The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released results of the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, their once-a-decade survey of youth mental health and risk-taking behaviors. The headlines aren’t good: Self-reported rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in adolescents have increased substantially from 2011 to 2021. This echoes epidemiologic data showing increasing rates of anxiety and depression over the last decade in 12- to 24-year-olds, but not in older age cohorts.
This trend started well before COVID, coinciding with the explosive growth in use of smartphones, apps, and social media platforms. Facebook launched in 2004, the iPhone in 2007, Instagram in 2010, and TikTok in 2016. A 2018 Pew Research survey of 13- to 17-year-olds found that 97% of them used at least one social media platform and 45% described themselves as online “almost constantly.” Social media does have great potential benefits for adolescents.
We all experienced how it supported relationships during COVID. It can provide supportive networks for teenagers isolated by exclusion, illness, or disability. It can support exploration of esoteric interests, expression of identity, entertainment, and relaxation. But certain children, as was true before social media, seem vulnerable to the bullying, loneliness, isolation, and disengagement that social media may exacerbate.
Several studies have shown an association between high daily screen time and adolescent anxiety and depression. These findings have not been consistently duplicated, and those that were could not establish causality. There appears to be a strong link between certain illnesses (ADHD, depression, anorexia nervosa) and excessive screen use, which can in turn worsen symptoms. But it is hard to know which came first or how they are related.
Now, a very large long-term observational study has suggested that there may be critical windows in adolescence (11-13 years in girls and 14-16 in boys and again at 19 years for both) during which time excessive screen time can put that child’s developing mental health at risk. This is nuanced and interesting progress, but you don’t have to wait another decade to offer the families in your practice some common sense guidance when they are asking how to balance their children’s needs to be independent and socially connected (and the fact that smartphones and social media are pervasive) with the risks of overuse. Equipped with these guiding principles, parents can set individualized, flexible ground rules, and adjust them as their children grow into young adults.
First: Know your child
Parents are, of course, the experts on their own child – their talents, interests, challenges, vulnerabilities, and developmental progress. Children with poor impulse control (including those with ADHD) are going to have greater difficulty turning away from highly addictive activities on their devices. Children who are anxious and shy may be prone to avoiding the stress of real-life situations, preferring virtual ones. Children with a history of depression may be vulnerable to relapse if their sleep and exercise routines are disrupted by excessive use. And children with eating disorders are especially vulnerable to the superficial social comparisons and “likes” that Instagram offers. Children with these vulnerabilities will benefit if their parents are aware of and can talk about these vulnerabilities, ideally with their child. They should be prepared to work with their teens to develop strategies that can help them learn how to manage their social media usage. These might include stopping screen use after a certain hour, leaving devices outside of bedrooms at night, and setting up apps that monitor and alert them about excessive use. They might use resources such as the AAP’s Family Media Plan (Media and Children [aap.org]), but simply taking the time to have regular, open, honest conversations about what is known and unknown about the potential risks of social media use is very protective.
Second: Use adolescent development as your guide
For those children who do not have a known vulnerability to overuse, consider the following areas that are essential to healthy development in adolescence as guideposts to help parents in setting reasonable ground rules: building independence, cultivating healthy social relationships, learning about their identity, managing their strong emotions, and developing the skills of self-care. If screen time supports these developmental areas, then it’s probably healthy. If it interferes with them, then not. And remember, parents should routinely discuss these principles with their children as well.
Key questions. Does their use of a device enable them to function more independently – that is, to arrange for rides, manage their schedules, homework, shifts, and so forth – on their own? Could it be done with a “dumb” device (text/call only)?
One-way viewing (Instagram, Facebook) with superficial acquaintances may promote isolation, anxiety, and depression, does not facilitate deepened relationships, and may be using up time that they could be investing in genuine social connections. But if they are using their devices to stay connected to good friends who live far away or just have different schedules, they can promote genuine, satisfying, bilateral social connections.
Key questions. Are they engaged in two-way communication with their devices? Are they staying connected to friends with whom they have a genuine, substantial relationship?
Investigating and experimenting with interests (identity)
Teenagers are supposed to be learning in deep and nuanced ways about their own interests and abilities during these years. This requires a lot of time invested in exploration and experimentation and a considerable amount of failure. Any activity that consumes a lot of their time without deepening meaningful knowledge of their interests and abilities (that is, activity that is only an escape or distraction) will interfere with their discovering their authentic identity.
Key questions. Is their use of devices facilitating this genuine exploration (setting up internships, practicing programming, or exploring interests that must be virtual)? Or is their device use just consuming precious time they could be using to genuinely explore potential interests?
Managing anxiety or distress
Exploring their identity and building social connections will involve a lot of stress, failure, disappointment, and even heartbreak. Learning to manage these uncomfortable feelings is an important part of adolescence. Distraction with a diverting entertainment can be one of several strategies for managing stress and distress. But if it becomes the only strategy, it can keep teens from getting “back in the game” and experiencing the fun, success, meaning, and joy that are also a big part of this exploration.
Key questions. Do they turn to their devices first when sad or stressed? Are they also able to use other strategies, such as talking with friends/family, exercising, or engaging in a meaningful pursuit to help them manage stress? Do they feel better after a little time spent on their device, or as if they will only feel good if they can stay on the device?
Getting adequate, restful sleep (8-10 hours/night), finding regular time for exercise, cultivating healthy eating habits, and discovering what healthy strategies help them to unwind or relax is critical to a teenager’s healthiest development, and to healthy adult life. Some screens may help with motivating and tracking exercise, but screens in the bedroom interfere with going to bed, and with falling and staying asleep. Most teenagers are very busy and managing a lot of (normal) stress; the senseless fun or relaxation that are part of video games or surfing the Web are quick, practical, and effective ways to unwind. Don’t discourage your teenager from enjoying them. Instead, focus on also helping them to find other healthy ways to relax: hot baths, exercise, time with pets, crafts, reading, and listening to music are just a few examples. As they are building their identity, they should also be discovering how they best slow down and calm down.
Key questions. How many hours of sleep do they usually get on a school night? Is their phone (or other screen) in their bedroom during sleep? How do they relax? Do they have several strategies that do not require screens? Do they exercise regularly (3-5 times weekly)? Do they complain that they do not have enough time for exercise?
Third: Be mindful of what you model
Many of these principles can apply to our own use of smartphones, computers, and so on. Remind parents that their teenager will ultimately consider and follow their example much more than their commands. They should be prepared to talk about how they are thinking about the risks and benefits of social media use, how they are developing rules and expectations, and why they decided on them. These conversations model thoughtful and flexible decision-making.
It is critical that parents acknowledge that there are wonderful benefits to technology, including senseless fun. Then, it is easier to discuss how escaping into screen use can be hard to resist, and why it is important to practice resisting some temptations. Parents should find ways to follow the same rules they set for their teenager, or making them “family rules.” It’s important for our teenagers to learn about how to set these limits, as eventually they will be setting their own!
Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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Image 1: Susan D. Swick, MD/MDedge
Image 2: Michael S. Jellinek, MD/MDedge
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Cite this: Screen Time and Teenagers: Principles for Parents - Medscape - Mar 27, 2023.