Screen time
Educational Advice

The Screen Time Diet: helping your teen find balance with their tech

· May 10, 2023

For teens, TikTok, Instagram and online games like Roblox can take up hours of their day. Too much screen time can mean they aren’t socialising, staying active or spending enough time doing their homework. 

But, tech can also offer amazing ways for them to learn new skills. It can also help them get creative and even revise for their exams. The future of work (and everything else) will only be more tech-centric. So, learning how to use it in a healthy, balanced way will help set them up for life.

How do you strike a balance when it comes to screen time? We dig into the research around how much screen time is too much and the difference between healthy and unhealthy screen time. We also share our top tips for finding a balance as a family.

  1. How much screen time is too much?
  2. What’s the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ screen time?
  3. Signs your teen may be spending too much time on their screens
  4. 7 apps and websites to help teens learn and create
  5. Finding balance with screens as a family
  6. Help them change their screen settings (to minimise distractions)

How much screen time is too much?

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), kids aged 8-18 now spend, on average, a whopping 7.5 hours a day looking at screens for entertainment. This includes TV, tablets and phones.

We now know that excessive screen time has negative effects on children and teens, including mental health issues and poor sleep quality. So, it’s natural for parents to start asking, how much screen time is too much?

Experts say that it’s difficult to pin down. Although some pediatricians would recommend generally no more than two hours of screen time each day, a lot of experts highlight the importance of the content being consumed, rather than just the time spent.

“The content you’re consuming actually matters more than the overall time you spend on your phone,” Yalda T. Uhls, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, told Time Magazine. “Watching a documentary on your phone, for instance, doesn’t have the same impact as mindlessly scrolling Instagram.”

What’s the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ screen time?

Making the most of tech is a bit like having a healthy diet. “It’s important to eat healthy foods alongside sweets and dessert. And the same is true of the ’empty calories’ that come from spending too much time passively gazing at screens,” says Adam Alter, Social Psychologist and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology

So, ‘unhealthy’ screen time should be balanced with ‘healthy’ screen time. And keeping the balance is much better than banning tech altogether.

Psychologists also divide the way we use tech into two categories – passive and active screen time. Active screen time is when we’re learning, using our minds, doing something creative or video chatting. 

Passive screen time is when we’re vegging out, watching a film or scrolling absent-mindedly through social media. 

Active screen time is the healthy part of the screen time diet, and ideally, it should outweigh our passive screen time.

Signs your teen may be spending too much time on their screens

You’re the best person to tell if your teen needs more time away from their screen. It’s also important to open up the conversation. How is the content they’re looking at making them feel? What relationship do they feel they have with social media? 

Here are some tell-tale signs that they might need a change:

  • They’re finding it hard to concentrate on off-screen activities like reading and writing
  • They have a meltdown when separated from their phone
  • They avoid spending time in person with friends and family
  • They need to check their phone constantly throughout the day

Your teen can ask themselves these questions to find out how they’re using their screens, and how it’s making them feel:

  1. Why did I pick up my phone just now? Was it to do something specific like chat with a friend? Or was it to scroll through Instagram and TikTok out of habit? 
  2. How was I feeling before I reached for my screen? Sometimes, we mindlessly scroll when we’re feeling bored, sad, or lonely.
  3. Is there anything else I could be doing right now? If they’re scrolling out of boredom or habit, encourage them to do something active. Like a chat or video chat with a friend or relative, or even better – get outside for a walk.
  4. How do I feel about myself after being on my screen? If your teen is sad or moody after scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, they might be comparing themselves with others. “We live in an age of social comparison, especially with social media,” says Clinical Psychologist, Dr Louise Egan. It’s easy for teens to think everyone around them is having a better time when pictures on Instagram are made to look that way. 

Healthy screen time: 7 apps and websites to help teens learn and create

There’s a whole world of opportunities to learn, discover, play and create during their screen time. Here are some examples your teen will love:

1. TEDTalks

Home to over 3,000 inspirational and educational talks, from ‘The mysterious origins of life on Earth’ to ‘What emotions look like in a dog’s brain’.

