Teens and Screens: How to manage distraction

Screens pose a challenge to teen health.

This is the first in a series of articles about issues related to teens and screens.

Teen texting

Image source: Thinkstock

Computers, cell phones, tablets and other everyday electronic devices present some unique challenges to today’s teenagers and their parents. Some of these challenges include sleep disruption, cyber bullying and “sexting.”

Today, I’d like to talk about screens and how to manage distraction.

We all struggle with time management in our busy lives; carpools, jobs, errands, family life and self-care all pull us in a million directions. Our teenagers’ lives include things like school, chores, extra-curricular activities and practices, homework and the all-encompassing social life.

In addition to that, the teenage brain is less developed in the areas of what we call “Executive Function”:

  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Task flexibility
  • Resisting temptation

So what does this have to do with screens? It has a lot to do with screens when you think about it.

Teenagers often communicate with one another through text and social media. Gone are the days of long phone calls in the family home in the evening or trying to sneak notes across the classroom. Our kids are now constantly bombarded with text messages and alerts during class, while driving, and when they should be sleeping.

It’s hard enough as an adult to ignore that “ping” from you phone when you should be paying attention to that project at work or to the conversation with a friend. For our teenagers, it’s even harder.

As parents we need to lay some ground rules to help our kids learn to manage the distractions and make sure they are getting adequate learning time, attention, and rest.

  1. No cell phones while driving!
    This needs to be a hard and fast rule in every household. Parents, we need to set an example and we need to insist that our teenagers put the phone out of reach the moment they are behind the wheel. No text or phone call is worth losing a life.
  2.  Phones off or set aside in the classroom and while doing homework.
    I’ve watched my teenagers check their cell phones every few minutes while they were supposedly doing homework! Many teens will argue that they can multitask, but there’s good scientific evidence that we aren’t nearly as good at that as we think we are. (Here’s an interesting story from NPR about the myth of multitasking)
  3. Screens (All screens- TV, computer, phone, tablets, etc!) should be off at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
    Brightly lit screens can disrupt the body’s internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep at night. Active games, TV shows and social media can set the mind on “alert” and interfere with relaxation and quality sleep. And of course those devices “pinging” in the middle of the night will wake your teen even when a bull horn at 7am won’t! Put all the device chargers in a central location in the home where they can be charged overnight. No dead batteries and no disrupted sleep.
  4. Meal times.
    Meal times should be phone and computer-free, especially family meals. It’s hard enough to find time to talk with our teens as it is — don’t let electronics disrupt this important time. Again, we need to lead by example. Texts and calls can wait.

Consider this Family Media Pledge from Healthychildren.org.

Stay well!


  1. Avatar Chris Castoro says

    Thanks Dr. Willis!