Unhealthy Screen Time Pattern in Teens – Causes, Effects and How You can Manage it

In my career, as a Clinical Psychologist I have come across many parents complaining about their kid’s unhealthy screen time. Let me take you through the details of how unhealthy screen time patterns can affect teens and how we can manage it. I’d like to begin by sharing with you an incident. 

It  was a mundane Monday morning when I was sitting in my clinic waiting for one of my clients and there walked in, a 15 years old boy followed by a lady with a worried face and a gentleman with a frown. I assumed they must be this young man’s parents. I asked them to take their seats but the mother couldn’t even wait for that. She spoke right away, “please help us out, we don’t know what to do, we have tried all means.” I was lost, I didn’t even know what she was speaking about. I calmed her down first and then asked her what the issue was and that is when she opened up Pandora’s box. “My son is mostly on his phone, he has his board exams in a few months and he is always hooked on his phone. Leave alone studies, he doesn’t even care to sleep on time. If we tell him anything, he would bang doors and break household items.” That made me smile in my head because I do hear these concerns from parents more frequently these days. 


Issues associated with Unhealthy Screen Time Pattern

Unhealthy screen time pattern is not only about spending long hours in front of the screen, but also brings about other issues associated with it. It has been found that children and adolescents who are mostly found to be glued to their screen exhibit some problem behaviours like being irritable, getting headaches, disturbed sleep patterns, throwing temper tantrums, having difficulty concentrating while studying and going to the unexpected extent to ensure availability of screens be it phones or the computer. Recent researches suggest that children and adolescents spend the maximum amount of screen time either watching videos or playing games like PUBG, Fortnite and free fire. Games like these have an ardent essence of violence which somehow attracts these teenagers more than anything else.  


Spike in the Rate in Recent Times

With the pandemic entering our lives and the ongoing lockdown, things have gone haywire especially with the schools shutting down and the kids spending more time in their home thereby getting the chance of spending more time in front of the screens. There has been a spike in the rate of screen usage among children and adolescents bringing in other associated issues with it. 


Recently, in a conversation a friend mentioned how her 5-year-old nephew would bargain for using the phone to finish his food. Parents usually give in to such demands from their kids, being unaware that they are bringing in more problems for themselves. A behaviour once reinforced only strengthens over time. So when kids once find out that the strategy of negotiation works, they are going to use the same strategy time and again. This is exactly how parents might encourage such behaviour in children. It is our responsibility as parents to know the impact before we give in to such demands. Power struggle shouldn’t be a thing in parenting, you need to understand the importance of being the authority. The behaviour that is reinforced will only get strengthened in children. 


Besides, aren’t we also stuck to our screens for long hours? Just think about it. Children learn a great deal by what is called ‘modelling’, they do what they see. The next time you pick up your phone and keep scrolling through while teaching your child, remember someone is picking up your doings. So we as adults also need to be responsible and monitor our own screen time. There are thousands of parents who are worried about their children or consult a mental health professional when things are out of hand. Excessive screen usage is a problem but it only strikes us when it brings in the associated behavioural problems with it.  



Harmful Effects of Unhealthy Screen Time


There is a lot of research by mental health professionals conducted in recent times which talks about the harmful long term impact of excessive screen usage in teens. We should be aware of it instead of regretting later and feeling helpless about the situation. The harmful effects of unhealthy screen time in teens include decreased concentration, poor sleep as the light emitted from the screen messes with melatonin levels and disturbs sleep, various behavioural problems like increased demandingness or going to any lengths to access the screen, picking up the violence from playing violent games and eventually imitating what they see.


According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry with the increase in screen time, there is a drop in academic performance in teens because of less attention and interest in academics. Children even say ‘when I am studying, my focus is divided, I have a part of me with the game and have thoughts like next time I would land in “Pochinki” and not “School” then maybe I will get hold of a M24 rifle” So even when they are not in front of the screen, their mind is embedded with thoughts of being in front of the screen. It is high time that as parents and responsible adults we pull up our socks and work towards bringing these children and adolescents into the safe zone.



How can Parents Manage it?


Here are some quick tips to manage screen time in adolescents but seeking a mental health professional is always advisable if you feel that it is affecting other spheres of your kid’s life. These suggestions are quick tips but what we fail to often see is the larger problem of falling prey to addiction thus visiting a mental health professional will help not only to understand the causes but will also provide some long-lasting solution for such behaviours.  


Scheduling: You should try to fix a specific time for your children each day for using the screen. Make sure it never exceeds more than 2 hours. You can even divide up the hours by discussing with your child, this would make them feel important and responsible as well. They can decide if they want it for 2 hours at a stretch, 1 hour two times a day or 30 minutes 4 times a day. It’s up to them. This would also help them realise that you are not taking decisions for them all by yourself, you are involving them to be a part of it and it is decided mutually.


Monitoring: It is extremely important to monitor the content that your children view. There are many apps and websites which give you the control to manage the kind of content your children watch, so utilise this facility.


Rewarding: When you see them following what has been decided and sticking to the mentioned timings, reward them with something they like. Reinforcing these positive behaviours would strengthen these behaviours and encourage them to follow through.


Leisure hours: Have time for leisure hours dedicated to their schedule which would involve playing games and spending time together as a family. Most children are stuck to their screen because other forms of entertainment for them take a backseat. Try to bring out those ludo and chess boards, make them realise that these are fun too.


No devices in the bedroom and during family time: Establish house rules like no electronic devices in the bedroom where each family member needs to follow it strictly. Your children should know the importance of family time so no one should be on their electronic devices during that time. Talking to each other, playing games, sharing their experiences of the day should be some fun things to do as a family.


 So, when the session was about to end, the parents’ weren’t really happy to know that they also have some role to play in the problem behaviours that their child manifests. Like the young man’s mother, many parents may not appreciate their contribution to the issues and end up blaming the child. It is time we look through ourselves and give a thought about our share of responsibilities when our children engage in such behaviours.  


So the next time you cozy up to binge on that new Netflix series, remember your binging also needs monitoring exactly like your child’s PUBG gaming. Just food for thought!


Sarah Hussain

Clinical Psychologist (RCI Registered)

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