Teens and Phones: How To Talk About Summer Scrolling

Set Boundaries AND Activate Awareness

“Here is what I know I don’t want,” a high school junior recently shared. “ A summer of scrolling. A little bit is fine – you know, to just relax and check out for a bit. But I don’t want to get lost there all summer.” 

This young person’s reflection comes at just the right time for all of us. Summer is here and can be less structured. This means more time to play, hang out, and yes…to scroll. 

teenager scrolling on their cell phone

Is scrolling always bad?

While a few may ditch their devices and head into the woods this summer, most kids and adults will continue to use technology. With all the much-needed attention to the relationship between social media and mental health, now is a good time to pause and consider some strategies for the months ahead. 

Some of the evidence-based protective strategies are well worth repeating. These include protecting sleep, movement, and time outside. In terms of time scrolling our screens, our devices have the potential to help or hurt depending upon how we use them. It turns out that even passive scrolling isn’t inherently bad for us. Like other forms of media use, a recent review of the research showed that, once again, outcomes depended upon the content and context.  

  • What am I scrolling through?
  • How does it make me feel?
  • When and for how long?
  • Is this what I want or need to be doing with my time right now?

Let’s plant the seeds for self-directed media use

In her new book, “Technology’s Child,” researcher Katie Davis provides evidence that the best media use across childhood and adolescence is “self-directed and community-supported.” In other words, media experiences are initiated, sustained, and ended voluntarily. They tend to give young people a sense of initiative and ownership over their media habits. In contrast, externally controlled media use through rewards or punishments is less likely to support healthy development.  

The challenge is that most apps are not designed to encourage thoughtful and self-directed decision-making. Instead, the goal is often to get and hold our attention. Bringing awareness to these design features helps us slow down the impulse to pick-up-and-scroll. 

Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley, a leading researcher on body image and social media use, encourages us to couple this kind of media literacy with reflection and feed curation. Aligning our online activities with the things that make us feel better about ourselves and each other can buffer us from the more negative effects of social platforms. She suggests activities like this one:

  1. Take inventory. Write down a list of all the activities that you do on social media. 
  2. Divide it up. Look at your list. Divide it into categories:
    • Three things that bring you lasting happiness, meaning, or growth (as opposed to a fleeting dopamine reward). 
    • Three things that are enjoyable in the moment but don’t bring you lasting happiness, meaning, or growth. 
    • Three things that cause you the most stress.
    • Three things that you spend the most time on.
  1. Look for alignment. Notice the gaps. Talk about your observations (don’t skip this step). What do you notice? What is aligned? What are the disconnects? What do you want to keep doing? What do you want to change?

More mindful media use takes awareness and practice

While it may seem that we would gravitate toward the activities that generate the most lasting happiness or learning, this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of social media activities we seek out that feel good in the moment but eventually make us feel worse. Algorithms can also drive young people towards content that undermines mental health. For example, the American Psychological Association’s latest advisory reminds us that racism is built into many social media platforms.

Bringing awareness to the potential disconnect between where we spend our time and what boosts our wellbeing can activate strategies for more self-directed social media use. Prioritizing the activities and content that bring us lasting happiness or growth while limiting or blocking the destructive but sometimes alluring quick hits is key to not “scrolling away” our summers.

Of course, many teens aren’t eager to formally reflect on their digital habits. Let’s not approach this as a rigid exercise. Instead, we can plant seeds, model reflection, and ask curious questions rather than relying on directives alone. Summer is precious. Let’s work to direct our time and attention to the things that matter most to us – whether we are looking at a screen or not.