One of the most widely reported aspects of Gen Z — who are between the ages of 9 and 25 right now — is their affinity for technology. So as a parent, when faced with helping your child manage his or her own digital footprint, are screen time apps and sites helpful?

That’s one aspect of what this third part of our series on tweens will explore. (In part one, we explored helping tweens develop responsibility and accountability, and in part two, our series looked at tweens’ emotions and how we can support them during this stage of development.) In part three, we will specifically take a look at:

  • What kind of screen time can be beneficial
  • Are screen time apps worth it?
  • Ways to help your tween monitor himself
  • Alternatives to screen time

Helping our children manage their digital world is as important, if not more important than helping them manage their daily life. When it comes to digital devices, we need to ask ourselves one central question:

How is my tween spending the bulk of his or her time?

If you can ask yourself a series of questions about how she spends most of her free time, you will find that — outside of school and homework — there is a gap. Just like adults, that gap can be filled with activities that enrich our children’s brain development, emotional and mental wellness, and physical development. Or how they fill that gap can become a major hindrance to these areas.


What kind of screen time is beneficial?

First, let’s look at when screen time is beneficial to our children. Certainly, educational media, such as apps that help them practice retention, are helpful. Software such as iMovie can help our tweens stretch their imagination muscles to envision their next film project.

Also, when tweens and teens need to do research for an essay or a science project, we want them to have the tools they need to access credible sources.

In these aspects, technology can be a great resource for our tweens. However, technology can become a detriment when our teens are not getting five of their most crucial needs met because of extended time on their digital devices. Those needs include free time with low amounts of new media, in-person social engagement, extended reading, appropriate levels of independence, and adequate sleep. We’ll dive into these after exploring screen time apps and their levels of usefulness.

Are screen time apps worth it?

There are many apps and websites out there today to help us monitor our own kids’ technology. We definitely think these can play a part in their development of self-awareness. For example, if you put the Bark app on your tween’s phone, it allows you to set limits for their online searches, how long or if they’re on social media, and their overall time spent using apps on their phone, including texting friends. You can also set controls to ensure certain sites aren’t accessed at all and to map their location.

While these apps are certainly helpful, unfortunately, it is all too easy to rely on these apps as our tweens’ only filters. But as adults, our tweens will need the skills to monitor themselves. They will need to wake up at a certain time in order to get to class if they choose to go to college or to get to work on time. Managing their digital time is an excellent way for them to start learning how to manage their actual time. It’s a skill that must be coached, though, if they are to grasp it and apply it to everyday life.

Combined with apps, learning to monitor their time will serve tweens well as they get older. These skills can be taught in regular conversations with your tween, digital contracts, or simply by allowing her to assess her own habits.

Ways to help your tween monitor himself

One way we can help our tweens monitor their screen time is by doing a self-survey each week. The questions they can ask themselves (and you can observe if their answers are accurate) have to do with in-person social interactions, not spending the bulk of their free time on devices, reading, independence and sleep.

Here are five questions your tween can ask himself/herself to monitor his engagement with his digital world:

  1. How much free time do I typically have outside of school each day? How many of those minutes or hours do I spend watching, playing, or messaging on a digital device?
  2. How many hours of my typical day are spent in person, interacting with others (not including school)?
  3. How long has it been since I have read a book that wasn’t for a school assignment? About how many minutes a day do I read (not including school or homework)?
  4. Am I confident in making decisions for myself, or do I need others to tell me what to do? (For example, if I have to decide what to eat for breakfast, what to pack in my lunch, whether to do my chores or homework first when I get home or later and what to do when I’m finished with them, is it easy or difficult for me to decide these things?)
  5. About how many hours each night do I sleep? What are my sleep patterns during the day (e.g. do I fall asleep during the day, need a nap after school, or get tired easily)?

Hopefully, as your tween learns some self-assessment skills, he or she will see the wisdom in monitoring his or her digital use. You can certainly help him or her in this process; remember, tweens are still in between childhood and becoming teenagers, so they will need a parent to guide them as they start to self-monitor and to help them ask themselves these questions consistently.

Alternatives to screen time

If you and your tween assess that he is spending more than two hours a day on screens (outside of school), it may be time to look at other hobbies and interests. When tweens turn to screens for the majority of their “down” time, it can be because they have not yet discovered alternatives that they enjoy. (News flash: chores aren’t a suggestion they gravitate toward. We are speaking from personal experience here. When we hear, “I’m bored,” we have been known to reply, “I have some chores for you!” That tends to cut the boredom level significantly, but it still doesn’t help our tween discern his next best alternative.)

All kidding aside, there is certainly a time and place for providing opportunities to try new skills (often through chores or added responsibilities). These develop tweens’ character qualities such as independence and reliability. However, they also need fun alternatives to screens. This is another place where a self-assessment can be helpful.

Help your tween take this quiz to determine what he or she enjoys doing apart from screen time. Sometimes, it just takes a little forethought so they can decide what they love or even what they may want to try that’s new.

Another cure for no screen time? Boredom.

We know, we know. We just sent you to a quiz to do interactively with your tween (or to let him or her do) to find out what he or she likes in the ways of hobbies. But how many kids, tweens, and teens do you know who say they aren’t interested in a hobby that they usually enjoy when you suggest it? (We hear this from parents so much.)

Believe it or not, boredom can be a wonderful way for tweens to develop their creative muscles. So if you’ve, together, set limits for screen time and your tween is bored, it is not your role to solve his boredom.

When tweens are old enough to understand alternatives such as hobbies, and when they are old enough to take on more digital devices responsibly, they are also old enough to find things to do that don’t require your help. They may want you to run them to the movies or to a friend’s house. If that works for you, great. If not, it is good for them to hear “no” and come up with something on their own.

As our tweens flex their self-awareness, curiosity, and creativity muscles, they will find that there are ways to approach digital devices with a healthy perspective. They can fit into our tweens’ lives without overrunning them.