Digital Devices and Family Time: Three Tips to Connect to Your Technological Teenager

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Today, teenagers have access to far more technology than any other generation before them. While this easy access has many advantages, it has also been shown to negatively impact teenagers’ mental health and interactions with others, such as family members. In my experience as a marriage and family therapist, this problem surfaces repeatedly with families. Does this sound familiar to you? Loving parents ask their teenage son or daughter how their day has been at dinner table, only to see their nose buried into their phone, tablet, or laptop engrossed in social media apps.

All too often situations like this cause friction in families resulting in negative interactions, and it can be frustrating to watch digital devices invade and overtake family time. Today, teenagers spend around 18 hours a week online, often on social media apps and sites at a cost to family time. One study found that 77% of parents believe their teenager doesn’t pay attention due to digital devices when they spend time together. It seems that, quite paradoxically, these devices are keeping us separated rather than connecting us as designed.

To disconnect from devices and meaningfully connect with significant others, these three tips can help.

Tip One – Banning Digital Devices at Family Events

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            One family I worked with discussed a family rule where no one, including the parents, was allowed a phone or tablet during family gatherings. Naturally, I was curious how they managed to pry their 16-year old daughter’s phone from her hands; I always imagined her with a flag on her wall displaying a phone surrounded by a snake with “Don’t tread on me” as a tag line. They described using a coffee table box for remote control storage—manufactured to resemble an old book—to deposit all mobile devices prior to the event starting and placing the box on a shelf in their family room. No one could touch the box short of the event ending except for emergencies. This kept everyone engaged with one another during their event instead of worrying about their devices. They even reported their daughter having forgotten about her devices 20 minutes after the event began.


Tip Two – Establishing Daily Boundaries


Teenagers struggling with self-control often experience difficulties in college, in personal relationships, and in the work force. Indeed, I’ve worked with several teenagers failing college courses or fired from work positions due to spending too much time on digital devices and not enough on their responsibilities. Establishing proper boundaries for teenagers now can help prepare them for their own independence in young adulthood. For example, parents may ask their teenager to power down their devices before bedtime and limit device time during the weekends. These boundaries work best when set with consequences for violations. As for any form of self-control, practice makes perfect. Repeatedly holding teenagers to boundaries and agreed consequences can enhance their ability to engage in proactive behaviors themselves.


Tip Three – Proper Modeling


            Shockingly, one of the best ways to limit the impact digital devices have on family time is to model the positive behavior you’d like your teenager to enact. Many parents are often on their devices to pay bills, solve problems, and complete work responsibilities during family time, and many have experienced their own behavior used as a weapon against them in an argument with their teenage daughter or son. In this case, parents’ actions regarding digital devices can speak louder than their words. One couple I worked with decided to turn off their phone walking into their home after work and power it up after being home for two hours. During this time, they would talk with their children and each other about their day without being distracted by a bright screen. Another family decided they would only call one another when they could rather than texting making the use of these devices as personal as possible. Lastly, one entire family decided that one night a week from 7pm to 9pm would be device-free time, making their family time more enjoyable with one another. No matter what strategy you use, it is important that they work for you.




            It is important to note teenagers may always be grumpy to give up something they enjoy, but trust that they can learn to be flexible. If you find that trying to enact these tips akin to starting a war with your teenager, seeking professional help from a family therapist may be helpful to find a specially crafted strategy that works for you and your family. This can help if this problem is more severe than simple nuisances.

With the innovations of artificial intelligence and virtual reality coming soon, it is more important than ever youth find ways of ‘disconnecting’ from digital realities to stay connected to those around them. Hopefully, these three tips will help you and your family find ways to limit the encroachment of digital devices on the time you have with one another.

Note: Originally published as an article in the May 2018 issue of Ouachita Living.

About the author: Dr. Jason P. Austin is a marriage and family therapist at GP Consulting, LLC; He can be reached at 318-516-3878 or