700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

Helping Teens Navigate Relationships and Technology During COVID-19

Feb 02, 2021
Teen wearing headphones and working on laptop

The continual uncertainty and stress caused by COVID-19 is impacting families in many ways. Social distancing can be especially challenging for teenagers, who may feel isolated from classmates, friends and romantic partners.

We know that teens used technology and social media to stay connected long before the pandemic. However, they may have difficulty coping with the reality of a new normal – seeing and chatting with peers through a screen may be the only form of connection available, and for an unknown amount of time.

Since technology is now playing an even larger role in our daily lives, we want to focus on how adults can help teens maintain healthy connections with their friends and romantic partners.

Honor the Need for Peer Connection

Many teens have a significant sense of loss due to interrupted high school experiences. There is an increase in anxiety and a decrease in connection so a teen may need screen time with friends outside of their school hours. Many adults can relate; a Zoom call for work feels very different from a FaceTime chat with friends. Try to focus on the quality of their screen time to determine if they are scrolling aimlessly and comparing themselves to filtered images, or laughing on a video chat with close friends.

Approach Teens With Curiosity

Before you sit down to chat with the teen in your life, consider how you are modeling digital habits with your devices as well as how you typically respond to a teen’s (or their friends’) habits. Being aware of your values around technology can help you to approach a teen with curiosity instead of judgment. For example, you could ask why technology is important to them or what one app does that another app does not do. You could even make a silly singing or dancing video with them!

Partner Together to Create a Family Media Agreement

Family media agreements provide a way to talk through digital boundaries. A teen can gain skills for self-regulation by learning how to manage their screen time with digital well-being tools on their devices. Creating family codewords can help teens manage peer pressure. For example, they may ask permission to do something on a FaceTime call with friends, but if they include the codeword, they actually want you to turn down their request.

Consider the Usefulness of Monitoring Apps

Parental control apps are commonly used in families to limit digital access for teens. The goal is to increase safety but often, these apps can increase danger by breaking down trust and imposing control rather than encouraging good decision-making. Overwhelmingly, teens express a need for open conversation with trusted adults instead of parental control apps.

Educate Teens (and Yourself) About Digital Dating Abuse

Supportive adults are often concerned about “stranger danger” but may not think about risks from a dating partner. Digital dating abuse is defined as the use of technology and social media to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a current or former partner. These behaviors can include unwanted or excessive texting, demands for passwords, harassment through social media and pressure to send or receive unwanted sexual photos or messages.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM). We encourage youth and adults to visit EndTechAbuse.org. You’ll find resources such as a cyber safety plan, digital evidence collection guide, podcasts and more. Follow loveisrespect and Break the Cycle on social media for information and updates to share with friends and family.

Digital Rights for Teens

We can also help teens to set boundaries in relationships with friends and romantic partners by reminding them of their digital rights.

  • You have the right to turn off your phone and spend time with friends and family without your partner getting angry
  • You have the right to say no to sexting
  • You have the right to say no to sharing pictures or information digitally to your partner if you are uncomfortable
  • You have the right to keep your logins and passwords private
  • You have the right to control your own privacy settings on social media apps
  • You have the right to feel safe and respected in your relationship, online or off

Resources for Adults

CommonSenseMedia.org offers articles and guidance for adults who want to keep their families safe and productive online, including a Family Toolkit, developed in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Digital well-being and screen time resources can be used on Android and iPhone devices. These tools can help provide digital balance for teens.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Information for Patient Families
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Featured Expert

Lynn Rosenthal
Lynn Rosenthal
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

Lynn Rosenthal is the president of The Center for Family Safety and Healing (TCFSH), which takes an integrated team approach to breaking the cycle of family violence and child abuse.

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Parker Huston, PhD
Psychology

Parker Huston, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist working in the Comprehensive Pediatric Feeding Program. He primarily provides services through the evaluation clinics, outpatient treatment and intensive feeding track.

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Pediatric News You Can Use From America’s Largest Pediatric Hospital and Research Center

700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.