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Setting Healthy Screen Time Limits for Teens

By staff
Read time: 8 minutes

Teens can appear to be masters of the online universe as they switch from doing homework to checking social media to streaming a video with just a few swipes of the screen. As much as teens depend on their digital devices, spending so much time online can interfere with other important activities and expose them to dangers like cyberbullying and identity theft.

As a parent, it can be hard to keep track of your teens' online activities and even more challenging to set boundaries that protect their safety and privacy. How do you set healthy screen time limits for your teens? What steps can you take in setting boundaries and enforcing them? Read on for some helpful tips.

Teens and Screen Time Limits

You are not alone when you are concerned about your teen's screen time - even teens themselves think they spend too much time in front of a screen. In a survey by Common Sense Media, more than 90 percent of teens said they think screen use is a problem for their own age group! The average teen spends nine hours a day online, with more than seven hours of that devoted to entertainment. In the survey, girls reported spending the most screen time on social media, while boys spent the most time on video games.

It's no accident that teens spend so much screen time on online entertainment. Social media and gaming companies design their products to entice kids to use them more and more. For example, receiving a notification that a friend has posted a new photo on social media creates the desire to see what other friends are saying about it. Games award extra powers or points at every level so players want to keep going. Programs are designed to make teens want to use them more, and to feel left out if they don't.

Parents sometimes wonder whether teens are addicted to their phones or other devices. Technically, there is no such thing as “phone addiction” because screen use alone doesn't change the chemistry of the brain. However, research that indicates that extensive video gaming can change the way brain works and lead to a form of addiction known as “internet gaming disorder.”

While screen time feels pleasurable to teens, it can create unhealthy habits and interfere with physical and social activities, family time, and badly needed sleep. 

Since teens and parents are aware of the challenges of screen time use, you have many opportunities to work together to set healthy screen time limits.

Something to think about: More than half of teens report their parents are distracted by their smartphone while having real-life conversations. What would your teen say about you?

Teens spend most of their screen time using social media and playing video games.

How much screen time is too much?

Unlike for younger children, there is no specific recommendation about the appropriate amount of screen time for teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends setting consistent limits on use of any media - computer, smartphone, tablets, TV - for education, entertainment, or social purposes. Screen time should not cut into time needed for sleeping, eating, studying, working or playing, and interacting with family and friends. It may be more effective to establish screen-free zones and times for your teen rather than setting boundaries that limit how long they can be online.

The AAP offers a free online media time calculator and family media plan tool to help figure out how to set screen time limits that work for each child in your family.

Each family is unique! Set screen time limits that work for your family.

Setting screen time limits for your teen

Every family is different. The important thing is to set screen time limits that work for your situation. Here are four tips for parents that can help.


Involve your teen in setting boundaries and reasonable limits.

Teens are more likely to follow guidelines if they have a role in setting them. Ask your teen to set boundaries they consider to be fair, such as having a half-hour for social media or gaming before doing homework, and write them into the screen time plan.


Create a family screen time media plan together.

A family media plan sets guidelines for every child based on their developmental level and activities. Try posting the plan on the refrigerator or a bulletin board where it can be seen by everyone. Review and update the screen time plan every year, or more often if needed. Creating a media plan means you don't have to try to figure out what works on the spur of the moment when an issue comes up.


Set up screen-free zones and screen time limits.

For example, all screens should be put away during mealtimes and family time, and phones should be on a charger in a common area or in the parents' bedroom overnight. To help ensure teens get enough sleep, consider not allowing them access to screens in their bedroom overnight.


Establish reasonable consequences for not staying within screen time limits.

Reasonable consequences might include loss of screen time privileges for a day or two. Your teens may not always follow the family screen time rules. When they don't, listen to their reasons and consider whether it's a one-time thing or a pattern of behavior. It's also important to remember that teens rely on their smartphones for more than their social life - it's also a way to communicate with you during the day. You may want to consider all of this before imposing consequences.

Work with your teen to create a family screen time plan that meets everyone’s needs and schedule.

Setting a Good Example

The most powerful parenting tool you have is setting a good example. Although teens may seem to roll their eyes and ignore you, they actually pay close attention to what you do, including how you use screens and interact with people. Adults spend up to 11 hours a day on screens for work, personal, and entertainment purposes. It can be hard to pull yourself away from your phone, tablet, or computer when you have a busy schedule. Do your best to set screen time limits for yourself as well.  

