Is your teen constantly on their phone?

Can’t get your kid to put down their phone? Here’s a research-backed strategy to solve this (and other problems, too).

Is your teen constantly on their phone?

Ok, so your kid won’t put down their phone. Like, ever. You’ve tried everything. You’re constantly telling them to put the phone away. You’re practically positioning your face between the phone screen and their eyeballs, pleading with them to stop. You feel like taking the phone, winding up, and hurling it as far into the distance as it will go. Nothing is working. 

This is the perfect situation for a science-backed approach to family problem-solving.

Problem Solving: What You Need to Know

Most of us have a vague sense of what it means to “problem solve”—you take a problem, and you fix it. Self-explanatory.

When we talk about problem solving here, we’re referring to a specific, step-by-step strategy for navigating difficult situations. There’s good evidence that it works not only to—as you might expect—solve problems, but also as part of larger treatments to help people cope with challenging situations in their lives. (Problem solving began as one component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a gold standard, evidence-based treatment for a range of mental health problems.) 

Okay, just tell me what to do already!

You can remember the steps of problem solving with ABCDE.

  • Acknowledge the problem
  • Brainstorm solutions
  • Choose a solution
  • Do it
  • Evaluate

It seems too simple, but one reason this works is that it helps you take a deliberate pause, which is a key part of good problem solving. It’s about taking the time to step outside of our normal patterns of thinking or interacting, and trying to change the dynamic. ABCDE can be applied in a lot of different situations, but here, we’ll focus on one we’ve all experienced: you can’t get your teen to put down their phone.

So, let’s set the scene. You’re ready to talk to your kid about the phone. You’ve found a time when both you and your teen are calm. Maybe you pick a time in advance (Hey, I was hoping we could spend a few minutes tonight talking about something—what’s a good time for you?) or maybe you roll with it in the moment (Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something. Do you have a few minutes?).  

The key is to make sure you have some time, plus some privacy and (optionally) a pen and paper. (We know, we know! What self-respecting person breaks out a pen and paper before a conversation with their child? This can certainly work as a simple conversation. But writing things down is often more helpful than we realize. Just something to consider.)

Okay: away we (and maybe also the phone?) go!

Acknowledge the Problem

This is the hardest part. We want to create space for kids to share their perspectives as part of the process. We also have three key goals in stating the problem:

1. Be specific.

Try to be as clear as possible.

Too general: You’re on your phone too much.

Specific (better): In the evenings, I’ve noticed you’re sometimes on your phone when you’re trying to do your homework.

Specific and creating space for their perspective (even better): In the evenings, I’ve noticed you’re sometimes on your phone when you’re trying to do your homework. I wonder if you’ve noticed this too?

2. Be objective.

Try to stick to the facts and keep an open mind. It’s tempting to exaggerate or go to the extremes here, because it feels very extreme. A good sign that you’ve wandered away from “objective” into the realm of “extreme” is the use of the words never or always.

Extreme: You’re ALWAYS on your phone.

Objective (better): It seems like on most days, you’re on your phone for about 4 hours.

Objective and creating space for their perspective (even better): It seems like on most days, you’re on your phone for about 4 hours. Does that seem accurate?

3. Be positive.

People tend to be more receptive to problems that are framed positively—when possible, it can be helpful to point out the behavior you want to see more. This feels less blame-y and judgmental.

Blame-y: The amount of time you’re using your phone is a huge problem.

Positive (better): You’re such a good artist, and I’d love for you to have a chance to do more drawing instead of spending that time on your phone.

Positive and creating space for their perspective (even better): You’re such a good artist, and I’d love for you to have a chance to do more drawing instead of spending that time on your phone. Is that something you want for yourself?

Our advice here is to start small. When we feel like we have a big problem on our hands, we often want a big solution. We want to set the phone on fire and watch as it withers into a smoldering pile of forgotten Snap streaks. But this won’t work.

You want to pick something measurable, that has a good chance of success. You can always build on it later. So, for our example, let’s acknowledge the problem as follows:

Sometimes, when we’re having dinner together, you are using your phone [objective, specific]. I want to figure out a way for us to enjoy dinner together without using our phones [positively framed]. What do you think would be easy or hard for you about doing phone-free dinner? [creating space for their perspective]

Brainstorm Solutions

Next step: you and your child brainstorm solutions to the problem together. The key here is that you’re not evaluating those solutions yet. That comes in the next step. The reason is that even the subtlest dismissal of a potential solution tends to stifle conversation and make people feel that they’re not being heard.

Let’s say your child offers this potential solution: How about instead of using my phone, I bring out my laptop and watch Netflix during dinner?

You, evaluating too early (which we want to avoid): You’re missing the point here. I want us to spend time together during dinner, without our screens getting in the way.

You, in brainstorm mode (better): Okay! Let’s add that to the list. What other ideas do we have?

In the brainstorming stage, you’ll pull together all the possible solutions into a list. Aim to come  up with somewhere between 5 and 10 solutions.

