Screen time for kids: Jean Twenge explores how much is too much


James Steinberg, for the Deseret News

Being a parent today comes with what seems like a never-ending challenge: Getting kids to put down their electronic devices.

As I write this, our two youngest children (ages 10 and 12) are playing Minecraft on their school-issued laptops. Our oldest, who is 15, is in her room, probably on her laptop as well. Even though none of them have their own smartphone or tablet, the draw of screens seems constant.

Screen technology is everywhere. The average American child gets their own smartphone by age 10, and many get their own tablet before that. Even if you hold back from getting children their own devices, they will often be issued one by their school, or will constantly ask to borrow yours. As a result, according to a 2019 study by Common Sense Media, kids ages eight to 12 spent more than five hours a day total with screen media, and teens 13 to 18 spent seven and a half hours.

This is not a good situation: Study after study has found that kids and teens who spend a large number of hours a day with screens suffer from negative outcomes including more depression, self-harm and obesity.

What’s a parent to do? Some experts have suggested that because technology is so pervasive, there is no point in fighting it — we should just let kids do what they want online. Another group of parents advocates for the opposite, keeping their kids off screens nearly all the time. Too often, the discussion around screens and kids is all or nothing.

That’s unfortunate, because there is a third way: limited use of screens. This strategy is based on a startling fact: Some use of screens might be good for kids, even though too much use is not good. In this philosophy, screen time has its time and place. You use it for what it’s good for, and then go do something else. 

I have researched the links between screen time and mental health in kids and teens for the last six years, combing large surveys and small experiments for insight into how much — and what kind — of screen time is healthy for children, and how much is not. In dataset after dataset, a consistent pattern has emerged: The best-adjusted teens are not those who never used screens, but those who use screens a limited amount of time. There are also meaningful variations depending on what teens do on screens and when. Although most of these studies have looked at teens, some also inform how parents should regulate younger kids’ screen time as well.

Based on the latest research, here is my best advice for parents: 

Don’t worry too much about TV

Surprisingly, teens who don’t watch TV at all are more likely to be unhappy than those who watch it excessively. TV watching between one and five hours a day is about the same in terms of happiness levels. As long as teens are getting their homework done, are hanging out with their friends sometimes and are getting enough exercise, TV time is not a big factor for happiness. 

Allow teens to use screens to communicate with friends in real time, in moderation

A teen who has no access to texting, video chat or gaming has few opportunities to communicate with their friends when they’re not face to face. This generation (whom I call iGen in my book of the same name) rarely talks on the phone. Even before the pandemic, they saw each other in person less.

Many teens now spend time with each other via gaming programs, and texting and video chat also allow real-time or near-real-time communication. This type of communication is not as essential for younger children, who are more often content to play with their friends at school or only in-person.

But by middle school, keeping up friendships usually means some kind of electronic communication. That’s probably why teens who don’t game or text at all are more likely to be unhappy than those who engage in these activities a small to moderate amount.

They are best in limited amounts (up to about three hours a day), because heavy users (especially heavy gamers) are more unhappy than nonusers. Heavy use crowds out time for healthy activities like sleep and exercise and might replace more beneficial social interaction like in-person socializing. 

If you allow social media, have clear rules

Of the four activities, social media is the most strongly linked to unhappiness, especially for girls, with nearly each hour of use marching toward more unhappiness. Heavy users are almost twice as likely to be unhappy as light users. For boys there is little link to unhappiness until three to five hours a day, while for girls the uptick in unhappiness appears after an hour of social media use a day.

Teens do use social media to communicate with their friends, but most social media involves communicating with a group and not in real time. That gives it a performative aspect, with teens worrying about how many likes their posts will get and how many followers they have.

Some platforms, such as Instagram, also have algorithms that expose teens to questionable content (such as pages encouraging unhealthy eating). In September 2021, internal company research leaked by a whistleblower showed that Instagram caused depression and body image issues among teen girls, causing in some cases a “grief spiral” of negative feelings. Instagram is, at base, a platform where teen girls and young women post pictures of their bodies and ask others to comment on them — not a good situation.

Thus, if you allow your teen to have social media, it should probably be a platform like Snapchat (where messages disappear, and more communication is among friends) instead of a platform like Instagram (where posts are curated, and there is more content from celebrities and influencers, which can lead to body image issues).

Moderation can be difficult for teens themselves to implement. The algorithms of social media sites are designed to be addictive, keeping users on the site as long as possible. Thus, it’s probably a good idea to use the parental controls available on most devices to limit the amount of time your teen spends on social media apps. You can also consider not allowing social media at all, since there are other ways teens can communicate with their friends.

This is the choice we’ve made for our 15-year-old, and an increasing number of iGeners themselves are advocating for teens postponing social media (like college student Emma Lembke, who founded a movement called Log Off).

As for kids 12 or younger, it’s simple: Kids are not allowed to have a social media page in their own name until they turn 13. (That’s under a children’s privacy law known as COPPA, though kids routinely lie about their age and the age minimum is only unevenly enforced by the platforms).

Having an age minimum makes sense, given both the content and the addictive nature of social media. Even 13 is likely too young, as it comes during the fraught years of middle school when social pressures are already running high. Lawmakers may eventually raise the age for social media to 16 or even 18. Until then, it’s up to parents to decide whether their younger teens are ready for social media. 

No screens in the bedroom after lights out

Although some use of screens during the day can be good, having electronic devices in the bedroom during sleep time should be nonnegotiable for kids and teens: They have to go.

When phones and tablets are within reach during sleep time, sleep quality and length both suffer. If you want to implement just one piece of advice on screens, it should be this one: No devices in the bedroom after lights out.

If you want to take it a step further, eliminate screens in the hour before bedtime. Digital activities are both psychologically stimulating (Did my crush text me back? Did anyone like my Instagram post?) and physiologically stimulating (the blue light from devices tricks our brains into thinking it’s still daytime). If you replace device time with TV time, which is not as psychologically stimulating, take steps to filter its blue light. This can be done by wearing orange safety glasses and setting the tablet screen to warmer tones (on Apple devices, it’s called Night Shift).

Overall, the research on screen time and mental health is actually good news. The research doesn’t suggest kids and teens give up using devices completely — just that they use them in moderation, and cut back or eliminate certain activities more than others. Our kids can enjoy what screens have to offer, and then put them away and enjoy the real world as well. Maybe they will even go outside. Well, a mom can dream. 

Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.