Below are a few parent tips to help you set screen time boundaries and set a good example.

Put away your phone when you are having a conversation.

Giving your full attention to your teen sends a powerful message that he (or she) is important and you care about what he is saying. As tempting as it can be, don't check your texts or notifications while you are talking with your teen, at mealtime, or while doing family activities. Practice the behavior you want to encourage in your teen.

Don't leave the TV or a video on as white noise or when you are doing household or family activities.

Turn screens off unless you are watching them. Put away your phone when the family is watching TV together.

Watch educational and entertainment programs with your teen and discuss it with him.

Take turns with your teen choosing programs to watch together. Share shows about topics that are meaningful to you and ask him to share videos he likes. Don't be quick to judge - you might end up enjoying what they like to watch, too!

Participate in activities together that do not involve screens.

Make time for walking, cycling, gardening, painting, cooking, crafting, or other shared physical or creative activities you can enjoy together. Doing things together shows your teen you value his company and helps create healthy bonds between you.

Put away your phone while driving.

Texting while driving is very dangerous, not to mention illegal in Texas. Stow your phone safely while you are behind the wheel and do not respond to calls or texts. If your car has a hands-free phone option, use it only for calls that can't wait.

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Take turns choosing educational and entertainment programs to watch with your teen and discuss them together.

How to Be a Screen-Savvy Parent

The online world is getting more complicated for teens and parents alike. In addition to benefiting from educational, social, and entertainment options, teens can be exposed to cyberbullying and invasion of privacy as well as losing time for important activities. Here are more parent tips to stay informed and protect your kids.

Educate yourself about the apps and social media your teen uses.

New apps and social media platforms appear regularly, and your teen will usually know about them long before you do. Download them to your own phone and learn how to use them.

Following your teen's social media accounts.

Consider friending or following your teen's social media accounts, with an agreement about whether you will or won't post or respond to their posts. Knowing that parents can see their posts may help teens use better judgement about what they say or share online.

Respect your teen's privacy but stay informed.

Parents should not check up on devices without their teen present. Do it with your child and be prepared to talk about what you find together. Learn about apps and phones that help you monitor your teen's media use. You may be able to take advantage of built-in features to track and monitor the device's location and screen time use. There are also a variety of software programs or apps that can be added to phones, tablets, and computers to monitor online activity and restrict access to sites that are not appropriate for your child's age. These can be helpful in setting boundaries. Some programs send notifications if certain programs are accessed or screen time limits are exceeded and can even remotely lock your teen's phone (for all but emergency use).

Talk with your teen about topics including internet safety, social media use, cyberbullying, and identity theft.

Keep the conversation going with your teen about how to stay safe online, including:

  • Not everyone you meet online is who they say they are. Don't “friend” anyone unless you know them. Never agree to get together with anyone you meet online without parental permission, and don't share personal information or photos with anyone you don't know in person.
  • Do not post anything on social media that you would not share with your teachers, parents, or future boss. Photos, videos, and comments often can't be taken back once they are posted.
  • Tell a parent or other trusted adult if you are bullied or threatened online by anyone, whether a stranger or someone you know.
  • Do not share your full name, contact information, social security number, passwords, or bank/credit card information online.

Check privacy settings.

Make sure privacy settings are turned on to limit access to personal information. Parents should have access to all passwords and be able to access all accounts if necessary. Check your credit card and phone bills for unfamiliar account charges.

Know where they are.

Review the apps that can show your child's location and make your child aware of the danger of sharing their location with people they don't know.

Keep them safe.

Take your teen seriously if he reports being uncomfortable online.

Educate yourself about the apps and social media your teen uses, and talk to them about staying safe online.

As teens get older, they need more independence online just as they do in real life. As a parent, you can help prepare teens by setting boundaries when they are younger and helping them learn how to make good use of screen time.

If you are concerned that your teen spends too much time online, is a victim of cyberbullying, or becomes involved with risky behaviors, talk to your pediatrician or a mental health professional. It isn't always easy to get a teen to open up about what is going on in his world. But keep talking, asking questions, and finding ways on how to limit screen time.


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This article was written by staff.

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