Stricter monitoring of tween and teen internet use may not always be better

Sharply restricting kids’ use of digital media is linked with problematic internet use — but it is still unclear why.

Author: Linda Charmaraman on Jul 10, 2024
'Problematic' internet use is associated with mental health concerns like loneliness and depression. Fertnig/E+ via Getty Images

A national conversation about potential links between smartphones and digital media and the ongoing teen mental health crisis has reached a fever pitch.

Research does not definitively show that excessive screen time causes teen anxiety or depression, though research is ongoing. Still, in June 2024, the U.S. surgeon general called for warning labels to be placed on social media, stating that “the mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor.”

But some researchers are expressing concerns that these warnings are too broad. Still, it’s no wonder that parents feel pressured to do something — anything — to reduce the risks.

Setting strict limits on how preteen and teen children use the internet is a popular strategy. But our research suggests that achieving a healthy media environment at home may require a more complex and nuanced approach.

We are a group of research scientists who have backgrounds in psychology, human development, social ecology, pediatrics and community psychology and education.

Recently we collaborated on a mixed-method study of how parents monitor their middle school-aged kids’ internet use. We found that more restrictive parental monitoring was significantly associated with problematic internet use, while some forms of less restrictive monitoring were not.

Defining acceptable versus problematic internet use

There are no hard and fast rules about the maximum number of screen hours before it’s deemed unhealthy. But many parents understandably seek guidance on what should be socially acceptable and healthy use.

Developmentally appropriate use entails any use – including content consumed and for a certain amount of time – that does not interfere with daily functioning such as completing homework, having social relationships in real life, eating meals and getting enough sleep.

Problematic internet use,” on the other hand, is a catch-all phrase for use that is excessive or risky, such as engaging in secretive behaviors or impulsive ones, like spending a lot of money. Among tweens and teens, it is associated with negative effects on physical, social or emotional well-being, such as depression, loneliness and spending less time with family and friends. This is the kind of internet use that parents want to avoid.

The word “associated” is important here; when two things are associated, that doesn’t mean that one necessarily causes the other. In this situation, researchers like us don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg. It may be that parents of middle schoolers who struggle with problematic internet use are more likely to implement restrictions. Or it may be that implementing restrictions leads to problematic internet use. Our study simply shows that the two are associated with each other. Much more research is needed to show whether one causes the other.

How we researched parental internet monitoring

For this study, we sent online surveys — available in English, Spanish and Portuguese — to parents of middle schoolers in the Northeast U.S. via school-based newsletters and email lists.

Of the 248 parents who completed the survey, most reported using multiple strategies. Nearly 85% reported regularly using a restrictive strategy of placing one- to six-hour time limits on internet use. About 62% reported using “active monitoring” – in other words, encouraging their children to converse with them about their ongoing digital media use and to think critically about its effects on them now and in the future.

Approximately 29% of parents also mentioned using “deference monitoring” strategies. This means not relying on internet restrictions because they believed their children already knew enough or were mature enough to avoid problematic use of digital media, or to showcase trust in their children’s decision-making skills, often as they get older.

Next, we recorded in-depth interviews with a smaller and demographically diverse group of these parents.

We asked about their children’s use of internet-based technologies such as smartphones, social media and gaming. We also asked how they were dealing with potentially or actively problematic internet use, and what informed their monitoring styles — such as advice from other parents, school staff or websites.

After transcribing, sorting and coding the interviews into themes and subthemes, we found that all but one of the 31 parents reported use of at least one restrictive strategy. The most common was control of device settings — “I restricted the internet … so she can only go to certain websites that I put in” — and withholding devices: “The deal was that he follows the rules or he loses the phone.” Parents used active and deference monitoring strategies less often.

Most parents also reported mixing monitoring strategies, as well as shifting strategies. Sometimes this was in response to the child’s changing development and social context. Sometimes it was related to the parents’ insecurities about how effective their strategies were at preventing problematic internet use.

Many parents using restrictive strategies told us they wanted concrete evidence that these approaches were worth the household conflicts they created.

However, we found that only restrictive monitoring was significantly associated with problematic internet use. Children in these families were moody and depressed when away from their devices. They tended to lose more sleep and were more withdrawn from their families.

By comparison, active and deference monitoring strategies were not significantly correlated with these issues generally, though deference strategies were specifically associated with device use during mealtimes.

Why would being more strict be potentially less successful?

The benefits of open communication

A well-established body of research shows that family closeness is a strong predictor of healthy social technology use. Interestingly, this also applies to television and older media.

Open and honest parent-child conversations about risky online content, sticky social media situations and more can potentially help protect against problematic internet use. This may stem from the child’s willingness to come forward to their “ready-to-listen” parents when issues arise.

Building this kind of relationship can be challenging and take time, and even the closest relationships cannot help teens avoid every problem online. But knowing they have the support of parents can make a difference.

Given that there is no monolithic household scenario that works in every instance, a mix of restrictive and less restrictive approaches that can support differing levels of vulnerability, such as self-regulation skills, digital distractions and reactions to online drama, may balance the types of internet monitoring needed as kids transition from childhood into adolescence. This is when smartphones and social media become more central to testing developmental milestones like seeking autonomy and peer relations.

We don’t yet know whether parents who set hard-and-fast restrictions believe they have avoided the need for these kinds of conversations. This could in turn be related to the level of child-parent emotional connection and trust.

So what can parents do?

Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing a child’s internet use.

However, our study and others suggest that there are multiple ways to be successful, and that families are often able to find what works best for them.

Parents can encourage their children to find social support, online companionship and emotional intimacy online while avoiding problematic content, particularly around harmfully unrealistic beauty ideals and hate messaging. They can agree on limits that ensure social media doesn’t interfere with sleep or physical activity.

There is still a lot of research to be done on how parental monitoring and childrens’ internet use influence each other. The question is essentially: Which is the chicken and which is the egg?

Perhaps parents of middle schoolers already struggling with problematic internet use are more likely to implement restrictions, or that implementing strict limits leads to problematic use. Similarly, it’s unclear whether using active or deference monitoring can help lessen problematic internet use, or that these teens are already less prone to it.

To better understand what’s happening with preteen and teen internet use, there will need to be more studies that follow a group of diverse families over time.

We believe that such studies are key to improving the quality of evidence-based suggestions to parents, lawmakers, educators, public health communicators, pediatricians and other health care providers, and youth development programs on what they can do to protect their children’s health.

Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. has received funding from The National Institutes of Health and Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. She is a member of the APA taskforce for the 2023 and 2024 Health Advisory on Social Media Use and Adolescence.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, M.D., M.P.H., is a general pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours KidsHealth, part of Nemours Children’s Health.

J. Maya Hernandez, Ph.D. is affiliated with the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Lab at Wellesley College and Center for Scholars and Storytellers at UCLA as a research consultant.

Read These Next

Recommended for You