History of Concern
The fear that technology ruins our minds and those of our children has a long history. In ancient Greece, there were concerns that the written word would harm society and lessen the respect people showed to each other. Since then, similar concerns have been shared about novels, radio, movies, television, and the internet. These concerns typically involve worry about both the quality and the amount of the content being consumed. Many of these concerns now relate to the effects of screen time in general. It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions, so we have to ask: are these concerns well founded?
Warning: Consume with Caution
Before proceeding, a brief general note about how to interpret research findings. Here are some general tips on how to consume research with wisdom:
- Data report general trends. They show what is typical. This does not mean other outcomes are impossible.
- This body of research is new. Many additional high-quality independent studies are needed before we can reach any strong conclusions.
- The studies that have the “scariest” findings often get the most attention, but that does not mean they should be trusted as being more accurate or informative.
Big Take-Home Message
In a nutshell, research on screen time and adolescent well-being says the following: “The current evidence suggests that typical digital technology use will not harm a typical adolescent.” (Dienlin & Johanes, 2019 p. 140)
Put another way: “[T]echnology use has a nearly negligible effect on adolescent psychological well-being, measured in a range of questions addressing depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, pro-social behavior, peer-relationship problems and the like.” (Denworth, 2019)
What does this mean? Let’s go into some detail:
Recent research evidence published in the journal Nature Human Behavior suggests that the link between screen time and well-being for adolescents should be considered all of the following:
- Negative—Effects of screens are likely to be negatively associated with well-being.
- Small—But these effects are also likely to be quite small (maybe even too small to matter all that much).
- Bidirectional—Changes in well-being can also influence adolescent screen use, not just the other way around.
- Individual—Not all screen time is created equally (a procrastination tool or passive consumptions differs from being social or active). What is being done while using a screen?
- Lacking in evidence—Very few high quality studies have been conducted. Low quality studies should be consumed with great caution.
In addition, the effects may be the following:
- Short-term—Screen time is more likely to affect short-term satisfaction than long-term outcomes.
- Non-linear—It’s possible for both low and high use of screens to be associated with lower well-being. Moderate use (1–2 hours per weekday, slightly more on weekends) is associated with higher well-being. A typical child spending less than 5 hours a day with a screen likely would not exhibit any noticeable differences to a parent.
Another conclusion: only 0.4% of adolescent well-being is related to screen use. To put that into context, consider the following:
- That’s about the same relationship to well-being as eating potatoes. Yes, potatoes.
- Wearing glasses is more negatively associated with well-being in adolescents than using digital technology (and even that isn’t really that bad).
- What matters more to well-being are things like getting a good night’s sleep and eating a healthy breakfast.
Prohibiting children from doing things they want and removing their power can also have negative consequences on well-being. Access to digital forms of social interaction may reduce the negative consequences of a decrease in face-to-face interaction with others.
Even though the research presented here suggests that fears over adolescent screen time might be overblown, none of the research says that parents should have zero concerns whatsoever about their child’s well-being. Here are some actions to consider taking:
- Regardless of any potential screen time concerns, if your child appears to be struggling with mental health problems, seek guidance from a mental health professional.
- Talking with your child (not just to them) about their well-being and behaviors can help you make informed decisions.
- Remember that screen time can sometimes also be an avenue for children to connect with others.
For more information on this topic, consider taking a look at or listen to the following resources:
- “New Research Casts Doubt On Connection Between Smartphone Use And Teen Mental Health”—an NPR interview with the host of the Life Kit parenting podcast
- “The Kids (Who Use Tech) Seem to Be All Right” and “Social Media Has Not Destroyed a Generation”—two Scientific American articles about the Nature Human Behavior article referenced in this post