By Sandra Gordon
When 14-year-old Ellie Rosic does her homework, she says her phone is “crucial,” says her dad, Andy, an IT specialist in Vancouver, Washington. “But as I see it,” he adds, “2 percent of the time, Ellie is asking friends about homework, and 98 percent of the time she’s texting random emojis, checking Facebook and Pinterest, and taking Buzzfeed quizzes.” Ellie also has her iPad propped up next to her laptop to watch YouTube or stream music. “Homework takes three times as long because of the technology distraction,” Andy says.
He’s right. Although some teens would argue that their generation is just better at multitasking, and that getting “snaps” while reading World History helps them concentrate, don’t buy it.
“Multitasking makes you more distracted,” says Jodi Gold, M.D., author of Screen Smart Parenting and director of the Gold Center for Mind, Health and Wellness in New York. “When your brain switches back and forth, your ability to attend to and be efficient at both activities decreases. It’s more tiring for your brain, too.”
Still, “technology is here to stay, and we have to find a place for it,” says Katie Schumacher, author of Don’t Press Send: A Mindful Approach to Social Media. After all, FaceTiming or video chatting with someone while doing your homework together can be productive. But the challenge then becomes not getting on social media or YouTube.
What can you do to help your teen stay on task? Here are some smart steps to get the job done.
Delegate the device policing.
Parental control apps limit screen time so teens can get their homework done distraction-free. “We installed OurPact on our teens’ phones because it will shut down access to social media and apps during homework time,” says Amy Carney, mom to 15-year-old triplet sons Kade, Aidan, and Cole, a 14-year-old daughter, Morgan, and a 10-year-old son, Phoenix, in Paradise Valley, Arizona. “We don’t always have the schedule turned on, but we’ll do so if we see our teens trying to juggle homework and socializing online,” Carney says.
An even better idea? Don’t be the middleman. “One of the biggest challenges in parenting today is helping teens to self-regulate,” says Dr. Gold. “The truth is, teens are growing up in a world where they’re going to have to deal with the distraction of technology. They have to learn how to modulate it.”
When you are using technology-blocking apps such as OurPact or Forcefield, Dr. Gold recommends talking to your teens about the myth of multitasking and suggesting that they learn how to use these apps to block themselves from their most distracting sites for certain amounts of time during homework sessions.
Create some distance.
In lieu of technology-blocking apps, teach your teens to get into the habit of putting their phones in another room while they’re doing their homework. Distancing them from their phone creates a physical barrier that minimizes tech temptation and can help them move away from multitasking. “Often, teens will say, ‘Fine. I’ll just finish this before I go and check my phone,’” Dr. Gold says. Keep your distance, too. “Don’t say your teens aren’t allowed to check their phones.” Let them, if they want to—guiding them to set their own limits may be more effective than your limits.
Take device breaks.
While your teen’s phone is in another room or a technology blocking app is on, encourage them to set a timer. When the timer goes off after 20, 30, or 45 minutes of homework, they can take a 10-minute Snapchat break. “Studying for small amounts of time but with more focus and taking breaks maximizes efficiency and helps teach time management,” Dr. Gold says. A device break can also boost motivation when it becomes a reward for accomplishing specific tasks.
Whatever the method, it’s an important life skill for teens to learn how to manage the distractions that technology can present. As most of us grownups know, this isn’t exclusively a teen problem—but the teenage years are a great time to build good tech habits.
Sandra Gordon is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Your Teen.