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There’s little evidence that screen time harms adolescents’ mental health, and the pandemic highlights how we should look for its benefits.
Young people have been making big sacrifices around the pandemic. Adolescents’ brains are wired to learn through social interaction, and their bodies are designed to respond to it. They have a heightened sensitivity to reward from their friends, with whom life seems so much better. Yet for reasons of safety – predominantly that of others – they have had to set so much of this aside.
Thankfully, they still have social media and networking sites to connect remotely and safely. COVID-19 is making digital technologies more vital for young people, having pushed them almost overnight out of schools, sports and theatres and into their homes, where the only way to connect with peers may be via phones and computers.
As a result, the pandemic has flipped the script on screen time. Hours online have skyrocketed now that young people are using screens more for school as well as for entertainment. That shift is making us talk about a critical but neglected issue – not the tired, ill-evidenced debate about hours of screen time, but how time spent online can be used to benefit young people’s well-being.
Mental health issues predate mobiles
This conversation is helpful because it is false to say that this generation is in a crisis brought on by phones and screen time. For decades, one in four or five young people have suffered a mental disorder. That problem will not suddenly be solved by switching off phones – if only the answer were so simple. Though rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness have been rising in recent years, today’s young people are a resilient lot with plenty of strengths. They are doing better than other generations: more likely to graduate from high school, less prone to violence or to using drugs and alcohol.
“The pandemic has flipped the script on screen time as hours online have skyrocketed.”
But this pandemic will challenge them. Previous downturns and shocks have affected young people’s mental health for years afterwards. Parents and teachers should be prepared for more mental health issues and a spike in young people looking for supports online, given that many of their offline supports have been taken away.
Screen time and adolescent mental health
My research focusses on adolescent mental health, particularly depression and anxiety, in the digital age – the facts, fears and what we should be thinking about for the future. We have synthesised recent findings from multiple studies. They reveal only small, and often conflicting, associations between screen time, social networking, depression and anxiety. In short, a plethora of studies around screen time has unearthed little of clinical or practical significance and failed to throw much light on the direction of any cause and effect relationships between screen time and mental health.
Indeed, our research, by tracking young people on their mobiles, has found that the days when they are more connected – when they use social media more – are the times when they are happier and experience less depression. Others who have followed adolescents over time have found that social media use does not predict later depression, but earlier depressive symptoms do predict future social media use. It may be that when teens are depressed and anxious, they engage with social media differently.
Social media can be a lifeline for young people. Ideally, mobiles can be a just-in-time therapist in the pocket: texting services and crisis text lines have proved themselves in suicide prevention. The digital world offers opportunities to connect with young people who never pass through mental health services. But we have failed to capitalise on opportunities by, for example, designing just for adults and children and not investing in the types of online, peer-to-peer coaching that can appeal to teens as authentic to their ears.
Parenting is similar online and off
Where does all this leave parents? The good news is that although mobile phones are pervasive among this generation, the fundamental needs of children and adolescents remain largely unchanged. Young people still require social connection and peer engagement. They need supportive parenting to protect them and help them to manage risk. Just as when they are offline, so too in their online activities they need monitoring and scaffolding by caregivers with whom they can openly communicate.
Families experience much conflict about the amounts of time young people spend online, but they have few conversations about how they spend that time and why. More often than not, the conflict itself is the problem, rather than the screen time. Parents should find out what young people are doing online. Mostly, they are watching videos, connecting with friends from their offline networks, and managing basic tasks around school and meeting up. We can ask young people about their day online, about whom they have been with and what they have seen. Ask your kids to walk you through their digital day.
A good question to ask both yourself and your child is: Are you there to connect, create or contribute? These are the activities that, young people say, provide the most rewards. Ask whether social media is supporting their well-being and happiness. It probably is. If parents switch off a young person’s screen, they should pause and ask what they are shutting off. Is it just a screen, or is it their child’s connection to an important network, to friends and ways to manage anxieties? Parents should know that their fears about too much screen time are not supported by evidence that it leads to clinical depression. We need to learn more about how the digital world influences our children, but the conversation so far has been dominated by fear rather than facts.
“If parents switch off a young person’s screen, they should ask whether they are shutting off their child’s connections to friends and ways to manage anxieties.”
Parents have opportunities to co-play online with young people. I do not enjoy Fortnite (although the dances are growing on me!), but I play it with my son to make sure that it is safe and to see why he is so drawn to it. Kids often love to share what they have learned, so there are chances to collaborate and for them to teach. Maybe that means taking time out of your day to co-create a TikTok video or become friends with your child on Instagram. Your child might have a second account just for friends, but that’s OK: we also want young people to have privacy and a space to connect without us looking over their shoulders.
See the child, not the screen time
We tell parents who worry about screen time to check other issues first before shutting off their screens. Are the kids getting enough sleep? Are they having time with their friends? If these things are going well, then screen time probably is not a problem. Also, remember that digital use evolves as adolescents get older. It can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning and requires support. But as they move through adolescence, they begin to figure out what activities are most rewarding and how to stay safe as they navigate on their own. Once young people reach college age, many will use digital tools to stay connected to friends and family they see less often. They often report streamlining their digital lives to be less dramatic and more aligned with their interests and goals.
If they are struggling in offline activities, then online activities might also be a problem. For example, if bullying is taking place offline, then it is more likely that there will be an online issue. Teachers and parents who have their eyes on young people offline are often not surprised to discover that they are also experiencing problems online. A simple principle offers good guidance: see the child, not just the screen time.
Odgers CL & Jensen MR (2020), Adolescent mental health in the digital age: Facts, fears and future directions, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61
Odgers CL (2018), Smartphones are bad for some teens, not all, Nature, 554
Jensen MR, George MJ, Russell MA & Odgers CL (2019), Young adolescents’ digital technology use and mental health symptoms: Little evidence of longitudinal or daily linkages, Clinical Psychological Science, 7