Health & Science

Experts Share Screen Time Trouble Signs To Look For In Your Teen

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Experts on digital media and child development have been holding weekly webinars focused on kids and screen time during the quarantine. The series, hosted by the nonprofit institution Children and Screens, has previously covered the topic in regards to children from early childhood through eighth grade. This week’s third and final installment of the Children and Screens webinar series focused on adolescents.

The panel of experts set the stage for the current state of teens and tech with some disturbing data from before the coronavirus pandemic even began. As Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University explained, the current generation of kids is the first to spend their entire lives in the age of smartphones and devices. 

She also pointed out that teens’ time online has more than doubled over the past decade. Alongside this surge in tech use among adolescents has come an increase in occurrences of sleep deprivation, anxiety, self harm, and suicide, and a decrease in real-life social interaction. 

What does this mean for young people in quarantine who are now schooling, socializing, and entertaining themselves almost entirely on screens? Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids – And How to Break the Trance, explained how the hyperarousal caused by excessive screen use can lead to the “dysregulation effect,” otherwise known as Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). Hours of intense stimulation from screens can make young people feel “wired and tired,” where they are physically exhausted but can’t calm themselves down.

Kardaras urges parents to look out for the signs of ESS in their teens. ESS can show up differently in different people,  but the syndrome often looks like ADHD along with moodiness and aggressive behavior. It can also have symptoms that are harder to spot, especially among teens who generally spend more time on their own. The experts all agree that parents who notice any new behaviors in their kids after upping their screen time should closely monitor them going forward.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Tracy Asamoah, another expert on the webinar’s panel, encouraged a holistic view of tech use in the household. She explained that a family’s “digital ecosystem” is created by everyone in the home, so everyone has their part to play in fostering a healthy relationship with screens. Start by modelling good tech habits and taking a collaborative approach with teens in crafting the screen time guidelines at home. She suggests regular family meetings to keep the communication flowing.

If parents are worried about their teenager’s digital device use during quarantine, the experts recommend watching out for the following signs of problematic screen time:

  • Social isolation
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Sleep disruption
  • Poor performance in school
  • Major difficulty disengaging from their devices
  • Headaches
  • Problems focusing

If your teen is exhibiting any of these signs, or any symptoms of ESS, the panel provided the following suggestions for parents and caregivers:

  • No more than 2-3 hours a day of leisure time on screens.
  • Be proactive in engaging your teenager in off-screen activities.
  • Be a good digital media role model.
  • Monitor when, what, and how they’re viewing on their devices.

And finally—the one piece of advice that experts recommend across the board for all ages (yes, even parents): No screens in the bedroom! This is so important to prevent sleep disruption which can cause or exacerbate many of the other symptoms of screen addiction or problematic tech habits. 

Parents can rest assured, though, that their children are fully capable of bouncing back after an extended period of excessive screen time. Teens’ brains are resilient and capable of learning new habits quickly and easily. Model the tech behaviors you wish to see in your kids and you may start seeing positive results in no time. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.