Why kids lie about screen time

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When I am talking with youth about screen time, I often ask them, “What do you want your parents to understand regarding your screen time?” The number one response is “I want them to trust me.” Many of the same kids go on to tell me about the ways they sneak tech time from their parents—under the covers, during school days, etc. It took me awhile to wrap my head around this disconnect.

I have to come to understand how kids are telling the truth about how much our trust means to them. They want adults to believe that they are capable of making things happen and capable of being independent. They need our trust and our confidence to give them the strength to deal with all the challenges they face in growing up.

So why lie? Kids and teens lie to us about a lot of things, but usually, it's in the form of withholding information and not blatant lies. One of the big reasons that research shows is they don’t want to be judged poorly by adults, it's not just that they don’t want to get in trouble.

Parents often put honesty at the top of the list of virtues they most want in their children.  Plain and simple, right? Not really. We, humans, partake in many untruths all the time. Yep, we lie in different forms—a lot.  Kids hear us twist the truth, omit things wittingly, and so on.

Developmentally, lying takes intelligence. It's a skill young kids start to explore around age three and then increases until they're about six years old. Usually, by seven it's on the decline. When kids hit pre-teen and teen years, when sensation seeking urges increase and desire for greater autonomy also increases, often they will withhold information and at times will lie.

Sneaking screen time is ubiquitous, it can cause a ton of friction in homes and put strife into relationships. Kids don't feel happy about sneaking—it comes at an emotional cost. They know at some deep level that they are undermining the one thing they want so much: trust.

So how to raise more honest children? Here are some data-driven ideas:

  1. Pay attention and try to decrease how often you say white lies...they pick up on all of that of course.
  2. Reward truth-telling far more than the digression. A recent study gives insight into how our actions can help steer kids towards more truth-telling as they grow up. When a truth is uncovered, particularly if the child comes forward with the truth, the key is to put a lot of positive focus on the fact that they came forward. “...children who expected more positive parental responses to confession were reported by parents to confess more in real life than children who expected more negative parental responses to confession.”
  3.  Practice the skill of effective rule setting.

Research shows that youth lie the least to parents who do these three main things:

  1. Are emotionally warm
  2. Have taken the time to set some clear rules and explained why
  3. Are open to hearing why their kids disagree with certain rules, and will, when warranted, make adjustments

Here is an example. Tommy, from Screenagers, admitted to me he would sneak his iPad at bedtime. Even though he used it under the covers, his parents could see the light. When Tommy got caught, Tommy’s dad told me he didn’t punish him. Instead, he had a conversation with Tommy about why using his device after bedtime was not good for his health and sleep. He wanted Tommy to understand that, while he understood the pull of the game on his iPad, there were reasons for needing to set limits.

Lastly, I have learned that as much as youth want to be trusted, they want to be understood. So let's listen. Show them that their voice matters and make adjustments to rules now and then. For example, if a teen makes a good argument for why his/her phone should not be put away at 9:30 but 10, then you may decide to do that but stick to another rule, like making sure all screens are out of the bedroom at bedtime.  You can explain to your teen science and experience shows us that “sleep is supreme.”  You know me—I always want to do a plug for sleep hygiene.

For this weeks' TTT let’s talk about honesty:

  1. Do you know people who are especially honest? How so? And, how does it make you feel?
  2. What ways do we as a society alter the truth? i.e., when we say to our kids, "Be sure to thank grandma for the purple sweater and tell her how much you liked it.”
  3. What are the reasons that people might not tell the truth, i.e., to not hurt someone's feelings or when rules are felt to be barbaric?
  4. What are the downsides of not being honest?
  5. How does this all relate to screen time and ourselves and relationships? Are we lying to ourselves about how much time we spend on screens? Do we alter the truth to others about our screen time activities or usage?