The Trickle: What to do when your teen is constantly checking their phone

Lynn JataniaOur older teens, aged 17 and 15, have smartphones. They aren’t big users of social media, but they do get messages from friends fairly often on Instagram, Hangouts and Discord.

We’ve always limited their screen time while at home as we try to teach them to be more aware of the time they spend on their devices, and to manage their time so that they don’t get lost in the world of media consumption. As they got older, one thing that we changed was that they no longer had to ask for screen time.

Instead of saying, “Can I have an hour of screen time,” we instead challenged our older teens to think about whether or not this was a good time for screens, and to make the call themselves. We asked them to think about:

  • Whether or not they had any school work or assignments to do
  • Whether their parents were doing household work – like making dinner or weeding the garden – that they could offer to help with
  • Whether they had done anything else so far today that wasn’t screens, like reading a book, playing a game with their siblings, or doing something physical

If they felt that they had balanced their day, and weren’t needed at the moment, then yes, it was a good time for an hour of screens. Instead of asking, they’d just let us know, with a quick, “I’m doing an hour of video games,” so we’d know where they were and could keep a general eye on their usage.

But leaving it all in their hands like this has led to something I call “The Trickle.”

That’s when they say they’re just gong to “check their stuff” – check their phone for messages, respond to texts, and maybe do a quick peek at Instagram to see if there are new posts. For them, this kind of check-in doesn’t come out of their declared full hours of screen time (which, by our rules, would require a break afterward). It’s just five minutes here, ten minutes there, that add up to a bunch of extra screen time per day – not to mention much more dependence on always having their phone nearby.

And worse, they tend to “check their stuff” at least a few times when we are watching a TV show or a movie as a family – something that really bothers me. I’d prefer them to be present for our family activity, or at the very least, choose to focus on just one screen at a time.

The Trickle is a problem that we’re not quite sure how to deal with, at least not right now. We want our kids to feel like they own their phones and that they have privacy and the ability to keep in touch with their friends. At their age, we’d like to imagine that they are ready to set their own rules for how to interact with their own personal device – when, and how often.

So for now, at least, rather than set some hard and fast rules about this, we are just gently encouraging them to really think about what they are doing. When they reach for their phone, we ask them what they’re checking, and whether or not it was urgent. We let them know that we’re noticing them checking in, and ask them if they are aware of how many times they’ve checked in today, and how many minutes that added up to. (Warning if you attempt this: it does lead to a lot of eye-rolling.)

I do ask them to put their phones away when we’re watching TV or a movie, though. That’s a dealbreaker for me right now. And of course, phones are still not allowed in bedrooms – sleep is sacred around here, and we firmly want to send the message that getting up in the night to “check your stuff” isn’t appropriate.

Will we have to get more heavy handed with shutting down The Trickle? Or is this just how teens with smartphones live? For now, we’ll continue with our awareness campaign, and see how it goes. Of course, we parents also have to watch how often we check our phones as well, both for our own well-being and for the example we set, so maybe keeping track of The Trickle should be a whole-family activity.

How do you deal with your teens constantly checking their phones?


Here are some helpful MediaSmarts resources on device use, social media and screen time: