Disconnection, Not Screen Time is the Problem for Teens, Study Suggests

A new study from Michigan State University suggests that excessive screen time is not as problematic as many believe. More concerning is the disconnect teens experience when they have limited internet access and are isolated from their peers. The work is published in Social Science Computer Review.

Key takeaways:
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    New research shows that screen time is not necessarily bad for teenagers, as previously thought.
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    It's more important to focus on helping teenagers develop a mindful relationship with technology rather than limiting their screen time.
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    Parents should encourage their children to think critically about the content they consume and model healthy technology use themselves.

Today's society depends heavily on technology for everything from communication to transportation to entertainment. It's hard to imagine life without technology, and screens are inextricably linked with modern life. So much so that they're second nature for most people, teenagers in particular.

Whether using a computer for schoolwork, watching television, scrolling through social media, or playing video games, teenagers spend a lot of time in front of screens.

The average person spends about 7 hours looking at screens daily, but for Gen Z, this figure jumps to around 9 hours. Evidently, teenagers are spending more and more time in front of screens, and many are concerned about its negative effects.

Parents and health experts are concerned that screen time and internet use expose teenagers to violent and risk-taking behavior, sexual content, cyberbullying, negative stereotypes, and other harmful content. In addition, there are fears that social media affects teens' self-esteem and leads to feelings of social isolation. Too much screen time can also lead to sleep deprivation, neck and back pain, and other physical problems.

There is no denying that teenagers spend a lot of time in front of screens, but is all this screen time bad? According to new research from MSU, it may not always be the case.

In the research, the scientists evaluated over 3000 teenagers living in rural settings in Michigan in the United States. They classified the teens as having minimal internet access at home, using digital devices extensively, or using digital devices but with parental restrictions.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that teenagers with minimal internet access and those with heavily restricted Internet use had lower levels of self-esteem. Conversely, the teens who reported high screen time had increased self-esteem.

The study authors noted that disconnection appeared to magnify self-esteem issues like body image. It seems that severing teenagers from youth culture and their peers negatively impacts them while being engaged with technology does not.

Although to outsiders, teens may seem disconnected from society by spending long periods online, the reality is that they're deeply engaged in alternative forms of socialization. And potentially one that's relevant and beneficial.

Parents who are overly controlling and limit their children's exposure to the internet may unintentionally impact their self-esteem and hinder their ability to socialize and form connections with others.

Screen time is deeply ingrained in youth culture. Spending time gaming and scrolling TikTok is how many teenagers socialize with their peers and entertain each other.

And while there is no denying that too much screen time can have negative consequences, it's important to remember that screens are not always the enemy. Forcibly removing teenagers from these technologies is potentially more damaging to their mental health and self-esteem than the risks attributed to social media and the internet as a whole.

The authors suggest that caregivers and families focus on guiding their children to use technology in a healthy and balanced way and develop critical media skills to identify harmful content. Limiting screen time should not be the primary goal, but rather helping teenagers develop a healthy relationship with technology.

Previous research highlights negative consequences

Many people will be surprised by the new research findings, as multiple studies have highlighted the negative consequences of screen time.

A study published in PLOS One used survey results from nearly 30,000 Korean teenagers. The authors found an association between screen time and negative emotions. They noted that teenagers who use the internet for more than 3 hours daily for noneducational purposes are chronically more stressed, sad, and prone to suicidal thoughts than their peers who spend less time online. The high-use teens also had more emotional and physical problems.

The paper's author suggests interventions to highlight the risks of excessive Internet use. They also suggest managing and lowering internet usage and instating leisure programs to replace time spent behind the screen.

Another study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that young teenage girls who used the internet for around 3 hours each day were more likely to have suicidal thoughts later in their teenage years. The researchers also found that teenage boys, particularly when subjected to cyberbullying, were also more likely to have suicidal thoughts than young adults.

They suggest setting reasonable limits on screen time rather than forbidding it outright. They also highlight the importance of encouraging teenagers to think critically and pay attention to how content makes them feel and who they're following.

What should parents do?

There are contrasting opinions on what constitutes appropriate screen time for teenagers. And with such conflicting research findings, it can be difficult for parents to decide how to best manage their children's screen time.

However, experts agree that it's critical to help teenagers develop healthy relationships with technology and social media. They should be taught to balance internet time with other activities and to use screens mindfully. Encouraging teenagers to be critical and question the content they consume online and helping them to identify when they're feeling negative emotions is also key.

It's also important for parents to model healthy technology use themselves. If they're constantly on their phones or laptops, it sends the message that screens are more important than people. Taking breaks from devices and talking to children about why it's healthy to do so can help create a healthier family dynamic around technology use.