The Right Amount of Screen Time

With headlines questioning “Have Smartphone’s Destroyed a Generation?” and “Is Social Media Causing Childhood Depression?”, the controversy around the impact of screens on today’s youth continues to swirl. Whether it’s the busyness of our 24/7 connected world, feelings of loneliness, excessive time spent on screens, or some other factor, we must be attuned to our children’s health and well-being.

While the data remains unclear, there is increased concern about technology’s role. Furthering the confusion is data showing that teens who spend zero time on screens are less happy than those that spend a moderate amount. Parents ultimately have to make the call what’s the right amount of screen time for their child, but our research has uncovered some helpful guidelines.  

The ‘Just Right Amount’

When it comes to screen time, parents may be relieved to know that researchers are converging around the opinion that screen time in moderation actually produces an uptick in happiness. Jean Twenge, a well-known psychologist and author who studies generational trends, concluded in a recent study:

“Teenagers who get a small amount of screen time, between one and five hours a week, are happier than those who get none at all. The least happy ones were those who used screens for 20 or more hours a week. The happiest teens are those who are above average in face-to-face social interaction time and below average in social media use.”

The Goldilocks Hypothesis

These findings are consistent with the Goldilock Hypothesis that there is a ‘just right’ amount of screen time. A recent study conducted for UNICEF found, “in terms of impact on children’s mental well-being, the most robust studies suggest that the relationship [with technology] is U-shaped, where no use and excessive use can have a small negative impact on mental well-being, while moderate use can have a small positive impact.

Finding The Sweet Spot for Screen Time is Contextual

Teens reach their sweet spot sooner on weekdays than weekends, likely because they have fewer demands on their time. This finding likely holds true for younger children as well.  

How much screen time is the right amount for your child is difficult to pinpoint, but should be considered in the context  of:

  1. It’s zero sum — one more hour of screen time takes away one hour for something else.
  2. How your child responds when the technology is turned off
  3. How much time your child already spends on screens at school and for homework

Because screen time potentially encroaches on time for socializing, sleep, reading, physical activity, time outdoors — the very activities we know contribute to health and well-being, parents are wise to set limits. Ultimately, we want teens to be prepared for the realities of life in the digital world by the time they head to college, but self-regulation is a learned skill.  

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