Teenagers and technology: Answers to your top pandemic questions

  Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

“I think it’s probably fine for us to loosen up on our family screen time rules.”

It was day four of social isolation (you know, back when we thought we would be quarantined for a few weeks). I (Kara) could already see the toll levied by loneliness, boredom, and uncertainty on our three teenagers. So much—from friends to their normal fun—had been taken from them. Giving the gift of more autonomy when it came to screen time felt like the least we parents could do.

At dinner that night, my husband and I told our kids they were in charge of their screen time. We wanted our eleventh and eighth graders to still follow our normal protocol about watching new shows, which means asking us before they dive into a new series (we have already exempted our college freshman from that expectation).

We made it clear that we still expected them to engage in family time together—both planned and spontaneous.

And they needed to stay on top of their homework and chores.

But they no longer had to count minutes.

In the months since that dinner conversation, I’ve wondered if that was the right strategy. As with other pandemic parenting decisions, I’ve second-guessed myself, concerned that we’d let go of the reigns too much and too quickly.

As we navigate this unprecedented-but-becoming-more-familiar COVID-19 season, the Fuller Youth Institute has fielded a host of questions about technology from parents, stepparents, grandparents, and guardians.

How can I limit screen time when my kids have to stare at a screen so much for online school?

How do I stay on top of what my teenagers are watching when they stay up later than me and are becoming nocturnal?

Is more social media good or bad for my kids right now—and how do I know?

Does technology really make my kids feel less isolated, or does it make it worse?

To provide both research-based and practical answers to these questions, I (Tyler) did what I love to do: made myself a fresh cup of coffee and dove into academic and popular research. Sometimes I found actual data; other times I landed on prudent recommendations from thoughtful parents and scholars. Hopefully a blend of statistics and suggestions can provide better answers to the tough technology questions that come from your own mind and your teenagers’ lips.

Is it OK for families to loosen up on screen time rules during this season of social distancing?

To the delight of the three Powell children, a few months into the pandemic, our answer is still Yes.

From pediatricians to psychologists, experts agree the pandemic is increasing stress within families. They also agree that tightly limiting screen time doesn’t need to be another source of stress, guilt, or conflict.

Instead, experts advise making technology decisions that relieve stress, even if that means loosening your pre-quarantine restrictions. When parents are juggling work and childcare, and all family members are facing an unknown future, stress may decrease as screen time increases.

This isn’t to say screen time should be limitless. Balance screen time with time outdoors and with family. For younger teens in particular, we still recommend setting upper limits on how late they can be on tech at night, and keeping phones and other devices out of bedrooms overnight.

If not screen time, what should parents be monitoring?

Looking at the research, we believe the top answer can be described in one word: content.

More important than the quantity of time is the quality of the shows. Keep enforcing the content rules you had in place before COVID-19 based on the standards you hold for your family viewing. With streaming and video game services reporting increased web traffic since the pandemic, pay attention to any parental instincts that nudge you to ask a few more questions and do a bit more investigation. I (Kara) have always regularly checked what my kids are watching on our family Netflix account, and now that their time watching shows has increased, so has my monitoring.

We couldn’t find any clear data comparing online pornography usage before and during the quarantine, but we’d both be shocked if it hasn’t increased. If you haven’t talked with teenagers recently about what to do when (not if, but when) they accidentally or intentionally encounter nudity online or in social media, now’s the time.

I’ve heard social media can increase kids’ anxiety. Is that true?

It depends on the teenager, which means parents need to pay close attention to their own kid.

Teenagers themselves express mixed opinions about whether social media has a positive or negative effect on their generation. About three-in-ten (31%) say the effect on teenagers is mostly positive, 24% say it’s mostly negative, and 45% say it’s neither positive nor negative.

Forty percent of the young people who highlight social media’s positive effects think it helps them stay connected with friends and family. On the flipside, those young people who believe social media has negative effects are most likely to emphasize how it can be used for bullying and the spreading of rumors.

Every few weeks during quarantine, I (Kara) try to have a one-on-one talk with each of my kids, looking them in the eye and asking, “Really … How are you doing?” I usually follow up with something like: “I want you to know that you can tell me and your dad anything you’re feeling or thinking about. At any time.”

What’s a sign that kids are spending too much time online while social distancing?

Technology is a problem when it keeps kids from doing other important things—like schoolwork, chores, exercise, and sleep.

Or spending time with parents and siblings. If kids’ technology keeps them distant from key family and friends during social distancing, that’s too much technology. Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor for Common Sense Media, encourages a focus on our relationship with kids, not how much they’re consuming media. “As long as you’re having meaningful interactions with your kids throughout the day, it’s OK.”

Tweet: How much tech is too much—even during social distancing? Fuller Youth Institute looks at the research and shares practical advice.

For both of us, parenting often feels like improvisation. We’re constantly responding to the new questions, needs, and struggles that we see in, and hear from, our children. Just when we feel like we’ve gained the needed skills and knowledge, kids change and we have to build new parenting muscles.

The good news is that parenting is not meant to be a solo sport. We’re meant to live all of life, including parenting, in teams. Encourage the parents in your ministry to expand their team during this season of unprecedented parenting questions and decisions.  

Every Parent's Guide to Navigating our Digital World helps families think and talk differently about digital media, as you learn from inspiring and creative parents like you who navigate these ever-changing waters day after day. Approach this new connected world like a team and address your most pressing tech related dilemmas.


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