Counselor, misssionary reassures that negative screen time effects on teens can be reversed


By Theresa Carson

With children heading back to school, life for some families is more chaotic than usual this week. Father Pierre Tevi-Benissan SVD, vicar general for the Diocese of St. John’s-Basseterre in the Caribbean, has some advice.

In addition to his official duties with the diocese, Father Tevi-Benissan has been the chaplain of the Senate of Antigua and Barbuda for the past ten years. He also is chair of the Board of Directors for Christ the King High School, an all-girls Catholic school in St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda, and is a trained counsellor, specializing in marriage and family counseling.

Since the pandemic, he and his colleagues have noticed more behavioral issues with the students than before COVID-19. They are seeing an uptick in incidents of bullying, fighting, displays of anger, poor decision-making and the creation of inappropriate videos.

“During the pandemic, parents were not home and students did not always turn on their cameras during online classes,” said Father Tevi-Benissan, who provides counseling to individuals, couples and families free of charge when time permits. “Educators were unable to ensure that students participated fully in classes. In addition, being away from their peers and socially isolated, many adolescents delved deeper into the virtual world where they found solace and felt comfortable.”

He continued, “When they returned to school after the lockdown, many of these students had difficulties engaging or interacting with their peers. Those factors combined to create what we see now.”

He is in a position to see the impact daily. “Many children are simply swept into social media,” Father Tevi-Benissan said. “Unfortunately, this rapid development of technology and the spreading of various social media platforms are impacting our youth more negatively.”

Others also are taking note of the effects that screentime has on teenagers. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of teens use YouTube and TikTok every day.

The study, which was released in April 2023, found that more than a third of teens say they spend too much time on social media. About half of parents are very concerned that their children could be exposed to explicit content on social media and almost 40 percent say they believe it interferes with vital activities, such as completing homework and getting enough sleep.

The U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory stating, “Nearly every teenager in America uses social media and yet we do not have enough to concludes that it is sufficiently safe for them.”

In addition, a May 2023 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) stated, “Research demonstrates that adolescents’ exposure to online discrimination and hate predicts increases in anxiety and depressive symptoms, even after controlling for how much adolescents are exposed to similar experiences offline.”

The APA calls for a combination of social media boundaries and parental discussions and coaching about social media use.

“For those recommendations to be achieved, parents and all those involved in the education and formation of our youth need to be unafraid to challenge them and instill in them a stronger notion of discipline,” Father Tevi-Benissan said. “Having children learn to follow a simple timetable or schedule around study and to play games can help them focus more on what is a priority and how to manage their time better.”

When Father Tevi-Benissan works with young people with poor time management skills, he first helps his young patients grasp the concept of discipline. He does that by exploring with them the different meanings of the word discipline. For instance, 1) a field of knowledge or skills, such as sports or teaching; 2) the art of doing an activity consistently and being focused such that it leads to habit formation; and 3) as a punishment to correct an inappropriate behavior.

He came up with a simple yet catchy phrase that he shares with them: “If you are not disciplined enough to do your homework, then you will be disciplined. However, if you are disciplined enough to focus on your studies, you will have the opportunity to excel in your chosen discipline.”

Like the APA, Father Tevi-Benissan urges parents to have tough conversations with their children: “Sit down with your children and talk with them. Try to understand what is going on with them. The truth is, if we don’t, their peers and the internet are already talking with them and getting them to do or try things. It is a fight that we are already losing, but it is very important for parents and educators to make the effort, because we can’t help them if we can’t reach them.”

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