What rules should I have around technology for my teenagers?

Q. I have three children aged 16, 14 and 11. What rules should I set around using technology in the home? They seem to always be either watching TV, on the tablet, using the Wii or texting friends. They’re technology obsessed. They would spend the whole day on their devices if I let them. Sometimes I come in from work and all three of them are on a screen of some sort and it is hard to get a word out of them. Sometimes I get angry and insist everything is switched off but then this just leads to a big row. What are reasonable expectations for teenagers these days?

A. The question of how much to let technology into family life is an important one for parents these days. Whereas in the “old days” arguments focused on how much TV children and teenagers could watch, now parents have to contend with the internet, texting on mobile phones, tablets, computers and games consoles. Families are bombarded by technology and it can easily become an intrusion and interfere with family relationships.

The problem is not just for children and teenagers but also for parents who may have their own technology addiction and be constantly checking emails at home or surfing the internet or watching TV. As you describe, typical family scenes in the evening can involve one parent watching the TV, another on the computer while the teen children are on games consoles or social networking sites or texting. Everyone is talking to someone else and no one is talking to anyone at home.

Be in charge of technology at home
While of course there are some benefits to all these new technologies, in terms of leisure (everyone needs some escapism), learning and communication with the outside world, there are of course many disadvantages in terms of distracting from many other active and healthy pursuits as well as interfering with family relationships and stopping people being fully present at home. You can take steps as a parent to address this. The key is to make sure you are in charge of technology, rather than technology being in charge of you. Rather than letting technology creep in and take over family life, you need to take a proactive stance and decide what role technology should have and to set rules around this.

Set family rules around screen time
Simple family rules around technology and screen time can make a big difference. For example, have no technology on in the morning or leave phones at the end of the table during mealtimes or switch off all screens after a certain time in the evening, or have a technology-free evening at least once a week etc. It can also help to plan in advance when and where technology might be used; for example, you might agree with your teenagers that it is only used after homework and for a limited amount of time. You could also plan with them a few key programmes they want to watch on TV and stick to this so as to avoid aimless surfing or letting technology fill in all the gaps.

Use screen time to enhance family communication
When technology is allowed, try to make sure that it is beneficial and supports family communication. For example, you can join one of your teens searching on the internet as part of a school project or watching a favourite weekly TV programme together. Instead of just criticising their use of computer games, you could join them in playing and use this a source of shared fun as well as getting to know their specific interests. You could also organise a weekly family night when you have a shared meal and join together in “screen time”, watching a favourite DVD or reviewing your favourite comedy moments on You Tube, or doing a fitness game together on the Wii.

When I ask parents about the times they discuss important issues with their teenagers (such as drinking or peer groups etc), many say that it is when it is brought up in the plot of a TV soap opera or documentary that they are watching together. In these cases, technology can be used as a means of communication rather than as a barrier. It is all about being tuned in and involved in what your children are doing.

Negotiate changes with teenagers
Introducing changes in how technology is used in your family is likely to be resisted by your teenagers and it is important to set this up properly and to involve them in how it might be done. One creative way is to organise a family meeting with everyone present and to raise your concerns about the over use of technology and to listen to their views. It can help if you make it a family project to reflect about together how to make sure that technology is helpful for the family (perhaps you could search together on the internet for research on the subject!).

A light-hearted approach might also help – for example you can set a challenge to see who can live without technology for a weekend (including the parents) and/or give a prize for who goes the longest. Take time as a family to think about this important issue and expect that it might take a few meetings or discussions over a couple weeks before you decide what is best. While it is important that you take leadership in setting rules, the ideal is to empower your teenagers to reflect and make decisions about the issues themselves.

Focus on healthy pursuits
As well as setting rules on technology, it is also important to set goals around healthy family pursuits. In some research, it is only when the use of technology interferes with a person’s involvement in healthy activities such as sports, education, hobbies, social projects etc, that it becomes a problem. Even if your teens continue to spend a great deal of time using technology, once this is balanced by other healthy pursuits, then this it may not be such a problem. Such healthy pursuits can include family time, quality one-to-one time with parents, as well as meaningful learning projects.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper. John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.