Teens and Screens: Why The Shift From Control to Connection is Key to Mental Health

We all have well rehearsed parenting phrases that emerge at different stages in our kids’ lives. Usually they pop into our heads or out of our mouths before we’ve even had time to think them through.

You aren’t alone if the dominant phrase during middle and high school is, “PUT. THAT. [INSERT TECH DEVICE]. DOWN.”

If we were to go by news headlines alone, we might shout this phrase louder and more often. That’s because headlines often paint an overly simplistic conclusion: that teens plus screens equals an inevitable decline in wellbeing. This positions us parents as an important line of protection against harm. Leaning into the role of “on-off” regulator then is an understandable move.

Yet the data consistently point to a far more complicated picture. Outcomes are shaped in significant ways by young people’s specific vulnerabilities and strengths, their digital habits, and access to resources and supports. Technology is not inherently good or bad, it is powerful.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put phones down and set boundaries. It does mean that we need a more diverse set of phrases and strategies to help them navigate their digital lives. 

Group of young teenagers sitting outside in a circle showing each other images on their phones

Why restrictive strategies alone are not enough.

When kids are young managing screen time isn’t easy but it does tend to be more straightforward. We can protect children from risk by creating a safer and more contained “digital playground” for them to play in. We can more easily set time limits because the boundary between on and off is still relatively clear. Researchers call these kinds of time and content rules “restrictive mediation strategies.” Evidence indicates that they do provide protective power, especially with younger children. Perhaps, not surprisingly, they help reduce the sheer amount of time kids spend online and thus lessen exposure to risk.

As our kids get access to personal and school issued devices, our sense of control diminishes just as digital risks escalate. It makes sense that many of us are tempted to respond by doubling down on restrictive strategies.  But as our kids’ digital worlds expand, they need more than reminders to turn off their devices or a just a list of “things you should not do.”

Restrictive strategies alone are wildly insufficient to help our kids navigate this new world. Even worse, evidence shows that clinging to overly controlling strategies can inadvertently make them more vulnerable to the very risks we are trying to protect them from. 

A few reasons that rigid control doesn’t work as well as our kids grow up:

Control isn’t a good fit for the teenage brain

Teens have a big and important developmental task in front of them: growing into adults. It makes sense then that the teenage brain is built to seek autonomy and independence, to be more sensitive to peer feedback, and to start asking big and important questions like, “Who am I?” 

Adolescence isn’t just a time of risk taking. It is a key developmental window of exploration and discovery

This is at odds then with a digital parenting toolkit that relies solely on control, limits, and protection. Our toolkit needs to expand as our kids grow older.

Control tends to assume all tech is toxic

If tech use only harmed young people then leaning more heavily into our role as limiters would make more sense. Instead, research shows that social media and gaming have divergent impacts on young people’s mental health. Depending upon the teen and their tech habits, social media may be protective or detrimental. Even the most vulnerable adolescents appear to be more sensitive to the negative sides of social media and gain more from positive experiences than their peers. For some teens, simply powering down devices might actually cut them off from much-needed support. 

Control tends to focus on technology over teens

There are certainly some “online only” conflicts. But for most teens, online interactions and challenges are inextricably linked with offline ones. Focusing only on device restrictions ignores this reality.

For example, simply deleting an app doesn’t help kids navigate the social conflict unfolding in the hallways of school. Reducing doomscrolling won’t necessarily help young people make sense of the climate crisis or racist violence that persists around them. Setting a digital curfew doesn’t mean that teens automatically have healthy “replacement habits” to deal with the anxiety that rears up at bedtime. 

The skills that young people need to navigate these online and offline dilemmas are under construction. Skills like impulse control, perspective taking, focus, self-advocacy, and emotional management. This means that left entirely to their own devices, they are certainly more vulnerable. But it also means that without practice and coaching related to the complex realities they are negotiating, they lose opportunities to strengthen the very skills needed to protect their mental health.

Let’s be clear: tech design and business models do contribute to these challenges in powerful and often insidious ways. Adults and teens alike should be demanding platform accountability and paying more attention to the ways that algorithms, quantifiability, searchability, and shareability amplify risk. 

But in our efforts to manage devices we shouldn’t ignore the real needs of the young people who use them.

Tweens and teens also need us to engage, communicate, and connect

Connecting all of these dots, it isn’t a surprise that research indicates that focusing solely on restrictive strategies works less well as kids get older. Even when it comes to time restrictions, a recent review of the research demonstrated that the effect declines with age and backfires with the oldest adolescents.

The good news is that we can do more than just control and restrict. We can also engage, communicate, and connect. 

The even better news? These strategies work work. The wisdom emerging from a broad collection of studies on this topic found that active engagement in our kids’ media use and co-using media does a good job of protecting kids from media-related risks. Similarly, a recent study looked specifically at commonalities among teens who are doing well. You might expect that these teens had very limited screen time and strict rules. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. Instead, what they had in common when it came to their parents’ involvement in their media use was:

  • Screen time rules based on content and purpose not just time.
  • Frequent communication and shared decision-making about rules.
  • Family devices and time to connect. 

This doesn’t mean that we get rid of rule-making entirely. Young people whose parents are heavy users of social media and who experience little or no boundaries around their screen use are not faring well either. 

But it does mean that we should make sure that our limits are meaningful and relevant to our kids’ mental health instead of arbitrary invitations for power struggles. It also means that from childhood all the way through adolescence we should balance restrictions with plenty of engagement, conversation, agency, and skill-building. 

In their new book Behind Their Screens, researchers Emily Weinstein and Carrie James interviewed thousands of teens. One powerful conclusion they came to was that when it comes to their digital lives, tweens and teens need us to “have their backs, rather than just looking over their shoulders.”

What would that look like in your family?