Jeremy Edge, LPC
Protective Factors for Healthy Screen Use: Creating Balanced Screen Use for Teens and Young Adults
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Creating healthy, balanced habits around screen use is challenging. Many teens and young adults especially struggle with putting healthy boundaries in place to help them experience healthy screen use. These healthy boundaries and systems are protective factors.
What Are Protective Factors?
In its simplest form, a protective factor is something protecting you from an unhealthy activity. Protective factors are things in our lives that give us structure, purpose, and encourages action. Jobs, school, healthy relationships, positive spiritual experiences (like church), and healthy activities are all protective factors. When someone has protective factors in their lives, they are more likely going to make healthy choices around screen use.
Why Do Protective Factors Help With Balanced Screen Use?
Let’s look at two scenarios and how protective factors impact people.
Scenario 1: John
John is a 20-year-old college student. He is a sophomore at college majoring in computer science. He’s in a fraternity, plays in a recreational basketball league, and dating. He loves computers and wants to work as a software engineer for a startup. John dreams of being part of the next Facebook. John occasionally plays video games and connects with friends through Snapchat. John’s screen use is objectively healthy and adding value to his life.
Scenario 2: Bill
Bill is also 20 years old. He’s taking a break from college but wants to go back to school eventually. Like John, Bill loves computers and wants to be a software engineer. Bill is not involved in any organized sports or groups but talks with friends online and plays video games with them daily. He works a part-time job but his hours are inconsistent. He enjoys the pay, but is not excited about going to work. Bill is not in a romantic relationship but wants to date eventually.
When Bill is not at work, he’s online, watching videos, on social media, or gaming. Bill is comfortable with his life but has been encouraged multiple times from his family and friends to go back to school. Bill thinks some of his screen time is problematic but has no motivation to make changes. Bill feels unhealthy and stuck.
Breaking Down Protective Factors in Scenario 1:
John’s protective factors are school, the fraternity, the basketball league, his girlfriend, and his desire to work at a startup. Engaging in all of those areas creates structure for John’s life. He’s unable to spend more than a few hours per day on social media, watching videos, or gaming because he’s invested in those protective factors. As a result, John’s screen use is helping him be the best version of himself rather than distracting him from reaching his goals.
John is naturally motivated to engage in his protective factors. John would rather spend time with his girlfriend than playing Final Fantasy XIV. John feels a greater sense of accomplishment when he learns a new coding concept rather than ranking up in Valorant. He is recharged from time with friends in his fraternity rather than talking with them through social media. These protective factors provide online safety for John. John will most likely not spend the majority of his time watching videos or gaming because there is more value from his school, relationships, and activities.
Breaking Down Protective Factors in Scenario 2:
Bill does not have enough protective factors to help him with balanced screen use. Bill’s job is a protective factor and it keeps him from being online 24/7. However, he has a part-time job with nothing else in his day providing structure. He wants to go back to school, learn to code, and date, but those are not actual things in his life creating structure. John’s desire to work at a startup is a protective factor because it’s motivating him to learn coding and software engineering. John’s desire is creating positive action whereas Bill’s desire is not creating action and structure.
Protective factors create healthy structure.
When Bill is going to classes, doing the homework, studying for exams, spending time with friends in-person, going on dates, those will be protective factors. However, Bill’s current stage in life lacks those protective factors and the result is increased, problematic screen use.
There is nothing wrong with screen use. Bill's screen use creates a false sense of security where he doesn’t have to pursue goals.
How to Find Protective Factors for Yourself
The following areas are protective factors. How do these apply to your life? If they are not in your life, how can they be more part of your life?
Clubs or groups
Step 1: Write Out Your Day
A great way to find protective factors for your life is to write down what you do on a daily basis. Look at these activities objectively without judgement. Use this as an exercise to better understand yourself and improve your quality of life.
Step 2: What Are Your Activities Doing for You?
After you write out what your day looks like, look at what the majority of your time is devoted to. Are these activities objectively adding value to your life? Again, remember to keep judgement out of this process. How are these activities protecting you from unhealthy or problematic activities?
Step 3: Accept Where You Are
If the majority of your day is not made up of protective factors, that’s okay. Even if you are doing things that you know are unhealthy, you’re doing them for a reason. You could be gaming 8+ hours per day to cope with feeling like you are cannot pass classes. You might feel highly anxious about seeing people in-person and social media is a safe way to connect with others. Life in general might be overwhelming and exploring videos and content online can feel like a way to escape from the stress.
No matter where you are, give yourself grace. Be open to exploring different ways to interact with screens to improve your health and wellbeing. If you're stuck, there is a good reason for it.
Step 4: Pursue Protective Factors
If you see problems with your time online, give yourself permission to explore what protective factors would look like for you. How could your life improve by setting up systems and structure to help you reach your goals and be the best version of yourself? How much would you gain from being surrounded by people and activities promoting your best interest?
Try adding one protective factor for at least two weeks and see how that adds value to your life. See how protective factors improves balanced screen use. After two weeks, add another protective factor. Continue that process until you have enough structure and support to protect yourself from problematic screen use.
If you need help finding and setting up protective factors, each out to us at Escapingthe.com to set up an appointment.