How to Get Teens to Be Honest About Their Technology Habits

Use these five tips for a productive teen tech talk. 

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Make any mention of adolescent technology obsession, and the three nearest teens will put their guards up faster than you can unlock your phone.

Teenagers are incessantly bombarded with negativity regarding their generation’s dependence on all things digital, so it makes complete sense that they’re reluctant to admit their own tech habits.

Our relationship with screens is an area of concern for many of us, but when adults discuss the issue with teens, the conversation requires extra sensitivity to not appear accusatory. Here are a few techniques that will make the discussion easier and more productive for both parties.

1. Open with a discussion of young children’s technology use. 

Rather than asking teens to focus on themselves right off the bat, introduce a discussion of technology with an emphasis on young children—babies, toddlers, and elementary schoolers. This approach will invite teens to think and talk about the subject honestly, instead of defensively.

When I had my eighth graders read about the Taiwanese government’s recent ban of iPads for children under two and declare whether they agreed with the new law, the class was split evenly. During their debate, one student argued that since it would be nearly impossible for the government to accurately monitor every family’s tech use, the ban was more about conveying a message. He thought that people would be more likely to cut back on screen time if they would otherwise feel ashamed and self-conscious about defying the warning.

Another student drew on his babysitting experience to tell us how children were quick to throw tantrums when he took their iPads away. He also voiced concern about our dwindling attention spans—an interesting perspective from a 13-year-old.


2. Acknowledge the adult hypocrisy.  

Our conversation soon moved from babies to grown-ups.

My sixth graders are currently working on a project about the Blue Zones—the five areas in the world where people are most likely to live to be over 100—and coming up with ways to create their own healthy zones within their homes. One of my students wrote that she would like to set a tech curfew for “the WHOLE FAMILY.” Clearly, someone is having some tech addiction issues, and it doesn’t appear to be her.

Our teens know the frustration of trying to talk to the back of a phone or tablet, and they have concerns about adults’ face-to-face communication skills. Thus, we need to be open about our own technology habits, as well. We can’t tell kids to put down their devices if we continue to ignore them for ours.


3. Keep a balanced outlook.

We adults wouldn’t be able to function in today’s society without our beloved screens, so we shouldn’t expect teenagers to do so either. If we want to help kids strike a balance with technology, the pendulum can’t be pulled too far in one direction. Technology isn’t a bad habit to be conquered; it’s enriched our lives in so many ways. Before we start talking about the challenges it presents us, we need to acknowledge its opportunities, too.


4. Approach the topic like you would nutrition.

If children weren’t making good food choices, we would never take their lunches away and make them starve. We would teach them how to eat healthy, offering them coping skills and guidance as they learn to set new habits.

The same should go for technology.

One of teens’ biggest fears about revealing their tech habits is that we’ll scale up restrictions and take their devices away. But that isn’t even an option. In 2011, Internet access was ruled by the UN to be a basic human right. While teens can certainly survive without technology, in the world we have created for them, it would be nearly impossible for them to thrive.


5. Avoid the word “addiction.”

An addiction usually refers to something you can quit cold turkey. Technology is simply not one of those things; it’s too vital to our world now. So no matter how chaotic their current tech habits may be, everyone (teens included) will grow to overcome their “addiction” and learn to build a better balance.


One of my eight graders began an argument with, “When I was their age,” and it reminded me of the approach that so many adults take. I had to remind her that, while it may be true, any argument with that opening statement is no longer valid. “When we were that age,” it was a completely different world.

For more background on teens and tech, read about what I learned when I took my students on an (almost) tech-free field trip. Also be sure to check out the technology section of Choices’ new teen health online resource guide!