Most teens have a healthy relationship with digital technology, provided their parents do the same


Janice Peng got her first smartphone when she was in seventh grade. Like the majority of her friends, she was online for most of her teenage years.

Now a senior at Middleton High School, she said her and her friends’ relationships with tech weren’t exactly healthy.

“I feel like it’s definitely a range… Some of them are really, really addicted, and they show these risky behaviors,” 17-year-old Janice said. “On the other hand, some of my friends manage their content and their phone usage much better.”

Parents have been mystified by teens’ relationship with digital media ever since smartphones and the internet have become ubiquitous parts of life. Questions about how to limit screen time, minimize the mental health impacts of social media, and become less dependent on technology continually make the rounds on parent websites and academic research. But a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison gives a clue to what parents should be looking inward.

The study looked at the digital media use and family dynamics of nearly 4,000 pairs of teens and parents. He revealed that a majority of teens – 63% – had a “healthy relationship with technology” as long as they were also part of the “engaged family group”.

Dr. Megan Moreno, professor of pediatrics at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and study leader, said their findings show how important parents are when it comes to teenagers and technology.

“Parents serve as such role models, and I think when children are young, the role model includes a lot of instruction and discussion; and I think when teenagers are older, parents teach more through their own behavior. than in their own words,” she said.

In other words, parents who find themselves lost in their own devices may see their teens mirror this behavior, even as parents try to set boundaries.

“I hope our study really understands what a powerful and positive influence parents can have by providing support and co-viewing, talking about content… And just for parents to realize how important a role they play in modeling of their own technology to use,” said Moreno, who also leads the research team on social media and adolescent health.

Of the teens surveyed, 37% were categorized as ‘at risk’, meaning their parents spent a lot of time on social media, only had screen time rules, or they had no rules at all.

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Like much academic research on tech use and adolescent health, Moreno’s study found that “at-risk” teens had higher rates of depression, anxiety, unhealthy body image, and for fear of missing something.

These teenagers also almost exclusively had their own devices, including smartphones, laptops, tablets and game consoles.

“Smartphones are something we typically own as a society. But there are many other devices that a teenager probably doesn’t necessarily need to own on their own,” Moreno said.

Based on the study results, Moreno highlights three key areas that parents should examine to improve their teens’ relationship with technology:

  1. Consider family-owned devices rather than individual devices.
  2. Create and maintain household rules that focus on content, not screen time.
  3. Be aware, as parents, of their own use of technology and social media.

And Janice suggests parents set boundaries early, as soon as their kids start interacting with digital technology.

She said her parents had rules in place regarding screen time — not during dinner or in the car — but beyond that, she “just has freedom.” She said it’s probably too late to implement new rules about her tech habits.

“I don’t know if it would be possible to implement this type of monitoring, after several years without monitoring,” Janice said. “I think it has to start right away, so it becomes the norm.”

Janice also encourages parents to set rules with their kids, not just for their kids.

“I think parents should keep in mind that it will be much more effective if they treat this as working with their children to regulate social media usage instead of just coming from the top,” said- she declared.


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