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Teens and Screens: The Social, the Scary, and the Sedentary

This winter my teen and tween have spent more time than I’d like slouched over their screens, and less time than I’d like moving around outdoors.

After a week of surly, slovenly and sedentary behavior last week, I finally buckled down and “mastered” the parental controls on several of their favorite screens, setting curfews and time limits. I have no patience for technology and reading instructions, but it was time to suck it up and learn how to be Big Brother. Or in this case, Big Momma.

It took several hours over two days and in the end my fourteen year old had to help me set the controls on his PC. It was kind of like asking the criminal to help open the jail cell, but I was desperate. He was remarkably good natured about it, maybe because he thinks he’s smart enough to override it. Its scary how technically proficient our kids are.

The limitations I’ve set in the past have been more informal and piecemeal. I take their phones at bedtime on school nights, but sometimes I forget. And I make them go outside on nice weekend days, but sometimes I’ll be too busy doing my own thing to do this kind of policing.

My kids have a lot of devices – PC’s, tablets, and smartphones. India’s device of choice is her iphone, with social media being the main attraction. For Austin, its gaming on his PC with friends.

Notice the previous sentence contains the words “social” and “friends.” The kids know that I think being social is part of being healthy, and their argument to me is that much of this screen time is actually social time. Whether I agree with it or not, or like it or not, a lot of middle school socializing is done via social media. And for boys especially, gaming in groups.

I don’t want to exclude them from their virtual social circles simply because I still favor the old-school definition of what it means to be social.  But I do want to encourage them to see friends the old-fashioned way.

And I’ve been upfront with them that the long-term lesson I’m trying to teach is balance. I’ve explained to them that if I see them balancing their screen time with homework, active time – especially outdoors – reading, in-person socializing and other activities, I won’t feel the need to set specific limits on their screens.

What I’m hoping for, of course, is that they’ll come to appreciate balance, too, and learn to self-regulate someday. Until then, I’m imposing that balance on them.

I’m also hoping they’ll spend some of that time they’re not on their screens doing something active – or at least less sedentary. Few of us would be surprised that researchers have found associations with screen time and weight in adolescents, which the Harvard School of Public Health sums up nicely here.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that adolescents get sixty minutes of physical activity per day, and sometimes, we don’t achieve this. We are not alone – the CDC’s latest behavioral surveillance has revealed that only 11% of high school girls and 24% of high school boys are regularly getting that sixty minutes.

Parents certainly have a big role to play in achieving this important health goal. Limiting sedentary screen time is a help, but the fact that they’re not on their screens does not automatically mean that they are going to spend that extra time outside. Encouraging and enabling kids to be active is another part of the equation. My kids are not naturally inclined to be super active (I’m trying really hard to put it nicely, how did I do?), so I do a lot to support them in finding sports and other activities they like, not the least of which is foot the bill and drive them there.

My kids are lucky in this regard. Because of time, financial and logistical restraints – or because they are simply not inclined to – not all families are going to be able to be proactive in getting kids to step away from the screen and into the park.

We parents who are thinking about this tough issue in our own families can do things to help other kids in our schools and communities too. A couple of years ago, I tried to start a walk to school group. It didn’t catch on, but many can and do – you can check out the National Center for Safe Routes to School for help with that. We can be a voice in our schools for more PE, or even just walking breaks. We can support our communities in building parks, playing fields, and affordable recreation options. We can provide a ride to soccer practice for a child whose parents whose schedules don’t allow them to get them there. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Voices for Healthy Kids, and the YMCA all have campaigns supporting active after school time for kids and teens.


How do you feel about screen time limits for kids? What do you think we need to do to help adolescents and teens be more active? 



  1. I do not envy at all the parents of tweens right now who are the first to deal with all this technology. I wonder sometimes what things will be like when my little ones are there and how I will limit it. Right now I only have to think about TV time, which I limit to two shows a day. My almost 4-year-old can choose to use the iPad instead of a show at the designated TV times. I held out as long as possible introducing him to the TV, but we definitely didn’t wait all the way until he was 2.

    Now my 16-month-old has been exposed to TV since she was born because of her older brother, but she doesn’t care about it at all. Only recently has she even started looking at the screen for more than 2 seconds at a time (maybe a minute, if that) and I’m glad for that.

  2. In high school the kids use their computers so much during the day at school and then for homework at night. I don’t really like it, but that is the way the school is set up. I do require that they be outside, either walking the dog or active in a sport to get rid of some of that electronic energy.

  3. This is a tough one, especially as the kids move into high school and are given a lot of homework. If your kids are academically minded, and also involved in activities and volunteering, etc, they often don’t have 60 minutes a day. One of the ways I’ve tried is simply by setting a good example. Talking about what exercise I’m going to be doing today, inviting the girls to do yoga with me on a Saturday morning, and just trying to show you don’t have to be a jock (or even like team sports) to be fit. But I admit that it has been a struggle. Limiting screen time gets hard as well, since their computers are their primary vehicle for doing schoolwork… they need wifi to access teacher websites and now to turn in papers. I think we are all still figuring this out…

  4. I struggle with the same issues with my kids. Although they are active, I also think they spend too much time with their electronics. It’s such a tough balance! Our local elementary schools do have their Walk To School weeks, and that is one positive of where we live — many of the schools are within walking distance so a lot of the kids are in the habit of walking to/from school year-round.