2. MyTutor

We provide one-to-one online tuition to help boost teens’ grades and confidence. They get their own mentor from a top uni, and lessons fit with their schedule. 

On our Instagram and TikTok social channels, we’ve got loads of learning resources, study hacks, and ‘how-to’ explainer videos for GCSE and A-level subjects.

3. Google Sketchup

For any budding designers, architects or artists out there, teens can build 3D mock-ups of houses, people, inventions and anything else they dream up.

4. Magisto

This video editing app will see their creativity spark. They can turn simple videos from their phone into beautifully crafted films. The Oscars, here we come!

5. Lumosity

While some tech use is said to shorten our attention spans and memory, this brain-training app has puzzles, games and exercises to help them become a problem-solving mastermind.

6. Headspace

This is an incredibly accessible meditation app (something that’s proven to improve your wellbeing). But there are also guided walking meditations, sleep stories and specific content for teens to help them improve their mental health.

7. Three Good Things

This is a simple online gratitude journal that lets you jot down three things each day that have gone well or made you happy. You can look back over your entries to reflect on the positive moments.

Finding balance with screens as a family

Research shows that your teen’s screen time can be affected by how much time you spend on your phone and looking at screens. So, one of the best ways to strike a healthier balance is to do this together.

If you all try to cut down on your screen time together – think of it as a fun joint challenge – you can talk about it with each other and cheer each other on. 

Here are some handy pointers for getting a healthier screen time balance for the whole family:

No phones at the dinner table

Family meals are an important time for everyone to connect with each other. You can choose any meal that works. Breakfast or dinner tend to be easiest for everyone to get together.

Listen to podcasts or watch films about screen time and mental health

Dr Egan says it’s a good idea to listen to podcasts and watch documentaries with your teen on how screen addiction affects celebrities and role models. This way, the conversation around ‘screen time’ doesn’t just revolve around parents nagging them about it. 

Design a screen time routine together

Instead of just banning their phones, Dr Egan suggests you can help them put together a weekly routine that includes screens. It might look like this: socialising, studying, being helpful at home – and then screen time. 

You can work out the details together. The American Academy of Paediatrics has a screen time calculator you can use to work out the right balance for your family. 

Plan fun activities

It’s easy to fall into the same old routine on the sofa. If you plan to go to a museum, or sign them up for activities they enjoy after school – it’ll be less screen time.  

Encourage their passions (even if it’s gaming)

If asking your teen to stop gaming feels like an uphill battle, Dr Egan suggests turning their obsession into something positive. An Easter holiday course on gaming design or coding could get them excited about a career path. 

No screens before bed

Entrepreneur Ariana Huffington swears by ‘putting her phone to bed’ in the evening and keeping her room phone-free to help her wind down and sleep better.

Help them change their screen settings (to minimise distractions)

There are lots of ways you can help your teen adjust their tech to work best for them. Many phones have a ‘screen time’ section in their settings. This is where they can track and limit their use of particular apps and the use of their phone overall.

Apps like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook all have ‘usage’ sections in their settings where your teen can see how much time they spend on them. From there, you can help them set goals to keep a healthy screen time balance. 

They can even set their phone display to black and white so they won’t be as distracted by push notifications and ads.

There are apps like Focus that help your teen when they’re revising. On Focus, there’s a Pomodoro timer built in so that they can make the most of their study time – without distractions popping up.

It might take some trial and error to help your teen find what works best for them. But it’ll be worth it! As well as helping your teen find a healthier balance for life, you might even find it brings your family closer together. 

If your teen could do with more revision tips and tricks, our tutors are study experts who did the same exams as them in the past few years. Find the right tutor for them here

10 years ago
A Level

How to Motivate Moody Readers

Not everyone is born with a love of the written word, and in an age of iPads, laptops ... Read more

3 years ago
Educational Advice · 3 years ago

Getting into gear: 6 top takeaways from our “Stepping Up to A Level” webinar

At the end of June, we hosted a webinar for our teens and parents called “Stepping u... Read more

6 years ago
A Level

How to structure an English essay

Structuring an English essay is just as important as the content of itself. You need t... Read more