Q: My 17 year-old son spends 4-5 hours at a time on YouTube, clicking endlessly from one sports comedy show to another. He is doing okay in high school, but will binge-watch or follow links from site to site until the wee hours. I can’t get him to put the phone or laptop down. I am worried that when he goes to college next year, he will not get anything done without parental supervision and goading. What can I do?
~ Worried about my web crawler, Boston, MA
A: Dear Worried,
Your concern about a digitally distracted child is shared by many parents – not just of college-bound adolescents, but of increasingly younger children as well. As technologies evolve and digital content spreads, it becomes easier and easier to get lost in the endless stream of information and entertainment in our pockets and on screens all around us. Helping your son self-regulate his screen media use and focus his attention is a critical part of parenting today and of preparing your son for college and beyond.
We are in the midst of a profound sea change in the way we entertain ourselves. Once a culture that gathered together in theaters and living rooms to share narrative experiences, we now plug in earbuds and stare at our personal screens, enjoying content tailored to our own interests. Adolescence has long been a developmental stage during which youth evolve from consuming common, broad market entertainment to an individualized media diet that reflects their personalities. Media producers are well aware that their target audience is curating personalized playlists of music and videos – and they are actively marketing content aimed at keeping their young users engaged. The brilliance of YouTube and other social media is in their algorithms that target programming and advertisements to individuals’ interests. These carefully calibrated tools feed viewers content based on what they like, effectively keeping their eyes and ears focused, and consuming as much of their time and attention as possible.
My advice is for you to sit down with your son during a quiet moment (not while he is using media!) and ask him to reflect on how he spends his time each day. Have him consider the tasks and activities he needs to accomplish (eating, sleeping, school, homework, etc.) as well as those he wants to do (spending time with friends, sports, music, maybe even creating something new). Instead of trying to convince your son that watching endless videos is a waste of time, help him recognize and respect the value of his time and attention (perhaps by showing him how much money is spent to capture and hold him). Empower him to develop critical thinking about the media he is consuming and how it is affecting him. Even though he is doing okay in school, it’s very possible that he could be doing much better if he spent his time and attention wisely.
As an aspiring college student, your son knows that his performance and the habits he is forming now will affect him into the future. Make a plan with him to take control of his time, get the tasks he wants to get done accomplished, and still have time for leisure activities, including his favorite media.
All of your parenting has helped build your son into the high-achieving, college-bound teen he is today. Throughout his life, you have been modeling, then transferring to your son skills such as discipline, responsibility, respect, and mindfulness. Teaching him to harness and direct his precious time and attention is a culmination of your role as a parent. You have shown him how valuable his time and attention are, now it is his turn to take control of how he spends them.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,