How to regulate screen-time during your teen’s exams

Regulating your teen’s screen usage during exams can be an uphill task for you. Read on to find out how you can do this without fighting and arguing with your teen.

By Dr. Meghna Singhal

How to regulate screen-time during your teen’s exams

Over the last few years, our families have been swept up by a screen tsunami. However, reining in our technology-overloaded children can be tough, especially at a time when we want them focusing on other things. While managing your teen’s access to devices and time spent on screens in the course of everyday life can be tricky, doing so during exams can be even harder.

Let us look at why it is important to regulate screen-time during exams, not just for your teen but for the whole family, and how you can achieve that.

Why regulating screen-time is important during exams

In a study led by Cambridge University researchers published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2014, the average amount of screen time per day for 800 students aged 14-15 years was four hours. The study found that teens who spend an extra hour a day surfing the internet, watching TV, or playing video games risk performing two grades worse than their peers who don’t.

That too much screen time reduces academic achievement also makes intuitive sense. There are numerous other reasons to cut back on screen usage during exams, not only for your teen but your family as a whole. It will help your teen:

  • Think better. Screen-time, for teens and adults alike, affects frontal lobe activity, part of the brain that is responsible for executive functions, such as thinking, planning, decision making, and problem solving. Even moderate but daily screen use can cause a person to become disorganized, exhibit poor impulse control, lack self-discipline, and have trouble following through on goals—exactly the consequences you don’t want for your exam-taking teen.
  • Be more likely to stick to her goals. The hit of dopamine that our brains gets on checking social media is exactly what makes it so addictive. Moderating technology use has proven to be tricky even for adults. Thus, the more technology your teen uses, the poorer her self-regulation. Self-regulation is twice as good a predictor of academic success as IQ at all grade levels. So, whether the goal is actually finishing up the 3 chapters your teen planned to before dinner or writing mock papers, improved frontal lobe functioning will help your teen sustain efforts and be self-disciplined.
  • Be better rested. Watching screens puts our brains in a state of stress or fight-or-flight. Reducing screen time is likely to reduce this level of hyperarousal, which will help your teen sleep more deeply, improve her ability to tolerate frustration, and give her more energy. Screen time can also adversely affect your teen’s body clock and physical health. These effects are more likely to occur if your teen is stressed or not sleeping well, both of which are not uncommon during exams.
  • Change his reading style. Maryannne Wolf, a scientist whose book Proust and the Squid is one of the best books written about reading and the brain, describes how anyone who spends significant amount of time on a device reads differently. We now skim instead of reading, we pick out key words, and organize our eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. Not exactly what we want to do when preparing for exams!
  • Focus on the task at hand. Research shows that the brain works most effectively when it is focused on one thing and not while it is multi-tasking. Checking messages or updating his social media status while studying is not such a good idea after all- and science proves it. Keeping his smartphone away during study time will, thus, enable your teen to cut out a huge distraction.

WHAT YOU CAN DO AS A FAMILY

A) Have ongoing conversations

  • Have objective open-ended discussions in which you empower your teen with information and resources that help her see how reduced screen time enhances her executive functioning and self-regulation. Her brain will function better with less screen-time, so planning and problem-solving, crucial skills she’ll need for writing her exams, will come more easily.

Dr. Willian Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, in an exclusive conversation with ParentCircle, discuss how it’s the parent’s job to inform rather than lecture. They say, “Your job is not to admonish or lecture your children about their technology use. One of the best things you can do is express confidence in your child’s ability to regulate her own technology use and offer to help. As a consultant, you don’t need to pass judgment; you get to inform and make recommendations. Its stunning how effective this is.”

  • Field your teen’s questions with patience and tackle any excuses without judgment. “But it helps me relax!” is one you might encounter. It’s a common belief that reading funny posts on Facebook or sharing jokes on WhatsApp could help one relax. But what happens in our brain on exposure to screen is anything but relaxation. Brainstorm with him different ways he could relax when taking a short break from studies and develop alternative ways of relaxation as a family.
ParentCircle interacted with Hansika Shukla, Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) grade 12 examination topper from Delhi Public School (DPS), Ghaziabad. Here’s what she said about enlisting her mother’s help in regulating her device use during exams: "During the exams, my mother took away my phone. When the exams approached, I realised how much time I saved…. how much time we waste on it...because after a point we keep on engaging with social media and just like that 2, 3, 4 hours go away. We spend almost 10-12 hours on social media. We just have 24 hours in which we have to eat, sleep, and study well. I realised this is getting out of hand, and I was not able to personally control it myself. That’s why I gave the control in my mum's hands. I think its okay to use social media provided it’s done in a manageable manner.”

B) Plan screen-time as a family
Why plan for the whole family, you may ask, when it is the child taking exams? Because the plan will not work if your teen sees you being busy on your mobile or watching a movie or binging on Netflix. Your own screen habits correlate to your children’s, and joining in on new limits with your teen will help build mutual respect.

