How to navigate screen time and social anxiety in teens

While millennials were certainly the first to grow up with technology, current teenagers have it practically coursing through their veins. 

They didn’t grow up as social media was testing its legs – they grew up when social media was fully fledged and sleekly designed to hook them in. Being in front of a screen is not necessarily a bad thing (we’d be one to talk), but there are potential negative impacts that can occur with far too much of it. 

But how can parents of today help their young ones to better balance their screen time? 

For that, we asked Julia Sawyer. Julia Sawyer is a Registered Clinical Psychologist (PgDipClinPsych – MNZCCP), and has a successful podcast called ‘The Sh*t Series Podcast’. 

With her expert input, let’s take a closer look at just how today’s digital society is impacting the next generation. 

Impact of technology usage on adolescent well-being

Sawyer begins by highlighting that not all screen time is a bad thing. 

“Screen time is not an inherently bad thing for teens - and there are different types of screen time which will have different effects. For example, if your teen is gaming online with a number of his friends talking and laughing, this is very different to your child scrolling Instagram accounts about body image for hours,” she explains. 

“However, despite these differences, an overarching reality is that our brains have not been designed for screens – they have been designed for physical activity in the outdoors with others. If screen time cuts out any of these elements, we can expect detrimental mental health effects.”

Essentially, if teens are inside mindlessly scrolling Instagram instead of also making time for socialising and spending time outdoors, it can have negative effects. 

Sawyer’s warnings are echoed across the current scientific understanding of teens and too much screen time. 

In a University of Auckland study on screen time, researchers noted that “excessive internet (or social media activity) combined with addictive, impulsive and/or compulsive elements that interfere with daily functioning is termed problematic internet use. It is associated with impaired cognitive development in areas relating to attention, memory and decision-making.” 

The study went on to note the links found between problematic internet use and anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance.

However as both Sawyer and the University of Auckland paper emphasise not all time spent online is negative. 

How many hours of screen time per day is ok?

One of the key points in the study was that social media and online communities did have a positive role to play for youth. 

“Social media has become a normative part of building relationships, forging connections, and staying in touch. Sharing comments, messages, and ‘likes’ is associated with boosted self-esteem, better-perceived closeness, reduced stress, less loneliness, and a more positive mood,” explained the study.

Which begs the question, where is the Goldilocks zone? How much screen time is a good amount before it risks becoming dangerous? 

There is no hard and fast rule about how much is too much, but the Ministry of Health recommends no more than two hours per day for children and teenagers (5 to 17 years). 

Keep in mind that two hours does not include time spent studying, doing homework or even taking an online fitness class with a friend. Those two ‘recreational’ hours can be anything from games to social media to watching their favourite YouTube channels. 

Two hours certainly seems like plenty of time to stare at a screen, but actually putting that into practice might be a challenge.  

How to encourage minimised screen time

Fortunately, Sawyer has some expert advice in this area. 

“Teens love autonomy so give them choice! For example, give your teen a fixed amount of screen time that they can use in whichever way they choose,” she suggests. 

That tip could certainly be helpful in encouraging them to prioritise their time. It might mean spending more time catching up with friends and less time scrolling images that could lead to social anxiety. 

In terms of actually measuring that time, Sawyer suggests using a timer. Another tool you might be able to use is their own phones. 

But all the clever apps and tools in the world might not do much if your teen doesn’t understand why you want to limit their time online, and if you don’t understand what they’re doing. That’s why Sawyer recommends communicating your goals and learning about what they’re up to. 

“Educate them about their brains and what they need,” she suggests. In the same way you tell them they should eat broccoli because it’s good for their physical health, teach them about why putting the screen away and getting outside is good for their mental health. 

Also, “be aware of what they are doing on their screens so that you can understand the importance it has for them and validate this. For example, try not to ask a teen to abandon his friends in the middle of an online battle but wait until the battle is over. Or offer to help your daughter arrange a sleepover rather than have her message her friends constantly.”

Finally, one of the most powerful tools you have is simply to set an example

“Having carved out non-screen time where the whole family places their phones down and does something else can be helpful (why should they do something when their parents aren't prepared to?),” she suggests. 

Whether you spend that time playing board games together or relaxing separately with a book is irrelevant. Simply getting into the habit of putting the phones away for a time at least once per day could offer a refreshing window of tech-free time. 

When you are back online, you can take a moment to request a quote for life insurance. It falls firmly into the adulting category as you take the first step towards setting up a plan B for the worst case scenario, so it probably won’t eat into your recreational time online (save that for learning the latest teen lingo).