Device use with teenagers

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

Parents often ask me in therapy sessions my opinion regarding the time their teenager spends on electronic devices of all kinds.

Device use is a very recent phenomenon in human history, and there is a relative lack of certainty about how to manage them and what the limits around them should be. How are you to measure whether your particular child is benefitting or being harmed by their use of devices? I would suggest you can use the same measures that we use to measure the benefit or harm of any activity our child wishes to do.

  • Does it disengage your child from more meaningful activities. We would want our teenagers to be well-rounded and to be motivated by desire of achieving, not fear of missing out. Are they engaged in the things that give life meaning?
    1. Belonging experiences with family, friends, groups. The way we get through life is “together”, and if device use is getting in the way of connecting to family, friends or groups, it probably needs more limits.
    2. Activities involving learning, work, helping, contributing. Everyone has a role. Your child only has devices because you are committed to your own role resulting in getting an income. If they are not doing their role of education, work, chores, then logically they should not benefit from you doing your role.
    3. Passion for some particular thing that they have to initiate in. What do they actively want. If they do not have a particular passion (except for their device), then the device needs to be limited so they can put their energy into finding out what their passion is.


  • Want it or need it. Can they go without it their computer game or social media for an hour / day / week / month? A regular device fast is a valuable way of testing this, such as: going on holidays with no devices, no phones at the table, no phones in cars, no devices between certain hours, no devices before school, no devices while talking to others, no devices after bedtime, no devices after 8pm, etc, etc, etc. If missing out on devices for a reasonable time leads to distress, then the device is probably needed rather than wanted, and probably a problem needing more limits.


  • Can they talk about their use. There is a general saying in counseling…if you can talk about something, it probably isn’t a problem. If your teenager is unable or unwilling to openly share with you what they are doing on the device, it is probably a problem. This does not mean you have carte blanche to read and look at their personal life, but their should be a general openness to what they are doing on the device. This is probably the most contentious area between teenagers and their parents, and the source of the biggest differences between parents in their approach to devices. Your child may be communicating with friends whose parents have very different levels of comfort with what their child is allowed to do. The argument “all my friends parents let them do it” is powerful. Being clear about device use being something that is obtained once more basic needs are met can help in having a conversation about device limits. Achieving basic needs (safety, getting enough sleep, eating healthy enough food, turning up on time, attending school, doing homework, handing in assignments on time, doing 60 minutes exercise daily, completing reasonable chores, engaging in belonging with the family, friends and groups, and having a passion for something) can be reasonably insisted on before device use is obtained.One of the curses of devices is that a teenager can simply be passive and not have to initiate activity or ideas, but simply react to what they find on the screen whether it be a game, shows, other’s posts, etc. Devices are a powerful cure for boredom, and this is one of their harms. Young people need to be bored so they are motivated to initiate activities to enhance belonging, contributing and passion.

In summary, if device use is:

  • Balanced and not interfering with meaningful activities
  • Wanted rather than needed, and
  • Able to be talked about and not secretive,

Then the device use is probably ok.