Screen Time and Youth Wellbeing

The current statistics regarding youth mental health are troubling. More and more students report feeling depressed. Even more alarming, between 2009 and 2017, the number of high school students who reported contemplating suicide increased 25 percent. It could be that more teens are willing to admit they are struggling, but deaths by suicide among teens have increased as well. Among youth aged 10–24, suicides climbed 56 percent between 2007 and 2017.

It is unclear what has caused this disturbing trend. Some people point to the tremendous increase in the use of digital technology by youth, particularly smartphones, as the culprit. There has been a dizzying array of articles about recent studies with a variety of negative claims about “screen time.” At the same time, the use of digital technology remains a significant component in the lives of many youth. If this is true for your child, don’t panic. We at MCF have reviewed the studies and have some reasonable suggestions.

It is simplistic to make generalizations about the negative impact of screen time. Screen time can be any number of things—kids might be playing video games, using social media, using apps, searching the web, streaming videos, or reading, and any of these activities can involve positive or negative content.

Just as many articles have been written about the bad effects of screen time, many articles have been written with ideas about how to restrict a child’s screen time; some of these suggest draconian measures. A few years ago the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their initial guidelines (which were quite restrictive) to what they call more realistic advice. Here are some of their recent recommendations:

  • There has been an overarching concern that the blue light emitted from screens has a negative impact on sleep. Just having a mobile device in a child’s bedroom has been associated with fewer minutes of sleep each night. Most pediatricians and other experts recommend that screens be turned off one hour prior to bed time.
  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should also watch with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

For more guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, this link addresses screen media and young children, and this link addresses screen media and children and adolescents.

Despite much research, there is no overwhelming or consistent evidence that screen time in itself has a negative impact on youth wellbeing. However, it makes sense for families to adopt some moderate measures and monitor content to support their child in this digital world.