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How Parents Can Help Teens Put Down Their Phones

Strategies to help your teen find focus and better daily functioning.

Key points

  • More and more teens are spending long periods of time on their phones.
  • Excessive screen time can impact children's attention, learning, and the ability to complete daily tasks.
  • Establishing specific phone-free times can help improve children's cognitive functioning and mental health.
Source: Ron Lach/Pexels
Source: Ron Lach/Pexels

Many of today's teens spend a lot of time on, with, or near their phones. How many times have you attempted to have a conversation with your child, only to realize that they are only half-listening?

As parents, it can be frustrating, even alarming, to watch our kids being constantly distracted by the notifications that are dinging and popping up on their screens, seemingly making it impossible to focus on any one thing. What’s happening here?

A Failure to Focus

As an executive functioning coach, I find that many of my teen and young adult clients find it difficult to start and finish tasks—often because they are distracted by the notifications that pop up on their phone, or struggle to resist the urge to reach for it when an assignment becomes challenging to complete. In more serious cases, kids struggle not just to start and finish homework but also to take a shower, empty the dishwasher, or do many other tasks that require sustained attention to get through.

These children often have to regroup and try to remember where they left off with an assignment or a task once they are interrupted. As a result, many students and children appear more inattentive, or even unable to focus for longer than a few minutes. Many kids are using their time inefficiently, resulting in a decline in their ability to follow a day’s routine or complete school-related tasks. Oftentimes, this results in later bedtimes and a great deal of fatigue in the morning and throughout the day.

The Need for Instancy

Another area of struggle I've noticed among my clients is the need for instant gratification—an instant response from a peer, for example, combined with the sometimes crushing disappointment that comes with being “left on read.” I have noticed it in my interactions with children and adolescents who ask questions and often don't wait long enough for the other person to formulate an answer.

At times, kids and teens will ask the same question over and over because they're too impatient to wait for an answer—for example, some students will send follow-up emails to their teachers when they don't receive a response to their first one right away. Some children shy away from and avoid working on tasks, or even emotional or behavioral challenges, because “it’s too hard.” They struggle with the amount of effort needed to complete a task that won't take just a few moments. Similarly, some of my clients have shared with me that they are frustrated with their own progress in therapy, feeling that it's not fast enough. (That's typically when my focus becomes breaking down long-term goals into short-term steps in order to temper expectations and timelines.)

All of these are signs of low frustration tolerance, or the ability to deal with setbacks successfully and cope with not being “good” at something on the first try. Instead of responding to obstacles constructively, many children get stressed when something doesn’t go (instantly) as planned.

This negatively impacts our children’s ability to develop perseverance and diligence—to keep going, to try again, or to test out a different approach when they don’t receive the outcome they initially wanted. Having a low frustration tolerance can also foster anxiety, in that children worry they won't be "good enough" and often give up too soon as a result.

What's more, when we are attempting to learn, there are a couple of variables that need to be in place: motivation, attention, and time. Constant attention shifting—often, again, resulting from distracting phone pings—makes it harder to learn new information and transfer it into long-term memory.

What Can Parents Do to Reduce Phone Distraction?

To begin, have a conversation with your teen and communicate your expectations for the use of the phone. Have a discussion about the benefits of time away from screens in order to complete daily tasks and settle the body and brain. Additional strategies include:

1. Turn in phones at a specific time.

Set a time each day when the phone will be turned in and kept in your care until the morning. You may also choose to have a “homework hour” where your child can focus on homework uninterrupted, not checking her phone until the hour is up.

Your child can also practice self-discipline by placing their phone in the kitchen if they are working on their homework in their room. It will be out of reach and can serve as a moment of pause before leaving their desk and reaching for their phones.

If your child requires more support, you may want to consider sitting near him as he completes his homework to create accountability and to provide check-ins as needed.

2. Turn off unnecessary notifications.

You can turn off many superfluous notifications by navigating to the phone's settings. Another option is to simply silence the phone (no vibration, either!).

Children are constantly shifting their attention and energy all day long, often while being bombarded with information that they don’t need to function in school or in their daily routines. Much of the information they are being exposed to may be irrelevant to them, or simply too much information. Online images can be graphic and disturbing to kids who are not developmentally equipped to handle certain realities. When today's parents were children, information was not readily available to us—and that was OK.

Connect with your child and create a game plan to disconnect from electronics and screens a few times each day in order to help facilitate attention, learning, and mental health.

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