Teenagers and technology: Answers to your top pandemic questions

Tyler Greenway, PhD Image Tyler Greenway, PhD Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Jun 25, 2020

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.

Tyler Greenway, PhD Image
Tyler Greenway, PhD

Dr. Tyler Greenway is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Calvin University. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Psychological Science from Fuller Theological Seminary, an MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary, and a B.A. in Psychology from Calvin University. Dr. Greenway’s work focuses on the psychology of religion, character and virtue development, the integration of psychology and theology, and the application of psychology in religious contexts. Before joining Calvin, Dr. Greenway also served as an Associate Research Scientist in the Science of Virtues Lab at Baylor University.

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Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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