Fewer Screens Make Happier Tweens: Tips for Parenting Middle Schoolers

Fewer Screens Make Happier Tweens: Tips for Parenting Middle Schoolers

By Elaine Griffin

In her preface to “The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction,” Christine Carter argues that while parents of young children are often their kids’ chief of staff, parents need a more nuanced approach as kids reach puberty. We should involve them in the creation of house rules and allow them to make more choices for themselves. Instead of dictating how children spend their time, Carter invites parents to ask, “What’s your plan?” 

Carter notes that it’s typically during middle school that students first experience the physical and psychological changes that often continue beyond puberty and into a young person’s mid-twenties; her invaluable lessons on parenting will therefore also see you through your child’s high school and college years. I’ve highlighted advice that I think is particularly relevant for the behaviors we see in middle schoolers.

But hold that thought for a minute.

As Carter rightly notes, you can’t start properly caring for your kids until you learn to take care of yourself. Carter observes that parents’ “emotions are contagious” and “spread like wildfire”; adults’ proper stress management, she continues, is integral to children’s “happiness and school success.” Bottom line: we as adults need to model self-care, practicing what we preach, and living by example.

A young teenage girl smiles while using her phone.

Carter, therefore, urges parents to relieve their stress by finding fulfillment outside of parenting. Activities like reading for pleasure, connecting with friends, and exercising can help manage anxiety. Carter also suggests that parents promote “positive interpretations of difficult events.” For example, if family travel plans were canceled due to COVID-19, you could recognize the positive aspects of a celebration at home. Your sense of calm and your resilience have a profound impact on your child. 

In taking care of yourself, you’ll be better positioned to tackle what Carter identifies as three of the most common problems confronting kids in this age of anxiety and distraction; in cataloging them here, I also include some of Carter’s practical solutions for each of them.

1.    The Problem: Social Media is a Source of Chronic Stress.

Over one-third of teens report “feeling bad about themselves” after engaging with social media. It makes kids feel socially excluded; it prompts them “to compare themselves to others”; and, it leads to materialism (as many “selfies” are actually “wealthies”). Rather than connecting your kids to others, social media more often highlights their isolation; instead of interacting with peers, they’re scrolling alone. Carter notes that kids’ well-being begins to plummet before they’ve spent even one hour in a day on a smartphone.

The Solution: Promote Real-Time Connections.

Family dinners that are device-free support kids’ feelings of belonging and teach them important
skills. Social skills, especially the art of conversation, are more effectively learned through modeling than through direct instruction. And family conversations not only foster values such as empathy, generosity, and gratitude. They also enrich kids’ vocabularies. Carter doesn’t pull punches: “Kids who eat dinner with their families regularly are more emotionally stable and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They get better grades. They have fewer depressive symptoms, particularly among adolescent girls.” Enough said.

Touch your kids. Touch establishes trust, makes us feel safe, and calms us down. Adolescents 
are not conscious of their need for parental affection. Depending on their age and disposition, some kids may feel embarrassed by a hug because it makes them feel young when they are trying to assert their own identity. The good news, Carter reports, is that a “single touch can trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding, love, and compassion.” A pat on the back, a shoulder tap, or a high five can serve as quick confirmation to your kids that you care about them. Want to double the impact? First, put down your phone.

2.    The Problem: An Inability to Focus.

Kids, tweens, and teens are immersed in a world of overstimulation. Social media, video games, and junk food flood the brain’s reward center, giving the brain dopamine hits and resulting in feelings of pleasure. But as Carter notes, the “more we indulge in a pleasure, the more immune to it we become,” which “causes us to need more and more stimulation to get the same hit of pleasure.” This is why kids (and adults!) can become addicted to their phones, to video games, or to binge-watching shows on Netflix. Too much dopamine causes cravings, irritability, and a loss of impulse control. One more piece of bad news: Rewarding substances also inhibit the body’s production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that we need to feel content. In essence, due to overstimulation, kids are biologically more prone to struggle with attention issues and anxiety.