For your screen usage plan to work, the whole family pitches in. It is a way of showing support and understanding for your teen who is putting in hours together to study. It also reinforces the message that limiting screens during exams is not a punishment, but something the whole family is striving to work toward to be healthier. Moreover, “being strict about your own screen-time greatly improves the odds that you’ll be able to manage your teen’s screen usage in a mindful manner”, says Dr. Victoria Dunckley, an integrative child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time.

C) Set digital limits during exam time
How will your Family Media Plan (FMP) look like during your child’s exams? If you don’t already have one, sweat not. Start with a discussion with your family one month prior to your child’s exams about how your family will change your pattern of screen usage during her exams.

Set Gadget-Free Zones: During exams, which areas of your home should be gadget free? Your teen’s study room, bedroom, and the dining table perhaps? Invest in an alarm clock to help your teen wake up in the mornings or from his naps, according to his study schedule, instead of depending on the alarm in the mobile phone.

Set Gadget-free Times: During exam preparation time (i.e., the one month before the exams start) your family could mutually set specific gadget-free times for everyone.

  • Mealtimes and at the dinner table (instead, spend this time mutually sharing events from the day, talking about your child’s exam preparation, but ensure that all conversations are not only about exams)
  • Turn off all gadgets one hour before bedtime (since blue rays emitted from screens shut down the sleep hormone melatonin and interfere with sleep)

Set limits on duration: Set specific times when screen is allowed during exam preparations, such as half an hour every morning or afternoon. If your child does need to look up something on the internet or speak to a friend to clarify a doubt, it should be done at a specific time in the day (e.g., for half an hour before dinner), instead of sporadically.

Decide on consequences while setting up the plan: Factor in mutually decided upon consequences for overtaking the screen limits, such as cutting gadget use time the next day if extra time is used on a particular day.
However, warns Dr. Dunckely, “teens may reach for their devices more often during stressful times, such as exam time, as a means of escape, or to reward themselves for studying. This means some teens may fight limit setting even more than usual! Be prepared for this, but don't let it derail your plans. If your teen starts to argue with you about what your proposing, empathize but don't engage.”

How to regulate screen-time during your teen’s exams

D) Reduce temptations

• Keep the devices away. You may have worked on a solid FMP with your teen but when your teen is trying to tackle a particularly boring chapter, sneaking a quick look at Facebook can be a tough temptation to fight. So, it’s a good idea to collect all gadgets, switch them off, and keep them locked away in a drawer. The more difficult it is to access your devices, the lesser the possibility of using them.

• Use parental controls on gadgets. Speaking exclusively to ParentCircle, Blake Snow, author of Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting says, “When my children have exams that demand more of their time, my wife and I do the following to limit our children’s screen time. We talk to them about things they can do to help themselves. Many times, they come up with all the right answers once they’re already on board. Either way, it also helps to use parental controls on devices to limit usage, even more so if you need extra help during exams.” The parental control apps block offensive links from appearing in your child’s search results and enable you to monitor your child’s online activities and duration. However, this monitoring should be done with their consent and in tandem with open conversations with your teen, as Snow mentions.

• Enlist another family to unplug with you, recommends Dr Dunckley. This helps with accountability and arranging screen-free activities, and helps reduce "FOMO" (fear of missing out). This also helps teens open up, both with each other and with parents, about how taking a break from screens can actually bring relief. “That said, if you can't find another family willing to do this, don't let that stop you. I've worked with hundreds of families who successfully do this on their own!" she asserts.

Need help making a plan? Check out ParentCircle’s Screen-Detox Planner developed keeping in mind your teen’s exams. You could download and print this planner and put it up at a common area in your home.

How to regulate screen-time during your teen’s exams

In the end, it is important to remember that regulating screen time during exams should be a collaborative effort. As a parent, you should not agree to anything that makes you uncomfortable. But hear your child out and don’t be afraid to relent if his argument seems reasonable, even if you might like to do things differently.

In a Nutshell

  • Too much screen time reduces academic achievement. If you cut back on screen time, your teen is likely to show improvements in his executive functioning and self-regulation
  • Having ongoing conversations with your teen about the reasons for recommending reduced screen time during exams is important. Parents adopting a collaborative approach is more likely to work than approaching the issue with a rigid or judgmental stance
  • The four components of your Family Media Plan are mutually agreeing upon gadget-free zones in your house, gadget-free times, setting limits on duration, and deciding on the consequences when those limits are not adhered to

What you can do right away

  • Have every family member drop their devices into a designated basket as soon as they walk in the door
  • Make screen usage during exams contingent on your teen not freaking out when it’s time to stop
  • Brainstorm lists about screen-free leisure activities you and your teen can do, as well as things they can do on their own

#KeepCalmExamOn with ParentCircle!

Stressed about exams? Call our Counsellors on 8754414666 / 044-66236611 in Feb (Tues & Fri, 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.) 

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 6 February 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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