Most teens aren’t big fans of homework. They put it off until the last minute, drag their heels or ‘forget’ they had any. Parents nag and get mad.

The parent-teen homework battle is an age-old tradition. However in 2015, teens can take homework procrastination to heights only dreamt about by teens in the 80s. Hello, internet!

Back in ancient times (1989), teens who procrastinated about homework watched TV, chatted with their friends on the telephone or hung about outside. It was perfectly clear that homework was not being done. They knew it, their parents knew it.

Today the very tools that teens need to do their homework – computers and the internet – are the same ones which prompt the procrastination. It only takes one tap of a finger to find immediate relief from feeling ‘stuck’ or ‘bored’. Within seconds, the essay is out of sight and teens are chatting with friends or playing a game. And all a parent sees is a teen studiously typing.

The homework procrastinating teens click back and forth (mostly forth) between their maths and scrolling through Instagram pics, taking two or three times longer than necessary to get their homework done. They are up until 1am, and not producing their best work. How can parents help?

Talk about the problem

Empathise with your teen and ask questions, such as “It must be hard to resist having a quick scroll through Facebook when you are bored with homework. What most distracts you?” or “I’m sure I’d be tempted to watch Youtube clips instead of making myself do that essay. What do other teens do?”

Have clear rules about computer and phone use during homework time

Teens feel much better about themselves and life when they get homework done efficiently. Yet most don’t have the willpower (think frontal lobe development) to do this on their own. They need parents to help them.

This means that for the teenager’s sake, we must have clear rules about social networking, phone and game access during homework time.

We can be compassionate, provide some options about the exact nature of these rules. But the rules must exist.

Help teens understand and follow the rules

We’re not raising soldiers. We need to coach, support and help teens do the things we know will help them, not just lay down the law. Here are some ideas on how to do this:

  1. Don’t have ‘because I said so’ rules. Provide information. Tell teens about multi-tasking research showing that switching between tasks increases errors and stress.
  2. Reduce temptation. You might have a ‘no phone during study time’ rule, where you allow teens to have the phone in the next room, not easily grabbed when he or she gets bored or stuck. Help teenagers put programs on their laptops which block access to particular sites for set time periods. Stick around while homework is being done. Have an open-doors policy or a policy that all homework must be done in family spaces (use headphones for noise reduction if necessary).
  3. Encourage teens to have shorter, more focused periods of homework. Thirty-minute periods of distraction-free study with 10-minute breaks are more productive than one hour of homework/gaming/Facebook time.
  4. Help teens make homework more enjoyable. That could be listening to music, sitting in a sunny spot, using timers to get things done faster or having mini rewards at the end of tasks.
  5. Help teens negotiate homework where needed. If homework is too hard or long for a particular student, it should be reviewed with teachers.
  6. Be compassionate. Remember how much it sucks to have to push through a task you find hard or boring. Offer to help and support wherever you can.

Coaching teens do homework efficiently is inconvenient, time consuming and may result in some tears.

There is another option: you can choose to be ‘hands off’ and allow teenagers to experience the natural consequences of studying inefficiently. If you are fighting many battles with your teen, then the homework battle might be one you choose not to fight. But I talk with many older teens who say to me (in the privacy of the counselling room) that they were very glad their parents taught them efficient study habits. I think this is worth the time, effort and energy.