For our current example, let’s say you and your child come up with the following:

  • Bring out laptop and watch Netflix during dinner
  • Put phones in other room during dinner
  • Put phones on Do Not Disturb or Focus Mode
  • Use screen time app to limit phone access during dinner
  • Throw phones in trash and never use again
  • Keep phones on table and hope for the best

Choose a Solution

It’s time! You’re ready to evaluate each solution. You can do this a few different ways. Maybe you walk through each solution and name a few pros and cons for each. Maybe you rate each solution on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of how helpful you think it would be. Maybe you and your kid separately read over the list and circle your top two choices, then come back together to discuss.

No matter what process you use, the important thing is that both you and your child feel that your voices are being heard. This is a time for lots of validation. For example:

Your kid: I think we should go with “keep our phones on the table during dinner and hope for the best.” I won’t have a problem not looking at it.

You, less validating (less effective): Yea, I don’t think so. There’s no way you’re going to be able to avoid looking at your phone if it’s sitting right in front of you.

You, more validating (better!): Okay, so it sounds like you feel pretty confident that you won’t look at your phone. I know for me, that would be really tough. I’m wondering if it might be tempting if your phone is sitting right on the table?

Ideally, you and your child agree on a solution through this process. If you don’t agree, what should you do?

In this case, err on the side of your child’s preference. This will get them bought in, and show that you’re willing to listen to their ideas. Remember, you can re-evaluate in a few days. If the solution they picked isn’t working, you can try another one (while avoiding the all-consuming urge to say I told you so). If it is working—great! Sometimes kids surprise us.

For our example, let’s say we decide on solution #3: Use the screen time app to limit phone use during dinner.

Do It

In the immortal words of Phil Knight, Just Do It. Except not really. You want to work out a few more details, here. What will your plan be for trying out your solution?

Consider when you’ll put it into place. Are you going to try your solution right now? Tomorrow? Next week?

Consider how you’ll put it into place. What does each person need to do to make sure the solution gets implemented?

Consider what might get in the way. Are there any barriers that might come up that you’ll need to plan for? In the current example, let’s imagine we’ve  decided that we’ll try using  the Screen Time app for iPhone (or Digital Wellbeing for Android) to limit phone use during dinner. But exactly how will we do that? Here are some details you might work through to put the plan in place:

  • When: You’ll set up screen time limits right now, to start tomorrow evening during dinner time
  • How: You usually sit down to dinner around 7pm, so you’ll set the limit on your screen time for 7-8pm. You and your child will each do that on your phones, separately. You’re in this together!
  • Barrier 1: If you eat dinner at a different time one day, you will instead put your phones on “Do Not Disturb” right before you sit down to eat.
  • Barrier 2: Your teen is stressed about just leaving their friends hanging. You agree on a 10-minute warning before dinner so they can give friends a heads up and pause any conversations. (Would it help if you had time to tell your friends that you need to put your phone away? How much time do you need to do that – would 10 mins be enough? Okay, let’s try it.


You did it! Now, how did it go? When you make your plan for trying the solution, you can frame it as an experiment (similar to our “tech vacation” ethos). For example:

Great, let’s try out this solution for a few days. Then let’s talk about it at dinner on Thursday night to see how it’s going.

When it’s time to evaluate, you want to make sure each person gets a say in how they think it’s going.

You might find that your current solution is generally working, but needs tweaking. Maybe you move the screen time limit start time up to 6:50pm, so that you have some extra time  to get settled into dinner. Or maybe you’re realizing dinner is usually only 20 minutes long, so you shorten the screen time limit.

You might say: I’m really liking having a few minutes during dinner where we can talk without our phones. One thing that I think could be going better is the timing around when we set our screen time limits. What do you think?

You might also find that the current solution is not working at all. In that case, it’s time to go back to your original list of possible solutions. Maybe you’ve realized you’re still tempted to reach for your phones, even though they’re “offline.” So, you go back to the list. . You might say: I’m really liking having a few minutes during dinner where we can talk without our phones. It seems like our screen time limits aren’t always lining up with our dinnertime, though. What other solution might we try?

Then, you can spend a few days trying “put phones in other room during dinner,” instead.

Let’s get out there and solve some problems

Of course, any step-by-step parenting process is far easier said than done. Humans, especially young ones, are complicated. Things don’t always go according to plan. Solutions that seem like they really should work just, sometimes, don’t.

The key here is in the doing. In the solving, rather than the solved. The process itself can be the most important part: taking a step back, outside of our regular patterns of doing things; viewing our problems (and our kids’ problems) objectively, without judgment; having a conversation, listening, and being heard. Even if you don’t come to a solution, these things are likely to improve communication, build trust, and—if nothing else—remind you that you have options.

We may never be able to solve all our tech problems, but we should certainly give it a try. 


This post is an adapted version of a post that Jackie wrote for her email newsletter, Techno Sapiens. You can read the original and subscribe to Techno Sapiens here.