The Solution: Cultivate Focus

Discourage your kids from multi-tasking. If your kids are checking TikTok and texting while doing
homework, it’s harder to learn something new, commit something to memory, or recall what they know. As they switch from one task to the next, Carter observes, “their overloaded brains stop using their hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.” Multi-tasking also increases stress levels, causing feelings of exhaustion and anxiety. If your kids are trying to do two or more things at once, they’re likely to do each of them poorly. The same goes for you. Banish devices from bedrooms. Kids shouldn’t be checking their phones and watching Amazon Prime in bed; a bed is a place to sleep. Get an old-fashioned alarm clock so that your child isn’t looking at a phone right before going to sleep and while waking up each day. The blue light from devices inhibits kids from sleeping; Carter notes that it also prohibits “the memory consolidation kids need for learning.” Make sure that your child doesn’t use any devices for at least one full hour before bed. During that hour before bed, Carter suggests getting kids a good book that captures their interest and promotes focus.

Create a Study Hall at Home. “Interruptions,” Carter tells us, “take about 23 minutes to recover from.” How to avoid them? Create a fortress from distraction that enables a nightly homework routine. When writing, celebrated novelist Jonathan Franzen famously uses a word processor that isn’t connected to the Internet; it forces him to focus. Carter suggests a two-hour study hall for middle schoolers with three half-hour blocks of study time, broken up by two fifteen-minute breaks. Kids should remove their phones from the room and only open the documents they will need on their computers. They should bring a glass of water and a snack to their desks. If there is noise in the house, she suggests noise-canceling headphones. Better yet? Encourage kids to take Carter’s prescribed breaks device-free. Really, the world will wait.

3.    The Problem: A Lack of Rest

With their devices always at their fingertips, adolescents never get bored and rarely daydream.
Constantly being engaged and entertained causes what neuroscientists term “cognitive overload,” which inhibits our ability to organize, problem-solve, make decisions, and learn new things. Teens are also sleeping less, and Carter points out that tweens and teens using social media every day are 20 percent less likely to get the sleep they need than teens who don’t. Carter suggests that sleep deprivation is the primary culprit in today’s mental health crisis among teens; it’s a central reason why many adolescents feel overwhelmed, lonely, and anxious. And it’s no good for adults, either; in his recent book, Dr. Sanjay Gupta points to sleep deprivation as a primary cause of brain deterioration when we get older.

The Solution: Encourage Stillness

Promote daydreaming by making your car a device-free zone. This will allow your middle schooler time to daydream and look out the window. The task-negative brain is an active one, Carter points out: “All those neurons start making connections between things we didn’t see before, usually at an unconscious level.” This kind of relaxation helps kids solve problems and make larger connections. 

Encourage your kids to sleep at least nine to ten hours per night. Sleep really does promote happiness. Carter writes that there is a “mountain of research” on how getting adequate sleep actually does more for kids’ academic success than sacrificing sleep to study. If your child’s priorities include good health, happiness, good grades, and competing well in athletics, sleep is a central component in reaching these goals.

Set times for device use so that your kids don’t need to rely on willpower alone. Collaborate with your children to schedule times when they will intentionally check their phones so they are not checking them compulsively. Use apps that set screen-time limits, so that hours are not consumed unconsciously online. Identify areas of your home, like the bathroom, bedroom, and dining room, as device-free zones. Design an environment that supports the goal of spending less time on devices. Your home should be a retreat from the distractions and superficial values of the outside world; make it a peaceful place.

Having created that haven from the heartless and noisy world, perhaps you yourself will pick up
Carter’s book. I’ve only scratched the surface, here, of all the top-flight parenting tips she has to offer.

She’ll help you meet your kids where they are. And in helping you help them navigate adolescence in this fast-paced, unpredictable, and complicated world, she can simultaneously guide you toward a better, more balanced life.

About Elaine Griffin:

Elaine Griffin has worked at University School of Milwaukee since 1998, serving as the head of Middle School since 2019. Previously, she served as the assistant head of Upper School and taught Upper School English. She has both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in English, and served as the president of the Whitefish Bay Library.

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