Digital Safety Alliance | Nicklaus Childrens Hospital

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Digital Detox: Why Your Teen Might Need Some Time Away From Their Phone
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By: Digital Safety Alliance
May 5th, 2024

Research has shown that excessive smartphone use by teenagers – including time spent on social media and gaming apps – can lead to them becoming addicted to their devices.
This addiction can lead to a myriad of issues for teens, including insomnia, back pain, fluctuating weight, vision problems, headaches, anxiety, dishonesty, feelings of guilt, and loneliness. Excessive exposure to social media can also lead to your teen making unhealthy comparisons and developing a negative body image.
When left unchecked, the long-term effects of screen addiction can be as severe as brain damage. Studies have shown that screen-addicted teens’ brains shrink or lose tissue in the areas that help them govern planning and organization, suppress socially unacceptable impulses, and develop and practice empathy.
If your teen doesn’t have a phone yet, many experts recommend waiting until (at least) 8th grade before giving them a smartphone – or simply starting them off with a flip phone.
If your teen already has a device, it’s important to establish very clear rules about its use in order to help your teen make healthy choices.
By building healthy digital habits, teens can improve their mental health and well-being. But building those healthy habits often requires them to start by spending some time away from their phones.
Warning Signs of Smartphone Addiction in Teens
As a parent, you have the unenviable responsibility of protecting your kids from digital overload. It’s important to set clear boundaries around technology use and enforce them with appropriate consequences. Unfortunately, many parents allow their children to use devices without fully grasping the potential risks or how to tell if there might be a problem with their kids’ usage.
Consider these common signs of digital addiction in teens:

  • Always keeping their phone on and with them
  • Changes in behavior
  • Difficulty with regulating their emotions
  • Expressing extreme reactions when separated from their device
  • Impatience, irritability, restlessness, inability to focus in school when separated from their phone
  • Increased social challenges
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Spending more and more time on their phone
  • Switching between multiple devices and programs (social networking, texting, gaming, etc.)
Benefits of Reduced Screen Time
Limiting the time your teen spends on devices has a number of clear benefits for their mental health.
They include:
  • More time to spend exercising or doing outdoor activities, which are proven to boost mental health
  • Better sleep, which enhances their well-being and overall health
  • Improved real-life connections and quality time with family members and friends
  • A greater amount of free time for creative expression, which creates a sense of flow associated with happiness
  • Stronger emotional comprehension, including increased empathy and an improved ability to pick up on real-life emotional cues

How to Implement a Digital Detox
Limiting screen time is essential for protecting your teen’s health and well-being. During a “digital detox,” your teen (and your whole family) chooses to refrain from using smartphones (and other electronic devices connected to the internet) for a certain period of time. A digital detox can be very helpful for reducing stress and focusing more on interacting with others. It can also help prevent addiction to tech devices.
While adults might be able to motivate themselves to engage in a digital detox, kids rarely share the same motivation.
Teens want to use their devices to stay connected to their friends, access entertainment, play games, and enjoy other distractions. Convincing them to detox from digital media can be a challenge.
Consider these steps:
1. Educate your teen about the negative effects of too much screen time on their well-being and brain development.
Help them to view a digital detox as an important protection and prevention strategy, rather than a punishment.
2. Make the detox easier by starting with small digital breaks during the day.
Teens can start by having their phones in another room when they go to bed and wake up. Next, they can unplug for 30 minutes after school. Encourage them to work up to a half day or full day of tech-free time every week.
3. Designate regular unplugged times for everyone in the family.
Start by having your family unplug during dinner, which is often the only time during the day when everyone sits down together. If your family isn’t distracted by screens, they’ll likely communicate better. Unplugging before bedtime is also crucial, as it gives the nervous system time to recover from the ever-present stimuli of screens.
4. Establish screen-free areas of your home.
In addition to making screens off-limits at the dining room table, consider banning them from the kitchen and setting up a designated screen-free room or area devoted to reading and board games – with no television. If possible, refrain from allowing your teen to have a computer in their bedroom. If they need to use a computer, let them use a family computer in a location where you can monitor their activity.
5. Plan screen-free family activities like playing board games or spending time outdoors.
Physical exercise and exposure to nature both bring powerful mental and physical health benefits, including improved mood, less stress and feelings of depression, and more calm and balance.
6. Take “digital detox retreats” as a family.
Set aside one day each week that the family refrains from using devices or take tech-free vacations to fun places for multiple days, a week, or more. More time spent away from screens means more time spent communicating and strengthening your relationship with your teen.
7. Help your teen find other ways to self-soothe when they’re feeling unhappy or uncomfortable.
Sadly, teens will often opt to be distracted by screens when they’re feeling down or stressed, despite the fact they know it won’t make them feel better – or will even make them feel worse. By spending time away from their devices and spending time doing other, more productive things like simple meditation or breathing practice, drawing or journaling about their feelings, or participating in an offline hobby — they can cultivate healthier calming and self-care routines.
It’s important to note that teens should not need to depend on any outside force – like a drug, another person, or a smartphone – to feel calm or emotionally secure. Experts say that if your teen is unable to operate independently of their phone – and implementing the above steps aren’t helping them build their emotional regulation skills – you should consult a professional.
If your teen is exhibiting any of the symptoms or behaviors described in this article, please contact Nicklaus Children’s Pediatric Psychology Team at 305-669-6503.