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Ask a Professional: Teens and Mobile Phones

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Ask a Professional: Teens and Mobile Phones

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Ask a Professional: Teens and Mobile Phones

I'm sick of explaining to my kids the dangers of continuously utilizing the internet and a cell phone. Youngsters nowadays forget what it's like to play outside and with actual human pals rather than constantly playing with bots or internet friends. What should I do to keep them from using cell phones?


Dear @terrykrobertson,

I can really feel your frustration - it sounds like this is an ongoing issue which you’ve tried to talk to your kids about, but you feel like they just aren’t listening to you.

This brings up two issues - both of which are challenges which a lot of parents face with their teenagers. The first is mobile phones and the second is about communication and young people being willing to listen to parents.

Finding that your teens don’t follow your advice (or even do the opposite) can be something that happens in relation to a number of things - not just phones, but also school, sleep, friendships, and a wide range of topics.

This can feel really frustrating to parents, and it is also a normal part of teen development to pay less attention to their parents than they did when they were younger. It’s part of a process where young people develop their own adult identity and decision making skills, by listening to a range of new voices (including peers) and placing less emphasis on parent’s opinions.

Many young people are also feeling a strong desire to be independent at this stage in their life, so they often respond better to information when it does not come in the form of advice or instruction. This stage doesn’t last forever, but it can be really difficult for parents while it does.

Given these challenges, many parents find themselves wondering how they can communicate with their teens so that they listen.
One of the things that is important to many young people is feeling like someone is listening to them and understanding their perspective.

You may find it helpful to seek to understand what it is about spending time on their phones and the internet which your kids find valuable. In order for them to be willing to talk to you about this, it’s important to approach it with genuine willingness to listen and hold back on judgement or advice. It doesn't mean you need to agree with them, but the goal is to understand how they see things.
Some questions you might ask include “What do you like to do online?”; “What’s your favourite thing about your phone?”; “How does the internet help you stay connected?” Questions like “Why do you spend so much time on your phone?” are more likely to get a defensive response.

I know your goal is for your teens to spend less time on their phones, so asking them what they enjoy about it may seem counterintuitive. However, if you’re willing to listen to what they value about internet time, they may also be willing to share things they don’t like so much. For instance, they might identify that sometimes they have difficulty getting to sleep, or that spending too much time on social media can make them compare themselves to others and feel they don’t measure up. If they are the one to identify the problem, they are far more likely to be willing to try out some solutions (such as limiting time spent on social media, or no phones before bed).

The constant use of phones and other devices is a really common topic that concerns parents of teens today. There have been such rapid shifts in the way that technology is used and how pervasive it is. The relationship we had to technology growing up is very different to how today’s teenagers view it.

Because of this, it can be hard for parents to understand how essential access to the internet can feel to their children. For instance, teens may be using social media to stay connected with their friends. Not being able to access the internet may create isolation, because the rest of the group may have been chatting online, leaving them ‘out of the loop’ and less likely to be included in face to face gatherings.

This doesn’t mean that concerns about excessive internet use aren’t valid, but understanding why teens want to be connected to their phones can also help you work with them to identify how much is too much phone use.

I also wanted to respond to your concern about your kids not playing outside or spending time with friends. Often, when trying to change behaviour, focusing on doing more of the ‘helpful’ activity is more successful than directly trying to reduce the ‘unhelpful’ activity (and it can still result in change, since there are only so many hours in a day). So, if you are worried that your kids aren't getting much outside time or physical activity, then this is something worth talking about separate from the issue of phones.
This could be a good opportunity to do an activity together - perhaps going for an afternoon walk together, or playing a sport. It can help to tailor this to your child’s interests and be flexible (e.g. they may not want to commit to a sport, but be willing to start with a short 10 minute walk to get some fresh air).

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that parenting teenagers can be tiring! It can be hard to feel like you are having the same conversation repeatedly and not getting anywhere, and to also feel like the knowledge that you do have is not being recognised and valued by your kids. The fact that you have kept trying is a sign of how engaged and caring a parent you are.

It’s important to make sure that you’re looking after yourself as well. Often parents find that they spend so much time concerned about their kids, that they don’t also make time to look after themselves. Combined with the challenges of parenting this can lead to a sense of fatigue and irritability. Self-care looks a little different for everyone, but activities like talking to friends, finding time for hobbies and getting exercise can help support your wellbeing, so that you are in the best possible shape to support your kids.

Best wishes,


Linda is a psychologist experienced in working with people across the lifespan, including teenagers and their families, in a variety of settings, and is ReachOut's Clinical Lead.