What No One Wants to Say About Teens, Screen Time, and Depression

What No One Wants to Say About Teens, Screen Time, and Depression

What No One Wants to Say About Teens, Screen Time, and Depression

Last year I read several articles on teens, screen time, and depression. I’ll be honest, the articles at one point left me feeling a bit hopeless and discouraged myself. As someone who speaks to parents about technology, social media, and teens, the articles left me feeling like we’re fighting a losing battle.

And many of you are telling me you feel that way as well.

But, despite these sobering numbers on teens, screen time, and depression, I want to encourage you. There are steps we can take to help our teens manage their screen time. And parents, it starts with us!

Teens, Screen Time, and Depression

Most Americans now own a smartphone. Would you believe a whopping 77% of us?! And, 95% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind. We talk about how connected our kids are, but no one is talking about how connected we are as parents. It’s changed how we function as families.

In many ways, technology helps us do more in less time. It increases our productivity. But, it other ways it distracts us. We try to multi-task and cram way too many things into our day. Often this is at the expense of those right in front of us. Our kids are left feeling they aren’t our priority.

Parents, we are setting the example of healthy digital media usage in our homes. If our teens are struggling with screen time to the point that screen time balance is causing depression rates to rise, we need to look at all angles. We can’t simply blame the app. We can’t simply blame the blue screen. We can’t simply blame it on cyber bullying. We must step back and look at the entire picture. And, that includes our homes and our relationships with our kids. Our teens are crying out for help. We must begin listening to what they are saying.

In her book, The Big Disconnect, Catherine Steiner-Adair EdD. shares this statement…

“The word “hypocrite” comes up a lot from middle school and high school kids. It’s confusing when you know it is time to leave the house and your father is on his laptop or tablet or cell phone and gets mad at you for telling him that you will be late for school. It is defeating when you try to do the right thing (get to school on time) and get in trouble at both ends (at home and at school). To a child, getting mixed messages from parents undermines trust and security. Inconsistency undermines a sense of safety and stability.”

If we want to get a handle on our teens, screen time, and depression, we need to really understand screen time for our family. Parents, that means we need to be honest about our screen usage. We can’t continue giving our kids rules and guidelines that we don’t follow. And, we need to make sure our teens don’t ever feel our screen has priority over them.

Quick Guide: Parental Controls for Android Devices

So where do we begin?

Begin by looking at the key features built into the applications on your devices. Understand, most of these features are there to draw you in and keep you there. Let’s start with these features to make changes for everyone in the family. Because what no one is saying about teens, screen time, and depression is that parents are often establishing unhealthy media habits.

We need to step up and lead by example when it comes to our teens and screen time. If we don’t, I fear generations behind us will continue to struggle with teen depression and anxiety at rates possibly higher than we’re seeing now.

Breaking the Hold of Screen Time for Everyone in Your Family

  1. Check Consistently

Life would be so much easier if Instagram updated our feed at precisely 3 p.m. every day. If we had a consistent time, that’s when we’d all check Instagram. We’d schedule our breaks around this time, grab a snack and a cup of coffee, check our feed, reply, and get back to our day. Life would flow so smoothly. We wouldn’t be glued to our devices.

But, that doesn’t work for social media platforms. They need people on their platforms all day long. So, they use “variable rewards.” This formula works brilliantly because it keeps us searching endlessly for our “prize.” That prize can be anything that makes us feel better or validated. A new friend request, new likes on our post, a new status update.

We’re afraid of missing out-FOMO. So, we keep checking and coming back to the platform to see what’s new. And in the process, we often get sucked into staying on the platform and engaging longer than we had anticipated.

Take Control: Turn off app notifications. For most apps, you can do this in the settings. Or, you can go into your phone’s settings and turn off notifications for apps. Then select one or two times a day to check social media. I usually recommend morning and evening. Give yourself a set amount of time to spend on social media as well. This is a great way to really get an idea of how much time you spend consuming content. Let friends know to text you if they want to talk to you.

  1. Notifications

Those encouraging little messages you receive from your apps, push notifications, really do work. They get you to check your apps and are incredibly habit forming. Every app uses them. But some apps like Musical.ly and LifeSum carefully craft their notifications.

These notifications work well because they give us something specific to do. These calls to action not only interrupt us, they cause stress.

Take Control: Turn off notifications for the apps you use. In most cases you don’t need them. To turn off the notifications for your apps go to the settings section in each app. For most apps, that’s where you can turn off notifications.

  1. Auto Play

Auto play is a feature that makes video continue to stream over and over. Binge watching is made easy with auto play. It’s like going to the all-you-can-eat buffet. Only with auto play, you can stay as long as you want. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube Red, and even Facebook all employ the auto play feature which serves up another video to you right after you finish the one you’re watching. It’s easier to just keep watching. Especially after a long day.

Take Control: Auto play is typically on by default, so you must turn it off. The feature can usually be found in the app’s account settings.

