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Study Finds Little Evidence Linking Screen Time and Teens' Well-Being

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
kids playing video games

Many parents try to limit the time their children spend online gaming or watching videos, especially before bedtime, in the belief this time could damage their emotional health.

But a new study turns that belief on its head. The study, by researchers at University of Oxford in England and published recently in the journal Psychological Science, found little evidence of a relationship between screen time and well-being in adolescents.

The results cast doubt on the widely accepted notion that spending time online – especially before bedtime – can damage young people’s emotional health, the researchers say.

The research also found that the use of digital screens two hours, one hour, or even 30 minutes before bedtime had no clear associations with decreases in adolescent well-being.

A Different Approach

The Oxford research stands out from other studies done on this topic, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) said in a news release.

For example, unlike other studies, the Oxford research analyzed a large dataset from more than 17,000 teens from several countries: Ireland, the United States and the United Kingdom. The researchers also used a rigorous methodology to gather how much time an adolescent spends on screens per day, including self-reported measures and time-use diaries.

The researchers were able to create a comprehensive picture of teens’ well-being, examining measures of psychosocial functioning, depression symptoms, self-esteem, and mood, with data provided by young people and their caregivers, the APS said.

Use Screen Time to Teach

Rainbow clinical psychologist Carolyn E. Ievers-Landis, PhD says on-screen time has been unfairly vilified.

“I feel like it’s too easy for adults to blame everything on video games or electronics,” she says. “The problem is that it’s just an assumption, but it really hasn’t been scientifically proven.”

Rather than nag your teens to get off their electronic devices, Dr. Ievers-Landis says, parents should use the coveted on-screen time to encourage development of time-management skills. Nagging about screen time could damage your relationship with your child for no good reason.

“It’s causing unnecessary harm to relationships with children and teens being looked down on and judged for their love of video games. How is this helping our children?” she says. “This is our world. It’s not the video games’ fault.”

If you would like to set some limits as a family, you could create a rule that your child/teen could have no screen time until homework is done and chores are completed, she suggests. Then it’s up to your child/teen to figure out how to make it happen.

“As parents, we can have expectations for things like grades or household responsibilities,” she says. “If our teens are able to figure out how they can fit in playing video games online with friends with all the other things they have to do, such as get sleep or do homework, then let them manage it.”

Benefits of Screen Time

For some teens, the online interaction that video games provide is one of the prime ways they interact with others -- e.g., for those who are socially awkward or who are not popular among their peers at school as well as for those who may be doing on-line school or being home schooled and may not have easy access to other children in person, Dr. Ievers-Landis says.

“Video games can bring a lot of joy to people who otherwise feel like they don’t fit in. And for some children, literally the only enjoyable thing in their life is their video games,” she says. “They can reach people all over the world.”

Particularly valuable are the cooperative aspects of online games such as Fortnite, she says.

“I love the team-building aspect of it,” she says. “It’s very much, ‘We are in this together and we are a group.’ To me, that’s building their relationships and their feelings of being together.”

When to Worry

The time to worry about too much screen time is when it takes your child away from other activities, Dr. Ievers-Landis says.

“Parents need to ask themselves, ‘In what ways is this limiting my child’s life?’ That is reasonable,” she says.

Some research has shown that playing video games contributes to delaying falling asleep, Dr. Ievers-Landis says. If your child is having trouble falling asleep, have them stop a half-hour to an hour before bedtime. But if they are getting enough sleep, it’s probably nothing to worry about, she says.

Related links

UH Rainbow pediatric practices are offering extended office hours in May to accommodate and prioritize teen well visits as part of Teen Health Month. Call for an appointment today.

UH Rainbow Babies & Children's experts provide two quick tips for keeping teens healthy. Watch the video.