Survival guide for parents of screen-addicted teens

The holidays are about family time and togetherness, but how do you ensure your teenagers are present this Christmas and not AWOL on their screens, asks Helen O’Callaghan.

The holidays are here and you’re hoping the festive period will bring relaxation, togetherness and lots of opportunities for family connection. But with your teenagers addicted to screens, how do you ensure they’re actually present and not AWOL on their devices?

I’m adamant screens won’t rule this Christmas. How do I tell my teens? And how do I tackle the inevitable rows?

Intention: Be clear – and hold your ground

Ideally, you’ll already have told your teenager. If not, do it right away. Whenever possible, it’s more effective and respectful to prepare someone for change, says parent educator and author of Calmer Easier Happier Screen Time Noël Janis-Norton. “Reducing electronics is a very big change – most teens are dependent on their screens. Preparation reduces anxiety and anger.”

She says both parents need to present a united front. “If there’s any wiggle room or inconsistency, teens will sniff it out – this will undermine respect for the new rule.”

New York-based psychotherapist and author of The Power of Off. 

Nancy Colier agrees that parents must get their thinking clear because teens excel at punching holes in arguments. She urges parents to give their communication – about decision to reduce screen-time – the importance it deserves. “You need to mythologise this. You’re beginning a new ritual. You’re setting an intention – at this time of year, we step away from our distractions to be together, to celebrate what’s deeply meaningful to us.”

She recommends talking about why this matters for the family – we’ll have a richer, deeper experience; we’ll feel more connected. “Parenting in a digital age means being fierce, really knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. Yes, the pushback is going to be extreme – but you have to be ready, knowing you’re very clear about why this is important.”

Janis-Norton says let your teen voice their displeasure. “Understand and accept they’ll be upset. Don’t take it personally. Don’t argue back. Don’t try to convince them it won’t be so bad – it won’t, but they’re not feeling that at this moment. When there’s a pause, parents should reflectively listen. But don’t be swayed.”

Above all, she says, come prepared and strong to this screen boundary-setting meeting. “Teens can come up with very good arguments and justifications. If you’re not clear, you’ll think ‘oh, that makes sense – maybe I should change what I was thinking’. This only sets the scene for more pleading, arguing and excuses.”

To avoid rows, Dr Jennifer Holloway, behavioural psychologist and lecturer in NUIG’s School of Psychology, warns against attributing blame. This isn’t helpful or factual, she says. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of what it means to have your teen involved in the family: ‘I enjoy your company – when you’re on the screen, I miss it’.

How much time a day is OK for teens to be on screen?

Intention: Aim to get it down

Amount will vary depending on age, personality and other factors, says Jean M Twenge, author of iGen, Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy. “As a general rule, limiting time online to two hours a day or less is best for mental health. An hour or two of TV or movies on top of that is also fine,” says Twenge.

Guidelines differ depending on who’s talking, says Janis-Norton. “Some say maximum two hours a day that includes everything — phone, tablet, TV, instant messaging, You Tube, Wi-Fi, Facebook. For some teens that’s fine — for others, it’s too much and has a negative effect on them.”

Janis-Norton favours under two hours but says what’s important is reducing screen time. “Parents who’ve been brave enough to track teen screen time have found it exceeds six hours. Often teens are accessing multiple screens — they’re on their computer and phone at the same time and the TV’s on.” If parents can reduce this to three hours, that’s huge.

Rather than taking an ‘only two hours daily screen time’ approach, Colier prefers to look at the teen day from the perspective of what you’d like them to be doing. She advocates no screens in bedrooms, at mealtimes, during family time or chore time.

“There should be some hanging out time each day – and for some of that period, at least an hour, the screen goes away and they do something else, like read or even call a friend on the phone the old-fashioned way.”

Holloway says it’s important to consider the nature of your teen’s interaction with screens. “Are they using the device for positive social connections and creativity – if so, these have a positive impact on [teen] development.” What’s to be avoided, she says, is use of games beyond the teen age limit or passive (i.e. swiping) screen use.

As a useful tool to help parents figure out how much screen time to allocate teens, she recommends the American Academy for Paediatrics’ Media Time Calculator. Find it at

What strategies can I use to control teenage screen time?

Intention: Collaborate and create other activities

Draw up an agreement with your teen about boundaries for screen use, advises Holloway. “Engage them in agreeing to rules of use rather than imposing rules. This ensures more follow-through. Agreement must be reached between you and your child (even if parent compromises at the early point).” Set teen up for success by selecting easy-to-follow targets – then aim to revise and extend as your child accepts the established rules.

