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Having Too Much Screen Time Taught Our Teens How to Self-Regulate

Years ago, as our six-year-olds zipped around the soccer field toe-poking the ball, I stood chatting with another parent. We talked about the importance of getting outside and nurturing healthy habits so that our kids could interact with life.

A few middle school siblings sat at the fringes of the field, faces bowed toward their phones, seemingly unable to self-regulate. We shook our heads, vowing to delay the introduction of cell phones until it was absolutely necessary. We acted as though we had the correct parenting playbook, certain about what evils to avoid and how to raise thoughtful, engaged children. I don’t know if I actually believed what I said at the time. Rather, I was trying to convince myself—as I checked the score of the Phillies game on my phone—that I knew exactly at what age it would be appropriate for my kids to own a cell phone, to go on a date, to stay out past dark. Oh, the ignorance.

At the time, my kids were in kindergarten and preschool. I had no experience raising a teenager, I only had my own memories of fighting for independence: me versus Mom and Dad. Having taught middle schoolers, I should have known that every child is unique. Some 13-year-olds are ready for cell phones while others are not. But, these were my kids, and I had a clear vision of how things should go.

Fast forward a few years, and my 7th grade son was on the middle school soccer team. Because the team would be traveling for away games, my wife and I felt it would be reasonable for him to have a cell phone—should he need to contact us. The following year, our daughter was in the same boat, so by 7th grade, both kids had their own cell phones.

Our kids were responsible about taking care of school work, doing their chores, and being honest. But our son became overly attached to his cell phone and had trouble putting it down. The games and YouTube videos were more alluring than any interest he might have had in reading a book or going for a hike. He didn’t know how to self-regulate. We decided to limit his screen time. It became a constant battle, arguing over how many minutes he’d been playing a game versus talking to his friends.

On the other hand, my daughter was not as interested in the phone. Her screen time didn’t really become a problem until she was in 9th grade and discovered TikTok. Then she started spending too much time on the couch with her phone. It was time to make some new parenting decisions regarding screens.

Choosing Screens Over People

Growing up, I had friends whose parents restricted everything: video games, parties, dating. When my friends left for college, they went wild, emboldened by their new freedom. Realizing that being too strict could backfire on us, my wife and I chose not to impose that kind of control on our kids. We wanted them to learn how to self-regulate. But it was still tough to watch them choose screens over people.

We decided not to nag but rather to occasionally, and calmly, share our concerns—and then let them choose. As long as they were taking care of their responsibilities and parking their phone at the charging station before bed (no phones in the bedroom when going to sleep has always been a strict rule), we would let it play out. We hoped that the fixation would run its course.

Learning How to Self-Regulate

My son is now a rising 11th grader, my daughter a rising 10th grader. This summer, they’ve each turned a corner and are showing signs of self-regulation with their screens. First, my daughter deleted TikTok from her phone. She announced that she got tired of scrolling through videos and she didn’t want it any more. A few weeks later, she started asking about getting a flip phone. “My friend and I realized we have more fun on days when we aren’t on our phones so much. We still want to be able to text, but I don’t want all of the other distractions.”

My son made no such announcement, but he’s been out of the house more than usual. He takes the initiative to organize soccer games with his friends and he’s started his first job. The way he uses his phone has changed, all signs that he’s learned how to self-regulate. He no longer panics when it’s not in his pocket. There are quicker checks to see who’s messaged him, and less of the constant scrolling.

Over time, my children have learned to use their screens in ways that enhance their lives rather than monopolize their time. And, along the way, I’ve learned there is no one-size-fits-all parenting playbook that works for every kid and every situation. My teens didn’t suddenly become disciplined cell phone users, but allowing them to experience screen overload has made them better prepared to make healthy choices about their screen usage. And that’s really what we want as parents—to support and encourage our children so that they learn to make their own informed decisions.

David Rockower

David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, and is a regular columnist in State College Magazine. With a sports-obsessed 16-year-old son, a spirited 15-year-old daughter, and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, he has a lot to write about. Twitter: @dgrock

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