Talking Tech With Teens

If you’re the parent of a teenager, chances are you’re aware of how often they are on their phones. A 2019 Common Sense Media study found that teens between the ages of 13 and 18 spent over seven hours a day using screens on average, and a 2020 Pew Research Center study showed that 95% of teens ages 13–17 have access to a smartphone.

While the conversation around screen time has been happening for years, it was brought into the spotlight again with a September 2021 congressional hearing focusing on Meta (formerly Facebook). A former Facebook product manager and whistleblower exposed internal documents that showed, among other findings, that 1 in 5 teens say Instagram (which is owned by Meta) makes them feel worse about themselves. 

While more research needs to be done about the direct connection between increased online activity and mental health problems—Molly Schiffer, LCPC, Therapist at The Center for OCD and Anxiety at Sheppard Pratt calls it a “chicken or egg” question—it is clear that being constantly online has an impact on teens’ mental health. 

“If you’re getting all of your connection online, you’re not having a lot of personal closeness and intimacy with others,” says Schiffer. “It can create loneliness and isolation, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Teenagers without a foundation of in-person interaction will have difficulties navigating life—creating dialogues, solving problems, thinking critically. They can enter the workforce and relationships in their adult life missing basic skills, which leaves them more prone to stress and anxiety.” 

While this may sound scary, there are actions parents can take to help their children use social media and the internet in a healthy way. Here are a few suggestions from Schiffer to improve your teenager’s relationship with the internet—and with you! 

Be a Model

Schiffer’s biggest tip is not an easy one: You need to model the behavior you want to see in your teenager. “The truth is parents are also on their phones,” says Schiffer. “Having a healthy relationship with technology is about finding balance, and the No. 1 way to do that is through modeling good behavior. If you want your son or daughter to be open to dialogue, you also need to make yourself available by not being on your phone.” 

Your kids are watching your behavior, so when you’re engrossed in your phone sending emails or checking social media, they’re learning. “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t work in this situation.  

Start the Conversation

In addition to modeling appropriate behaviors for your children, you should talk to them about those behaviors and what they’re experiencing online. Your children might see what they do online as separate from you or something that is private. However, if you have honest conversations with them from the beginning of their experience online, they will view opening up as normal. 

“It’s an ongoing conversation that should start when you first give your child a phone,” says Schiffer. “You can say, ‘This is a tool and something that can be a really good resource, but it’s also something that can get you into trouble.’” 

When you’re having this discussion, be specific. Schiffer recommends sharing your own experiences with social media and smartphones. “You can say, ‘It’s really easy, even for me, to start clicking and liking and sharing and becoming too involved with what’s happening online.’ Your kids are learning what your values are and how you operate.”

Schiffer notes that not having these types of discussions with your children can lead to issues down the road. Not only does a lack of quality family discussion leave them with weaker interpersonal skills, but it also means that when something goes wrong, they will be less likely to seek your help. “You want to build a dynamic where they feel comfortable coming to you, rather than seeking help online,” says Schiffer. 

Navigate Together

Another important aspect of having an ongoing conversation with your children about social media and technology is discussing the content they see online. When teenagers are left to their own devices, they will find all kinds of positive and negative content—from cat videos to potentially dangerous diet advice, or worse. 

“Sometimes parents feel like the issue is bigger than them, and we just have to surrender to the fact that kids are going to be taught by their phones,” says Schiffer. “While we can’t stop technology from impacting our kids’ lives in positive and negative ways, we can affect the impact.” 

When it comes to discussing specific content and experiences your children have online, Schiffer emphasizes the importance of building trust. How you do that can be complicated, however, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Schiffer tends to recommend that parents have their children’s phone passwords, but she doesn’t endorse constant monitoring. “You can say that you need to know their password just in case you need to get into their phone for an emergency, but you won’t scan messages or apps if there is no reason to be concerned,” she says. “Again, it comes back to modeling appropriate behavior. We need to teach kids that we believe they can act responsibly, and that builds trust.” 

The online landscape is a difficult one to navigate for parents and teenagers. There isn’t one way to approach the conversation that will suit every family. However, the most important action to take is to start the conversation. Even if it begins slowly, building a healthy relationship with your teen and their technology use will give them a strong foundation for creating successful relationships in the future.

Featured Expert

  • Molly Schiffer, LCPC

    Associate Director, The Center for OCD and Anxiety
    Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)