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‘My 13-year-old daughter’s phone has taken over her life’

‘I wish she was going out more to meet friends and do real stuff instead of just social media’

Question: I am constantly fighting with my 13-year-old (14 in a few weeks) over her phone. She only got it a year ago and now it has taken over her life. She is always on Snapchat, WhatsApp, TikTok and Instagram.

When I try to restrict her she goes mad and says it is the only thing she enjoys and that I am cutting her off from her friends. She won't even come down and watch normal TV programmes with myself and my husband and if she does, you can see she is just waiting to get back on to her phone – it is like she is addicted. I'm not sure what to do, when we do set some rules she is always trying to subvert them. Also, it is hard to monitor, because she does use her tablet for homework and reading (and so could be sneakily looking at social media unless I sit with her).

Also, since Covid she uses social media to keep in touch with friends and I don't want to stop this. I worry a lot about the impact of the technology on her – you read about the damage Instagram does to girls' self esteem and her concentration seems to be ruined.

I wish she was going out more to meet friends and do real stuff instead of just social media. Covid, of course, has not helped, but even during lockdown it was an ordeal to get her to go out to walk with a friend or to go to her GAA training – which she now seems to have given up. I also wish we got on better as the fights are ruining our relationship.


Answer: We are all living in the challenging world of technology, screens and social media. While there are, of course, many advantages in terms of connectivity, learning, work and entertainment (especially during Covid), there are also many disadvantages. Screens can be addictive, isolating and distract people from important real-world relationships and activities.

In his new book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari describes how the tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter have hijacked our attention as they lure us to spend evermore time online (that is how they make money after all). They do this not by making us feel good but more frequently by piquing our upset and outrage and promoting conflict. People are more likely to stay online to continue an argument or promote gossip rather than to learn and connect. The last thing the tech giants want is for us to get offline and engage in a fun sport or go for a healthy walk with a good friend (unless you take your phone to live stream it).

Children and teenagers have grown up in this tech-saturated world and know nothing different. It is hardly their fault that they become obsessed with it, when that is what it is designed to do (and we have given them their phone in the first place). Further, young teens like your daughter are at a time of life when they question their parents’ rules and want to make their own minds up – trying to over-control them can be a futile exercise. This does not mean we should adopt a “laissez-faire” attitude and let teens do everything they want, but instead we need to teach them to be critical about the powerful technologies we have put in their hands – we want to help them set their own rules.

Start an open conversation

Rather than arguing, try to have an open conversation with your daughter about the issues. You can start a dialogue with a question, “I’m just wondering about the role of technology in our home and what rules we should set . . . what do you think?” The key is to listen to her opinions and to encourage her to talk. Ask her what she thinks the benefits of social media are in her life and also what she thinks the downsides might be. Don’t try to reach a quick agreement and instead take time to understand the issues together.

With some families I suggest they arrange a series of family meetings over a few weeks to think through the issues before agreeing rules. You can look up the research about technology together, watch a few videos on the issues and continue to dialogue and listen (if your daughter is up for it you could look at one of the Stolen Focus podcasts). Rather than trying to persuade your daughter of one point of view, the goal is to teach her to think critically about the issues. This is really helpful to teenagers in the long term.

Agree family rules around technology

Once you have talked through the issues, try to agree some good family rules about technology. You could, of course, impose rules but it is much better if at least some of these can be agreed. Ask questions such as: What limits do we need about technology in the home? How can you ensure social media is not addictive? How can you ensure you spend time on other important things?

Good family rules might be:
1 No screens at mealtimes
2 One hour screen-free before bed time
3 All screens downstairs at night
4 A limit of 1.5 hours social media each day

Agree creative ways to keep rules

As technology and social media are addictive, keeping rules and limits is hard for everyone – including parents. Think of creative ways to help keep rules such as APs that block access to social media or YouTube when she is doing her homework or which put time limits on device use in a day. Rather than rowing with your daughter to come off social media, the AP will do this instead and help her manage her time. Instead of reading online, you could try and provide her with physical books or get the text on a e-book reader (with no social media access).

You can also have a special locked box that no one can open for your family tech-free hour. You can also provide positive rewards such as an agreed daily pocket money once she does non-tech activities such as a household chore or go for a walk, or even provide a special treat for everyone during family movie time.

For more information, I have several other related articles on The Irish Times website. Search for my Pressure Points or Healthy Families series to get you started.

- Prof John Sharry is a social worker, founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will be delivering a workshop on Helping Teenagers Overcome Anxiety on Friday, February 11th at 7.30pm. See