08/23/2012 11:29 pm ET

Kids And TV: 8 Steps To Help Your Teen Unplug

Dear Susan,

My 14-year-old daughter used to be very social. She was always going to her friends' houses or having them over. But now she is very lazy, glued to the TV, watching one show after another and refusing to do much of anything else -- either with us or with her friends. Should I make her go out and do things she doesn't want to do?

Glued to the Tube

Dear Glued to the Tube,

Many boys and girls go through phases in their social life as they move into adolescence. Sometimes they want to be surrounded by friends at every moment of the day and night; other times, they may seem to retreat entirely. It isn't uncommon for girls to pull away from old friends as they grow up -- and frankly, sometimes teens lie around the house lethargically. But your question does raise some concerns. When a child seems to withdraw from the world, it's important to rule out any significant problems. Here's my advice:

  1. Make sure your daughter isn't escaping into TV because of an issue like bullying or depression. Kids who become isolated from others when they are typically very social could be dealing with emotional or psychological challenges that require your attention. Talk with your daughter in a way that allows her to see you as a safe confidante. If she senses that you're not simply trying to force her to stop doing something she enjoys, you may discover that her TV "addiction" is more about numbing herself from difficult life events than it is about being "lazy" -- a word I particularly dislike.
  2. If your daughter tells you she's tired all the time and TV is the only thing she feels like doing, make sure she's getting adequate sleep. If she is, it may be wise to make an appointment with her doctor to ensure there are no health issues that might be contributing to her fatigue and lethargy.
  3. Try taking a look at your daughter's social media presence to see whether she's posted anything that might create concern about her well-being -- or suggests she has been ostracized or bullied by her friends. While it's possible that your daughter is simply in a normal adolescent slump, if she's active in social media, you may be able to get a feel for what's going on in her life. Just be careful not to jump to conclusions. Facebook and Twitter posts don't always accurately portray the truth, of course.
  4. Spend time with your daughter doing something that rekindles her interest in the outside world. Go with her to the park with a picnic and a frisbee, or sign up for a cooking class together. Take her to a museum, or a restaurant with a kind of food she's never tried. Get her moving with a game of tennis or a swim. She may need your help to jump-start her appetite for real-life experiences.
  5. Help your daughter find activities that will introduce her to new friends. Most communities offer everything from acting classes to yoga for teens. Provide her with opportunities to get to know other kids with shared interests, whether it's at a local rec center, YMCA or community college.
  6. Look for volunteer opportunities that capitalize on your daughter's interests to help her feel valued and important. If she likes animals, she may want to offer to work at a pet adoption center or animal shelter. If she loves to paint, she may be able to work on a mural at a local school. Check out for more ideas.
  7. If you're confident that your daughter has simply slipped into a bad habit of watching too much TV, and there isn't something much more serious going on, create guidelines for when the television is going to be on -- and off. While I would discourage you from being unpleasant or harsh, it is entirely appropriate to tell your children that they can watch a fixed amount of TV each day, and no more. This will let your daughter be more selective as she chooses the shows she really wants to see. Allow her to be angry and upset, but avoid negotiating.
  8. Take an honest look at your own TV-viewing habits. Does your daughter watch you reading, playing piano or taking an evening walk to relax? Or does she see you plopping down in front of the "boob tube" every night to watch whatever is on until you fall asleep? If she's mimicking your behavior, keep in mind that children learn from what we do far more than what we say.

It is challenging to monitor and control a 14-year-old's behavior in every aspect of life, including TV watching. Instead, I encourage parents to pay attention to their instincts, since there is no hard and fast rule about how much is too much. According to the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Iowa Children's Hospital, "The average twelve to seventeen year old watches about 23 hours of TV per week." If a teen's primary occupation is television viewing, and they are withdrawing from friends, exercise and other activities, that is cause for concern.

It's not unusual for kids to get hooked into watching TV for hours on end, especially as they navigate the sometimes rough waters of adolescence, replete with those occasional dark moods during which they simply want to be left alone. Don't be afraid to be the parent your daughter needs you to be, making sure she isn't using the TV as a way to hide from difficult feelings or situations. Help her sort out whatever challenges she may be facing; set appropriate limits; and guide her toward activities that will reawaken her passion for real life.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.