Parenting teens through exams?
Need some wisdom and calm?

Katharine Hill, UK Director of Care for the Family, brings some timely advice.

I had a couple of London meetings and so had seized the opportunity to stay overnight with an old friend. Despite my protestations that sleeping on the sofa would be fine, her teenage daughter had generously vacated her bedroom for me. Later that evening I lay in the bed, surrounded by a sea of yellow post-it notes. They were everywhere – on the mirror, on the chest of drawers, on the wardrobe, on the door, by the light switch, even on the bed. Closer investigation revealed that each had written on it an important fact about World War One, facts that my friend’s daughter needed to commit to memory for her GCSE history exam. At the foot of the bed was a post it scrawled in pink highlighter ‘1914 Assassination Archduke Ferdinand ’ which took me straight back to the (seemingly endless) summers of exams in our family. In particular I remembered the frustration of trying to test one of our boys on the reasons for the outbreak of World War One (at his request) whilst he simultaneously messaged his friend Ben to check out how his revision was (or wasn’t) going.

The digital age has revolutionised our lives bringing both advantage and challenge in equal measure, including the way our teens approach revision. Whilst my friend’s daughter had wall-to-wall post-it notes as her aide-memoire, no doubt she also made use of all that technology has to offer.

If our teens search ‘revision help’ they will be inundated with ‘killer techniques’ all guaranteed to help them get that top grade. Online bite-sized learning and numerous other digital tools and apps can help order subjects or dig deeper into a topic, giving access to extra help and advice. A smartphone in the pocket can be a brilliant revision aid – facts can be checked on the bus on the way to school – or a podcast on a chosen subject listened to whilst out for a run. One of our children would find the best way to revise was with his peers– and many young people have found that group Facetime revision sessions have given them a wonderful opportunity to work together, with the added advantage of keeping in contact with friends – a great antidote to what can be an isolating and lonely season of ‘study leave’. One teenager told me her group of friends would set reminders and then contact each other to double check they had woken up on time on the day of an exam. Social media can also provide a much-needed positive outlet away from the pressure of revision – a chance for connecting with friends, discussing the latest fashion essential, album release, or simply arranging a meetup.

But every benefit in life comes with a corresponding challenge – and the world of digital technology in the exam season is no exception. Technology has the potential to affect concentration and sleep, it can increase anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out), inducing procrastination and stress. Whilst writing this I have been guilty of my phone being a distraction. I have been texting my mother about the catering arrangements for my father’s 100th birthday party, I have retweeted a tweet about my new book, and given son #3 instructions for cooking lasagne, – all whilst writing this article. Mary Czerwinski[1] is a leading expert in ‘interruption science’ – and her findings show that attending to these ‘interruptions’ will have affected my focus on the task in hand. In fact, her research found that if an employee is interrupted in a workplace setting it can take 25 minutes for them to refocus on the original task. This has obvious implications for our teens. Learning the elements in the periodic table, how sedimentary rock is formed, or even memorising Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice are bound to come second to the latest Facebook or Instagram post or comments from their network of friends.

Having talked to some exam-sitting teens, a few ideas they have found helpful to prevent technology being a distraction include:

  • Plan revision sessions, (with regular breaks!) and put the phone in airplane mode or even better out of sight during that time
  • Turn off notifications so you can focus on the task in hand – then enjoy them when you turn them back on
  • Consider using apps that block specific websites (e.g. Facebook) for a set period of time and can’t be unlocked
  • Use apps that cut out blue light at the end of the day that helps sleep (iPhones have this facility installed)
  • Charge your phone outside the room at night to avoid the temptation of late night digital activity (a stretch for some!)

And finally, once the exam is over, try to limit the use of social media to compare notes on how the exam went which can cause ‘anxiety contagion’.
As parents, our role during exams can be challenging. Each child is different: some may be studious and anxious and will need to be encouraged to take a break and to keep things in perspective. Our experience tended to be at the other end of the spectrum ­– our children were generally relaxed ­– at times even horizontal, and our role was to try to galvanise them into action! Whatever their personality, being there for them during what can be a challenging season will almost certainly involve helping them to manage their use of technology. When they are younger we will need to be more hands-on, setting and maintaining boundaries, but as they get older our role will be to equip them to self-regulate, to make good choices in this area, and to have wisdom, not just in managing technology for the season of exams but for life itself.

[1] Edward Cutrell , Mary Czerwinski , Eric Horvit ‘Notification, Disruption and Memory: Effects of Messaging Interruptions on Memory and Performance (2001)


Katharine’s latest book, Left to their Own Devices? explores the impact of the digital world on teenagers and younger children, giving wise and practical advice for parents on how to tackle every thorny issue – from screen time and social media to the more serious issues of online bullying grooming and pornography.
You can find out more and purchase the book by clicking here.

About the Author

Katharine Hill LLB JP is UK Director at Care for the Family. She speaks and writes on family matters, is a regular author for The Huffington Post, and the author of several books. Katharine also leads on Care for the Family’s policy agenda representing the organisation at government level, and she is a board member of the International Commission on Couple and Family Relations. Prior to joining Care for the Family in 2004, Katharine practised as a family lawyer. She is married to Richard and they have four grown-up children.