A new study published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly suggests that the link between heavy screen time and teen depression is actually quite minimal and that teens will most likely be fine if they spend some extra time on their phone or computer.
Study leader Dr. Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University believes that the strict attention to limiting screen time by policy makers and advocacy groups is uncalled for. Instead, Ferguson sees more value in focusing on how media are used — for example, as a tool for learning and socialization — than on time consumption alone.
Until late last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended only two hours of screen time a day for youth but dropped this recommendation from their new guidelines. This change reflects the fact that the data guiding these recommendations is somewhat unclear and that screen time suggestions are simply experts’ best guesses.
For the study, the researchers wanted to cover the gaps in previous literature by examining what levels of screen time were associated with negative outcomes in teenagers and how strong these associations were.
They looked at the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey which included data from Florida participants who were on average 16 years old. Respondents were asked about their sleeping patterns, physical activity, how often they had meals with their family, if they experienced symptoms of depression, and how much screen time they spent watching television or playing video games.
The teens also reported on their grades, whether they participated in delinquent behavior, risky driving, or sexual activities, used illegal substances or suffered any eating disorders.
Data from the new study suggests that children are resilient to screen consumption for up to six hours daily. When negative outcomes were noted, these were very small and in general affected males more.
Time spent in front of a screen only accounted for between 0.49 percent of the variance in delinquency, 1.7 percent in depressive symptoms and 1.2 percent in average grade points. It did not have an influence on risky driving or risky sex, substance abuse, or restrictive eating.
“Although an ‘everything in moderation’ message when discussing screen time with parents may be most productive, our results do not support a strong focus on screen time as a preventative measure for youth problem behaviors,” says Ferguson.
The findings also suggest that the AAP was correct to discard their previous two-hour maximum guideline.
Ferguson believes that setting hard time limits on screen use does more to foster guilt in parents unable to meet unrealistic expectations than it helps children. He sees more value in focusing on how media are used than on time consumption alone, as it could for instance foster learning and socialization.
He also believes that it is good for young people to become intimately familiar with screen technologies.
“Screens of various sorts are increasingly embedded into daily life, whether they involve education, work, socialization or personal organization,” said Ferguson. “Setting narrow limits on screen time may not keep up with the myriad ways in which screens have become essential to modern life.”