Reduce Teen Screen Time Without Stress

Here’s how to help teens unplug from TV, computer, and cell phone use.

Medically Reviewed by Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, PhD on February 09, 2012
4 min read

As the parent of a teen, you know that it's not easy for teens growing up in today's media-saturated world. Although kids share the same concerns about school, friends, and fitting in as you did at the same age, today's teens are never far from their cell phones, computers, TVs, or video game consoles. And that adds up to a lot of distractions that take time away from important things like being physically active and homework.

In fact, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, over the past five years, kids aged 8 to 18 have increased the amount of time they spend plugged into media by 1 hour and 17 minutes a day, up from 6 hours and 21 minutes to 7 hours and 38 minutes. That is almost as much time as you spend at work -- except that kids keep at it seven days a week. How is all this screen time affecting our teenagers?

"The more time kids spend in front of screens, the more inactive they are," says Gwenn O'Keeffe, MD, a pediatrician and author of CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming and Social Media. "And it's any kind of screen -- computers, TV, cell phones, or gaming."

The bottom line, experts say, is that whether your teen has weight challenges or not, activity helps children feel better, sleep better, and learn better -- so you'll want to get them away from the screen so they can get moving.

Here's what you can do to encourage your teenager to scale back on screen time and become more active.

Try these stress-free strategies with your teen to reduce his time in front of the TV or on the computer or phone:

Watch your own screen habits. Although your teen may not seem to pay attention to anything you do or say, you are still her most important role model. So you can't tell her to cut back on TV time if you're watching endless hours of TV, texting while you're driving, or eating dinner with your Blackberry on the table.

"You have to watch what you do," says Paul Ballas, DO, a child psychiatrist and medical director of the Green Tree School Clinic in Philadelphia. "Parents who have limited TV habits tend to raise kids who will have limited TV habits." In short, if you set household screen-time rules, you also need to follow them.

Remind teens to limit screen usage. Banning electronics completely isn't realistic these days, but it's important to let your teen know you're paying attention to how much time she's on a screen. "Sometimes, you need to give them a gentle reminder like, ‘Hey, I think you've used enough technology for now -- it's time to get off and do something else,'" O'Keeffe says. "These kids were born digital, so it's up to us to remind them that there's an unplugged world."

Motivate your teen to exercise. Many kids drop out of sports programs during the teen years. Your teen will be more motivated to move if you let him choose the type of activities he wants to participate in. For example, you may want him to play baseball, but he may prefer swimming at the gym. Show your support for his choice by providing transportation. You can even coordinate schedules so you can work out together.

Another way to help your teen be more active is to use his screen time as a motivation to move more. There are plenty of exercise videos and active video games available that are fun to do and can get his heart rate pumping. Encourage him to play with friends, or get the whole family involved in a little healthy, active on-screen competition.

Encourage activities that involve socializing. Look for activities and clubs that engage your teen socially, so he will get out and be with other people, O'Keeffe says. If you can't convince him to join you at social events, suggest activities related to his interests that involve other kids, such as school or church groups or volunteer work.

Create screen rules together. You'll be more likely to get your teen's buy-in if you come up with screen-time rules as a family. Together you can write up a contract that outlines clear house rules with rewards and agreed upon punishments. Here are some suggestions for rules to implement together:

  • No texting during meals, either at home or a restaurant
  • No TV during meals
  • No TV until after homework and chores are done
  • The TV gets turned off at a set time at night
  • The computer stays in a public room in the home
  • No TVs in bedrooms

Establishing rules about screen usage limits kids' exposure to TV and other electronic devices, says Donald Shifrin, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and a member of the committee on communications for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Talk about it. Simply setting limits won't go over well with older teens, who need to have rules that make sense to them, O'Keeffe tells WebMD. Explain that the more TV they watch, the less time they have to be physically active and the more likely they are to gain weight. Show them articles or books about the impact of using too much media so they understand that your rules aren't unfounded -- and that you've got their best interests and good health at heart.