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Supporting Digital Wellbeing: 8 Ways to Help Teens Unplug from Technology

Helping Teens Unplug from Technology

The CDC recommends kids ages 11-18 limit screen time to 1-2 hours per day. With a few practical tips, teens and their parents can strike a balance between unplugging and engaging with their phones and devices.


Digital devices are everywhere and fulfill a lot of our everyday needs — from checking the weather and the news, to school and homework, to communicating with others — making it hard to balance unplugging from technology and engaging with it. Teens in particular may find it difficult to disconnect because, as digital natives, they have always had digital technology in their lives.


Screens aren’t necessarily a bad thing — they’re often a requirement for school or work. They can be portals to learning, discovery and greater connection with people around the world. But excessive screen time can lead to screen addiction and may cause mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, social isolation and difficulty controlling technology use.


This is especially true for teens, who are more likely to say that social media negatively affects their health and wellbeing.


So how much screen time is too much?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends kids ages 11-18 limit their screen time to 1-2 hours per day1. Yet on average, teens spend 7.5 hours in front of a screen for entertainment alone — not including screen time spent for schoolwork or homework.


That time could instead be spent with family, friends, or pets, helping around the house, being active, or getting involved in their community or their local Boys & Girls Club. As Mr. Gordon says at the Albany Clubhouse says, “it's important to log off sometimes so you can focus more and get better sleep.”


BGCCA Digital Learning Lab courtesy of AT&T

Ok, so how to unplug from technology?

Whether you’re trying to support your teen in unplugging from technology or you’re looking to step away from so much screen time yourself, BGCCA offers eight ways to be better about technology management:


1. Be honest about your own habits

If the household rule is “no phones at the dinner table,” it can be frustrating for teens to see their parents or caregivers get around it with excuses like “I can’t miss this call,” or “I have to check my work email.” Teens are more likely to disconnect from technology if they see their parents and caregivers setting a positive example of technology themselves.


Screen time can be just as much an issue for adults as it is for teens. Being honest about your own tech usage, including discussing with your teen how hard you might also find it to unplug, can help teens feel seen and supported as you both work to build healthy habits around technology.


2. Start small

We asked Boys & Girls Club teens for their advice on unplugging, and “just try” is a mantra we heard from several teens. Start with just 30 minutes to an hour every day, ideally at the same time each day — consistency is key to building new habits. After a week, consider adding another 30 minutes or setting up an additional screen free time during the week.


3. Brainstorm replacement activities

Teens might feel lost without their devices, not knowing what to do or how to spend their time. Before that first screen-free time, help them create a list of some tech-free activities they’d like to do on their own. These could be anything from walking, doing yoga, and hiking, to napping or reading. It could include trying out a new sport or hobby.


4. Establish no-tech activities

Screen-free time is a great opportunity to reconnect as a family. Together, decide on certain family activities to always enjoy without phones or other devices. For example, turn phones on silent when eating a meal together, playing a board game, or spending time outside. Both teens and adults can help hold each other accountable and stick to the plan.


5. Turn off push notifications

Push notifications can be incredibly disruptive and reinforce the need to constantly check devices. Encourage teens to only keep notifications on for important things, like calls and texts from parents and caregivers. Another option is for them to place their phone on “do not disturb” for a certain amount of time. This can help teens feel more empowered to use their device with intention, rather than letting their phone interrupt real-world activities.


6. Identify problem apps

Certain apps and games are designed to be addictive and make it hard for teens (and adults!) to develop healthy habits around. If your teen finds they stay up way too late playing video games or that social media is having a negative impact on their mental health, encourage them to set time limits. Better yet, they could delete the app altogether.


7. Get active

Not only does exercise help teens unplug from technology, but it can also counteract some of the negative impacts of too much screen time. Exercise keeps the brain healthy, can protect against anxiety and depression, promotes better sleep, strengthens bones and muscles, and more. Teens can participate in sports at school or at their Boys & Girls Club, do yoga, go for walks or hikes.


8. Go “old school” with your tech

We used to read the news and tell time without digital technology. Those analog alternatives still exist! Teens who like to read can try a printed book, newspaper or magazine. If you use the phone to keep track of time, switch to an old-fashioned alarm clock or watch to still look at the time without getting distracted by a news alert or social media notification. Small changes like this add up and help teens feel more in control of their digital technology habits.


Kids using library computers

Digital technology is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean it has to control our lives. Establishing balance starts with finding joy in screenless activities, whether that’s connecting with family and friends, being active or exploring offline interests.


By starting small and committing to screen-free activities or time, teens can feel more in control of their tech habits and capable of unplugging when they want or need.


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