase.
3. Creating a plan of action: This step involves determining how much screen time is healthy for a teenager and taking steps to limit screen time for teens. The plan could include turning off the phone during dinner and 90 minutes before bedtime, agreeing to a “digital detox” from some or all social media apps, or adding an application on their devices that limits their online/screen time. For teens significantly struggling with negative consequences of their internet gaming, a 90-day abstinence from all gaming, with the goal of resetting and normalizing their brain, may be recommended. As with all mental health treatment plans, the recommended strategies are individualized for each particular teen, in accordance with their specific habits, struggles, situation, and underlying issues.
4. Implementing a treatment strategy: The plan of action is translated into practice, and guided by a Healthy Device Management Partnership Agreement made between parents and teens. Ultimately, when young people begin to change their behaviors while simultaneously learning to better understand themselves and their motivations, their devices lose their power and become simply one of many tools for enhancing their lives and building authentic connection.
Sustainable Healing for Teens and Families
Teen device management is only one aspect of Newport’s whole-person approach to treatment. Our clinical model is designed to help teens reveal and heal the reasons behind self-destructive behaviors, whether that’s device/screen overuse, substance abuse, eating disorders, or other co-occurring disorders or process addictions. To guide teens and families to sustainable recovery, our comprehensive and integrated approach addresses the trauma and attachment wounds underlying these mental health conditions.
Individualized treatment plans at Newport include clinical modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Attachment-Based Family Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. In addition, experiential modalities such as Adventure Therapy, Equine-Assisted Therapy, and creative arts therapies give teens the opportunity to engage in offline self-expression and identity building, while nurturing IRL connections and collaboration.
Contact Us To Learn More
Newport Academy specializes in equipping teens with the skills and self-knowledge to address the maladaptive behaviors, underlying causes, and negative consequences associated with internet gaming, social media engagement, and other problematic device mismanagement and digital overuse.
Call us today at 888-489-1005 to learn more about our approach to healthy teen device management. We’re here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help teens and families find the path to recovery and a thriving future.