Less screens for teens sounds like an unachievable goal. In a world where more than 70 % of teens are within arms reach of their phones, it’s hard to separate teens from their screens. Even authorities such as Chief Justice John Roberts have reached this conclusion, noting that “modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy . . . .”
Phones are used to communicate with peers and family, engage with social media, play games, complete homework, and go shopping. Interestingly, having a cell phone also helps teens to feel safer. Ninety percent of teenagers indicate that having a cell phone makes them feel better because they can always get help and communicate with others. Given all of this, you might be surprised that the majority of teens recognize that they spend too much time with their phones. Teens understand that they need a new strategy for reducing screen time. I want to offer a counter-intuitive approach, where we use screen time to prompt non-screen time.
One solution to this is for them to use their phones to broaden their other activities and play, what we call Whole Play. Teens are encouraged to use their technology to engage in other forms of play. For example, teens who use their phones to take pictures for a portfolio are engaging in creative play, while the use of a Fitbit or smartwatch to monitor exercise promotes physical play. Whole Play uses technology to make other activities more complex and engaging. Part of the reason teens can’t get off their phones is that they are so immersive and captivating. Using these same technologies to make other activities more stimulating can encourage teens to spend less time on their screens.
It’s clear that taking teens’ phones away is not the best way to create an environment with less screens. Many teenagers report being anxious when away from their phones. I have observed this in my clinical work, where more than a few well-behaved and regulated teens report that they “freaked out” when their phones were taken from them by parents or school officials. When spoken to in a reasonable fashion about the importance of activities other than screen time, most teens will explore concerns about overuse. Talking may not change behavior, but suggestions about Whole Play activities might leverage the benefits of screen time to other areas of their lives. This is frequently done in school systems that allow teenagers to bring their phones to school. Some schools have found them to be useful for conducting research and engaging in project-based learning.
One reason teens have begun to acknowledge their concerns about too much screen time is that it takes away from other activities, some of which are vital to their growth and success, such as sleeping, having time to study, and getting exercise. Many teens realize that they spend so much time with screens that they don’t have time for other activities. A recent Pew Research Center study suggested that teens are unhappy with this imbalance in their activities but often do not know what to do. They are so attached to their cell phones and other screens that they don’t know how to change this pattern of behavior.
While we are not opposed to strategies where teens put away their phones for part of the day or engage in screen-free activities, our team at LearningWorks for Kids also suggests Whole Play strategies for kids who are reluctant to let go of their phones. The Whole Play approach puts the emphasis on the use of technology to drive other activities, shifting the balance of time from screens to other activities. This may be counterintuitive at first, but given that screens are not going away, it may be the most practical way to do this. Our focus is on taking what kids are already doing with their technologies and helping them to use the technology to engage in other activities. Promoting a healthier balance between screen time and other activities is the first goal, with helping teens more regularly engage in physical, social, creative, and unstructured play the next.
This is part of our series on Whole Play. Other posts describe many types of Whole Play and the role that parents and teachers can have in promoting Whole Play in younger kids and teens.