How can we get our teenagers to spend less time on-line?

cara delavigne on phone
Cara Delavigne (when she was a teen) on the phone

Most of us grew up without the internet, as we’ve become parents how we use it and how our children use it is laden with anxiety, we don’t have the antecedents to show us the way and there have been a series of moral panics associated with the internet and especially with how teenagers and children behave and appear on-line.

My children are still small but it’s definitely something I’ve worried about for them now and into the future. Do they have too much screen time? Is this film bad for them? Are games better than passive watching? Should I post pictures of them on social media? Will I be able to stop them posting revealing photos on social media? Will all that porn totally ruin their nascent sexuality and exploration?

So, Teenagers: What Are they Doing On-Line!?!?

I’ve been reading some fascinating research by danah boyd (intentionally lower case, can’t remember why). She’s not an anthropologist but she uses anthropological techniques to great effect in studying teenagers lives on-line in the US. What boyd does by spending many many hours with teenagers across the US, hanging out with them on-line, at their friend’s houses, the mall and interviewing them is she gets to properly see things from their perspective. It’s what’s called ‘participant observation’ by anthropologists. One of the great gifts of anthropological research is that it helps us understand what may at first seem strange or nonsensical. How can people believe in witchcraft? How can teenagers expect their parents not to check their twitter feeds? boyd works hard to help us understand why teenagers behave the way they do on-line.

Teenagers Spend Too Much Time On-Line

Many adults decry the habit teenagers have of spending hours attached to their devices and how they are losing social skills. Why do teenagers spend so long on-line? In large part, according to boyd, because they’re not allowed out. If they want to socialise in groups there are very few places they are welcome and very few places parents feel they are safe. She refers to Gill Valentine’s research on the rise of ‘stranger danger’ as a concept and the damage it has done to teenagers independence. There has been no rise in the threat to our children but nonetheless the unfounded fear of strangers has led us to a situation where even older children and young teenagers rarely leave the house unless they’re going to a programmed activity.

Alongside this Valentine points out that there is also a perceived threat and danger from teenagers. So not only are we worried for their safety we simultaneously fear them too which means there are very few places where teenagers can meet and be welcome even if we do allow them to go out.

So where are they supposed to go? No wonder they retreat to their screens. It’s one of the few public places they can socialise. On-line they can meet with friends, share videos, funny images and even discuss homework. In some British schools classes have a twitter account so they can communicate with their teachers too. It provides a safe place where a shy person can maybe pluck up the courage to speak more and I have an anecdotally noticed how much more communication between boys and girls there is than I used to have after school when although I spent time with boys all of my friends were girls and cross-gender communication was pretty basic.

As parents we need to understand that life on-line is a real place too where our children can socialise, be entertained and express themselves in loads of positive and creative ways. We don’t need to fear it any more than we fear them going to the pictures with friends or going to school every day. It’s something that equips them in the modern world and learning how to present themselves in this new public space is invaluable.

This is something that is born out in research elsewhere in the world. Daniel Miller oversaw a collection of research into social media use in 8 different locations around the world that reveals some fascinating insights. One of which is that whilst on the whole those from poorer less educated backgrounds see their children’s access to social media as a very positive addition to what is often a limited education, nonetheless in Trinidad and Turkey more affluent middle-class families also emphasised the positive educational aspects of participating in social media. Also here in the UK there was an emphasis in some schools on creating specific school based social media accounts to enhance learning that were seen as positive by teachers and parents.

If we want our children to spend less time on-line perhaps we need to look at our own beliefs and question whether our teenagers really won’t be safe if they go out and to our councillors and local politicians who shut down youth services and libraries and who don’t consider teenagers when designing and maintaining public parks and gardens. In short we need to let them go out more and start thinking about how we can make our towns and cities more teen friendly.


Stranger Danger – Gill Valentine

Making Sense of Teen Life: Strategies for Capturing Ethnographic Data in a Networked Era1 – danah boyd

The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics – danah boyd

How the World Changed Social Media – Miller, Costa et al

5 thoughts on “How can we get our teenagers to spend less time on-line?

  1. Interesting article. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of making our cities more teenager friendly – in fact our world needs to be more teenager friendly. Where are the places they can meet. There is so much that they could enjoy if it were organised minimally for them so that they and their parents new the environments were relatively safe. They enjoy debating and conversation – and would also enjoy the usual things like table tennis and other sports as well as music and dancing. But there are few free places for anything anywhere any more. And less well off teenagers have got little.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree Gill (and apologies for taking so long to reply!). In the UK the closing of libraries, community centres and youth services has been having a terrible impact on teen safety and social opportunities.


  3. Very good this Gemma, and a good time to repost. I’ve noticed a significant uptick in engagement from some painfully shy students given they are now able to operate online in a safer (to them) environment. Similarly some colleagues seem to enjoy the online working experience all the more. I like the suggestion of libraries repurposed as meeting places for the young. Like loud libraries, or something.


    1. Loud libraries! I love the idea of that! Yes, we have to be wary of just assuming technology is either evil or the answer to all our prayers and see what’s actually going on. Interesting re your students, I imagine for shyer students it’s a relief!


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