See the American Academy for Paediatrics’ web tool to support the discussion, Create your Family Media Plan, at

Holloway has the following tips:

  • Engage in screen use with your teen – play interactive games together: “This builds a positive relationship with screens and allows you understand their interest more.”
  • Minimise temptation: During times that screen time isn’t permitted (bedtime, meal times, family time), store devices outside room to prevent temptation.
  • Public posting: Keep screen time agreement posted on notice board. Give credit when teen sticks to agreement — reward with another preferred activity (e.g. cinema, going for coffee) if they keep to agreement without rowing for day/week.

Janis-Norton’s firmly believes in having teens earn screen time. “I’d present the maximum amount of time they’ll get [on screen] and the things they have to do on a daily basis to get that. These mustn’t be too onerous — you want them to feel they can earn screen time and to see themselves as earning the goodies in life.”

She encourages parents to spend special one-on-one time with their teen as one of the antidotes to persistent screen use.

“Spend this special time doing something both parent and child enjoy. It’s not about spending money with the teen or watching TV together — but ordinary things: playing cards, going for a walk, cooking together.”

Think about how many young people say ‘my dad/mum’s always on the phone’ — give a good example. “Parents have to be disciplined about their own use of technology — I see all the time parents talking out of both sides of their mouth,” says Colier, who recommends talking to teens about the impact technology’s having on them.

“Keep them talking about their experience. Kids are anxious all the time. Their self-esteem is hanging by a thread. Ask what’s it like to be at a party where everybody is filming everything? What’s it like to ‘have’ to be part of every group chat or you’ll feel you’ll have missed out.” Get them out into nature, into a whole way of living that has nothing to do with technology, adds Colier.

How can I get my teen to be sociable with visitors this Christmas, rather than snap-chatting with her friends?

Intention: Help them build social skills.

“When they’re in company, they shouldn’t have the phone with them – it’s just not allowed,” states Colier, adding it’s important to teach teens how to be with people who aren’t exciting to them. “So they learn to take part in conversation with people they didn’t invite over. They’re practising a social skill that’s going to teach them emotional intelligence.”

But be reasonable. “If someone’s visiting for three hours, perhaps the teen can spend half that time in company without technology and for the other half can be in and out with the phone.” And if your teen doesn’t engage with the rules? Holloway warns against correcting them during the visit – have the exchange after the visitors leave.

They’re going to get techie gifts – my daughter’s godfather’s getting her a tablet, my son’s been promised new Playstation games. How do I handle this?

Intention: Use your veto

It’s up to you what others give your child, says Colier. “You have every right to say ‘that’s not an appropriate gift’.” And if you decide to let your child accept, agree guidelines about its use before they open the gift. “You say ‘if the rules aren’t followed, you get two chances to improve; if that doesn’t happen, you lose it — it goes back,” says Colier who believes parents must be warriors around excessive teen use of technology.

Invite the person to come up with a different gift, suggests Janis-Norton. “The best thing to give any child isn’t a thing but an experience. I recommend a loving adult, who wants to give their teen grandchild a gift, to take them somewhere — ice-skating, the theatre. Give the teenager meaning.”

How can I use technology itself to limit screen time?

Intention: It helps – but it’s not the whole answer

Screen-limiting technology can be helpful but it’s only part of the solution, says CyberSafeIreland programme director Cliona Curley. She says parents shouldn’t be lulled into false sense of security by relying solely on technology. “Older children will often find a way around them and a child’s more vulnerable when their activity has been driven underground.”

Apps to control children’s screen time include OurPact — can be used to allocate screen time and restrict apps — and hardware devices like iKydz, which have a similar function but run on the network rather than at device level.

Also check out built-in parental controls or safety settings on most devices including tablets and gaming consoles.

One example is “Restrictions” on iPads, iPhones and iPods, easily accessible in the settings app. Find links to instructions on how to set parental controls on various devices and the Wi-Fi network on, along with lots of useful content for parents.

Curley also cites apps that aim to change the way young people think about their online activity. “Forest is one example. A user grows from seed a virtual tree in a forest, which withers every time they access sites on their banned list! It aims to give the user a sense of achievement for successfully growing this tree from seed, and not allowing themselves be distracted by social media/chat.”

Meanwhile, provides reviews of movies, TV programmes, games and apps that “tend to be balanced, informative and veer away from scaremongering”, says Curley.

The UK Safer Internet Centre has good information on safety settings for all the popular apps. Parents can also find good content on – links for both can be found in Parents area of


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