Study shows parents need to ‘practice what they preach’ when it comes to kids’ screen time

Mom and teens all on technology on the couch

Among the many challenges parents face these days, screen time seems like one of the biggest, especially as kids inch toward the tween and teen years. A new study is highlighting the factors that influence device usage among early adolescents. And parents, you’re going to want to put the phone down… after you finish reading this story, of course.

Published earlier this month in the journal Pediatric Research, a team of pediatric health experts surveyed more than 10,000 American 12- and 13-year-olds and their parents, with both groups answering a questionnaire about screen use and parenting strategies. The participants, who come from varying racial and economic backgrounds, indicated whether or not they believed their relationship to devices was problematic—i.e., they find it tough to put their devices down, if they lose track of how often they’re using them, and if screen time interferes with school or social activities.

Based on the data, it seems that kids are directly influenced by their parents’ phone usage, as the study’s lead author tells the Washington Post. “One of the biggest predictors of adolescents’ screen use is their parents’ screen use,” says Jason Nagata, a pediatrician at the University of California at San Francisco. “It’s especially important that parents follow their own rules and practice what they preach, because even if they think their kids aren’t watching them, they really are.”

It seems that specific instances had the most impact, with more than a third of participants admitting to using screens during meal times, while nearly half of the adolescent participants having access to their phone in bed. The study found that these two time frames — meal time and bedtime — had a direct link to more screen time overall as well as problematic social media, video game, and smartphone usage.

So how can parents help limit screen time as they learn to model better behavior with their families? Curbing device usage at bedtime might just be the ticket to a healthier relationship with screens, says Nagata. “Of the different parenting practices that we examined, the one that had the most significant effect was limiting bedtime screen use. So if you only choose one rule to implement, that may be the most effective one for reducing total screen time.”

Another interesting finding: 78% of the parent participants reported taking away access to devices as punishment, with nearly 40% reporting offering it as a reward for good behavior. “Using screens as either a punishment or reward was associated with overall more screen time,” Nagata tells the outlet. “That was a little bit of a surprising finding for me, initially … but many young adolescents are very tech savvy, so even if you try to institute restrictions or punishments, they may be able to get around them.”

When it comes to the bigger picture, researchers are still determining the short- and long-term impacts of device dependence on adolescent mental health, the experts know that parents are stretched thin, and that shame simply isn’t a helpful strategy for any parenting concern. After all, kids need a loving and present parent, not a perfect one.

Nagata recommends doing your best to keep an open and honest line of communication regarding devices, preferably without phones in hand. “I know that this is really hard for everyone, and despite our best intentions, kids and adults may not be able to always follow these rules,” he says. “So I also think it’s a good opportunity to have open conversations with your preteens when we sometimes fall short.”

Little lifestyle habits here and there will only help them as they grow and develop into the later teen years. “In a few years, they will be older adolescents, and once they’re 18, they are able to make all these decisions on their own,” Nagata adds, “so you do want to teach them good practices that they can incorporate into their adult life.”

As with any parenting concern, checking in with a trusted therapist is always a good idea, especially if you’re worried about your child’s (or your own) reliance on devices. There’s no shame in seeking out support, no matter the issue.