How to Help Teens Develop Better Phone Habits

By Beverly K. Bachel, author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens

How to Help Teens Develop Better Phone Habits“Put your phone down and go outside.”

How many times will you say this to teens this summer? Chances are several times each day.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teens spend upwards of nine hours a day on their phones. And according to behavior change expert Kris Jennings, summer is a great time to focus on helping teens improve their phone habits.

“Shifts in our usual patterns such as moving from the structure of school days to the freedom of summer vacation create opportunities for us to stop old ways of behaving and start new ways,” explains Jennings. According to a 2019 survey, the average person picks up their phone about ninety-six times a day and then proceeds to use it for one minute and fifteen seconds. That amounts to two hours a day. And while it’s not easy to stop ourselves from picking up our phones, in large part because they’re designed to keep us coming back, learning a few basic principles of behavior change can help your teens take control of their phones . . . and their lives.

Our phones create messy habits, so we need to start by untangling the good from the bad,” says Jennings. “Asking your teens to quit cold turkey or taking away their phones is not helpful . . . or sustainable.”

Start with awareness

The first step is to help teens become more aware of how they currently use their phones by encouraging them to observe their phone use over a few days, jotting down what they notice, while you do so as well. What time-specific or emotional triggers prompt them to pick up their phones? For instance, do they do so when they first wake up? When they get home from camp? What about when they’re feeling anxious, bored, excited, lonely, or sad?

Also ask them to pay attention to how they feel before, during, and after using their phones in various ways (playing Wordle, scrolling social media, chatting with friends, watching online videos).

Tapping into greater self-awareness for how they use their phone and how they feel after doing so can help them identify which behaviors they want to continue, which they’d like to leave behind, and which they’d like to replace with more positive, and perhaps even more productive, habits.

“Once your teens decide they want to make changes, it gets much easier to support them because their motivation is coming from within,” says Jennings, who uses the Tiny Habits method of behavior change to help teens alter their behaviors.

Developed by BJ Fogg, director of the Stanford University Behavior Design Lab and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, the Tiny Habits method is scientifically proven to create new, lasting habits quickly and easily.

Jennings stresses three ways to help teens develop and maintain their momentum:

  1. Start small. The Tiny Habits method focuses on taking small, positive actions, such as saying a daily affirmation, that can be completed in as little as thirty seconds and incorporating them into other, existing habits like brushing one’s teeth or pouring a bowl of cereal.
  2. Focus on the positive. Rather than admonishing teens for using their phones, praise the behaviors you want to see more of. Also consider setting up a few rules that both you and teens agree to. For example, no using phones at the dinner table or while driving.
  3. Celebrate! Intentionally celebrating success, even with something as simple as a high-five, reminds teens they have what it takes to change and that their new behaviors are worth celebrating.

“Self-awareness and building habits that support our goals are lifelong skills,” Jennings says. “Unfortunately, most of us learn to resist change because we don’t have positive emotions around it. By embracing tiny habits, teens can change in some pretty big ways.”

To help teens improve their phone and other digital skills, download this free Slaying Digital Dragons Resistance Manifesto. It is one of many practical tools included in Slaying Digital Dragons, a book that helps teens better understand how their digital habits impact their bodies, brains, psyches, relationships, and reputations.

Beverly BachelBeverly Bachel is a freelance writer and the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens. She has introduced thousands of teens and parents to the power of goal-setting.

What Do You Really WantBeverly is the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens.

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