  1. In-app Purchases

Nothing is truly free. Free games have a purpose. Usually they lure you in by promising a lower version of an app, then they offer in-app purchases, so you can purchase the full app, buy currency to use in the game, or purchase an additional add-on app. But the goal is to keep you playing and buying. The more you use the game and the more in-app purchases you make, the more the company learns about you.

And, if the game is connected to Facebook, they also know who your friends are. So, the company has more information and can target products that are a fit for you at times you are more likely to buy. We’ve seen exactly how this works in the recent Cambridge Analytica data breech.

In a recent Facebook Live, I shared the steps you can take to lock down your Facebook account and limit apps that have access to it. Be sure to take those steps today.

Take Control: Download paid versions of quality games from trusted providers. You’ll find most games typically aren’t expensive. You won’t deal with in-app purchases and annoying ads. And, they are safer.

  1. Produce vs Consume

Many apps and platforms we use only to consume. Think of these apps as television. It’s one-way. We have no way to interact with it. We tend to “veg out” quickly because the app requires nothing on our part. We don’t have to engage our brain at all. We simply sit back and enjoy the show. The trouble with this is it lulls us into a pattern of not thinking.

But there are many apps and platforms where we can produce something. These applications require us to think, write, create, and at times even engage with others. Our screen time should be largely made up of apps and platforms where we produce something. Apps and platforms where we are a consumer only should be limited to “dessert.”

Take Control: Encourage everyone in the family (including yourself!) to take a hard look at what you do with your screen time. Are you producing something? Or, do you find most of your screen time is spent watching Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube? Create a family challenge to learn something new in 2018.

The numbers on teens, screen time, and depression are scary. But, no one is saying how important it is that we as parents step in and really guide our teens. We have an important role.

Our teens understand the apps. They understand the ins and outs of the platforms. But they are still learning balance. They are still learning how to communicate in a networked public.

Parents, our teens need us more than ever. They need us to help them find peace and rest in a world that seems like it never sleeps. They need us to show them how to step back and breathe. They need us to create a space at home where they can get away and reflect on their day. They need us to do what parents through the ages have done… lead the way by example. Are you ready?

Does your family have a plan for digital media in your home? If not, check out my Family Digital Media Agreement.

What No One Wants to Say About Teens, Screen Time, and Depression

What No One Wants to Say About Teens, Screen Time, and Depression


  1. Jessica on April 11, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    You had some really good key points in this post. We as a family struggle on the daily with screen time usage. We also work from home on screen so I highly doubt correcting this matter is far in the future. We do limit our daughter’s screen time to two-three hours a day, this includes all game and movie time. I find that my daughter does not function very well, nearly at all really if we exceed that amount of time. Great article and great reference for those with older children!

    • Leah Nieman on April 11, 2018 at 4:26 pm

      We work from home as well. I love seeing WAH becoming more of an options for parents. My job is almost entirely on the screen. My husband spends a good deal of time running orders and emailing and doing various other business activities online as well. So I 100% get that balance. My kids seeing me work from home on a screen wasn’t unhealthy at all.

  2. genny on April 11, 2018 at 5:17 pm

    Limit screen time I think it’s essential for all members of the family. As a family group is essential.

    • Leah Nieman on April 11, 2018 at 6:16 pm

      It is. It just gives everyone in the family time to breathe. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  3. Julie on April 11, 2018 at 5:58 pm

    I don’t have teenagers yet. I have 3 girls: 6, 5, and almost 2. We limit the amount of tv time during the day. We have parental control on out Amazon Fire box so they don’t purchase anything. As far as iPads, I don’t have them charged during the week to play. If they want to play on them on the weekends, they have to earn screen time.

    • Leah Nieman on April 11, 2018 at 6:19 pm

      That’s a great idea to just charge the iPads for weekend usage. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Nakia on April 11, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Great points! Screen time is huge around here and I really had to limit time spent for all of us. I tried turning off my social media notifications during the course of the day and I was surprised at how much that actually worked!

    • Leah Nieman on April 11, 2018 at 6:23 pm

      I had to start doing the same a few years ago. It worked so well I still do it. I was having trouble completing projects because the notifications on my phone were a constant distraction. I now turn my phone to silent and place it off my desk when I am writing or working on a project. I get so much done in a shorter amount of time. I realized if I didn’t claim my time someone else would always be there to do it for me. It’s freeing actually.

  5. Emily on April 12, 2018 at 6:19 am

    This is so true and helpful! Just turning off my notifications makes it easier not to check my phone.

  6. Cheyenne on April 12, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    Great article.yet kind of scary !
    My little guys young yet but def taking tips from this… also shutting off my push notifications right now !!

    • Leah Nieman on April 12, 2018 at 7:17 pm

      The depression rate is scary. But, I really think with these small changes we can turn the tide. Just making the change with push notifications is a big step. Especially for those of us who work at home or work heavily online.

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