Parents of screenagers can cut themselves some slack.
While about two-thirds of parents in a recent Pew survey say that they are concerned about their teens spending too much time in front of screens, new research from the University of Oxford assures that screen time — even before bed — has little impact on teen well-being.
The research team analyzed data from more than 17,000 adolescents from the U.S., the U.K. and Ireland, using both self-reported measures and time-use diaries to get a more accurate picture of how much time each teen spent on a screen each day, as well as what they were doing on them, such as playing video games, chatting and texting with friends, sending emails or browsing the internet, scrolling through social media sites like Facebook
; and watching TV, films, videos or DVDs. (In comparison, many screen-time studies rely on self-reported digital technology use, which is only accurate about one-third of the time, as 42% of subjects overestimate their usage, and 26% underestimate it.)
And they found that “adolescents’ total screen time per day had little impact on their mental health, both on weekends and weekdays.” And staring at screens for 30 minutes, one hour or even two hours before bedtime also “didn’t have clear associations” with decreasing their well-being, despite previous research that suggests using screens before bed disrupts sleep.
The impact of screen time on teenagers in this Oxford study was so small, in fact, that the report claimed adolescents “would need to report 63 hours and 31 minutes more of technology use a day in their time-use diaries” to lower their well-being enough for them to notice.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recently relaxed its screen time guidelines for adolescents, suggesting that families should come up with a personalized balance of on/off time tailored to their teen — as long as he or she still gets one hour of exercise a day, and eight to 12 hours of sleep each night.
The Oxford study authors did not respond to a request for comment by press time. But Mike Robb, the senior director at Common Sense Media, told MarketWatch that he was “not terribly surprised” by the report’s findings.
“Screen time itself does not have a huge effect on well-being — it’s what we do with our screens,” he explained. “There are so many different kinds of screen experiences, and they’re not all equal.”
He explained that a teenager sitting alone and streaming videos with content that is too mature for him is a different experience than watching high-caliber programming on his screen with a parent nearby who can talk to him about what it is that he’s seeing. Or passively scrolling through social media posts is less engaging than using a program to create art or produce a video. Texting doesn’t provide the same social interaction as video chatting with a grandparent.
Screen time also affects different teens in different ways. Dr. Delaney Ruston, a Stanford-trained physician and director of the documentary “Screenagers: Growing Up in Digital Age,” told MarketWatch that it’s important to ask each child or adolescent what they’re doing on their screens, and how it makes them feel, to come up with a digital media plan that makes sense for your family. (The American Academy of Pediatrics has a tool for creating a Family Media Use plan here.)
“Kids who aren’t struggling with mental health issues go online, and they feel less alone. They get motivation from interviews on YouTube. They are in contact with their best friends,” she said. “(But) those with expression are three times more likely to say that social media makes them feel worse. It’s a mixed bag. And this (Oxford) study doesn’t eliminate that every child is unique and could be using screen time in ways that are not benefiting them.”
And some parents still have concerns. Prince Harry told a group of mental health experts on Thursday that social media is “more addictive than alcohol and drugs.” He also decreed that the hit video game Fortnite “shouldn’t be allowed” because it’s “an addiction to keep you in front of a computer for as long as possible.”
Laura Puller told MarketWatch that her daughters are “attached” to their smartphones, estimating that the 12-year-old is on for an hour or two during the week, and five or six hours on the weekend; the 14-year-old racks up four hours during the week, and eight hours on weekends. They’re not allowed to have social media accounts yet, so she doesn’t have to worry about her daughters being obsessed with Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook (for now), but they do get “dragged into the rabbit hole” of YouTube and Vine videos.
“There’s definitely a part in the back of my mind that’s relieved that the current amount of time might not be as detrimental as I feared,” said Puller, 41, from Ronkonkoma, N.Y. after hearing about the new report. “(But) I would say that it’s not necessarily the screen time, but the content that has a bigger impact on the well-being.”
So she’s not changing her social media ban just yet. “It’s the interpersonal interactions that cause the behavior/attitude changes the most; group text messages getting out of hand, social media fights between friends, or bullying,” she said. “And even my girls, who don’t have direct access to those social media platforms, are exposed (to them) through their friends, through screenshots and conversations.”
And at the end of the day, more research is still needed to disentangle how various screen time traps are influencing each user. What’s been published suggests a correlation between screen time and health, but not a cause-and-effect relationship. “We can’t tell whether kids who have lower well-being are also the ones who use more screen time, or whether more screen time makes them have lower well-being,” explained Robb.
But parents don’t need to count every second of their teen’s screen time.
“Parents feel a tremendous amount of guilt and worry around screen time,” said Robb. “What they should worry about is the things that we know are important — getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, socializing and doing their homework. Parents don’t need to worry so much about the exact amount of screen time.”
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