Young girl with ipad sitting on the couch Recent studies have shown steep drops in teenagers’ self-reported feelings of well-being and steep rises in rates of teen depression. The changes coincide with the rapid adoption of smartphone technology. Some experts have linked the two trends. Clearly, we should be attentive to our children’s emotional states. But should we be worried about the time they spend online and on their phones?

What research shows

Katherine Dahlsgaard, PhD, Clinical Director of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), helps us understand what the research does and doesn’t show, and how we should respond as parents.

“We’ve known from the time of Aristotle that the way to be happy is to do things in moderation,” says Dr. Dahlsgaard. “This is not new news. And it applies to our current concerns about our children’s (and our own) use of screen technology, such as smartphones, tablets and computers.”

Research on the effects of technology use on mental health has been mixed, she explains. Some studies have shown a relationship, and others have found none. So the jury is still out. But it is known — with certainty — that anything done to excess leads to unhappiness, whether it’s something obvious, like watching TV or eating junk food, or something typically linked to positive mental health, like exercise. Even too much of a good thing will make us unhappy.

Two recent studies (published in the journals Emotion and Psychological Science) have found curvilinear effects, showing that moderate recreational use of screen technology — one to two hours a day — is not associated with declines in well-being; however, use beyond that threshold is linked with negative mental health effects.

“This data supports the notion that most activities, when done in moderation, typically do no harm,” says Dr. Dahlsgaard. “Moreover, smartphones and other screen technologies are here to stay. So banning them is not an option. Nor does the data suggest that banning them would be helpful.”

That said, Dr. Dahlsgaard suggests that parents would be wise to set limits on screen use in the same way they set other limits on their children, with the aim of improving their well-being. We establish bedtimes and limit junk food for the sake of our children’s health. And we sometimes allow those limits to bend — think Super Bowl and holidays.

Setting limits for moderate screen time

When setting limits on screen time and smartphone use, parents need to acknowledge that a lot is out of their control, particularly as their children get older. So it’s a good strategy to start young.

Dr. Dahlsgaard suggests some limits to apply, and ways to apply them, in your family:

  • Have a policy about the amount of screen time allowed each day and stick to it resolutely.
  • Make it a rule that no screen time is allowed after school until homework is complete, or until homework is complete and dinner is over. Encourage your child to spend some of that screen-free time outdoors while it is still light.
  • Have screen-free weekends with older children, and join them in the practice. For younger children, have no screen time during the week. Go on screen-free vacations for the entire family. (This is a lot more fun than it sounds!)
  • Make it a rule with younger children that all screen time is earned — that is, they must complete a task or a chore or meet a behavioral goal in order to earn a specified amount of screen time.
  • Establish screen-free zones — no smartphone use for anyone in the family in the car, for example, or at restaurants, or at the dinner table.
  • The most important restriction of all — no screens in the bedroom when it is time for bed. No exceptions. Get an alarm clock so your kids don’t rely on their phones to wake up. Keep all screens, including TVs, out of bedrooms. They are sleep killers and can negatively impact your marriage. Parents should feel it is their right to purchase apps that shut off the internet at night. Or they can use a locked drawer or safe to put phones and tablets out of reach. “Your kids will get used to it,” says Dahlsgaard. “This restriction, for the sake of your child’s healthy sleep, is a hill worth dying on.”
  • Parents should also examine their own screen use and model a rich, varied and healthy life where all habits are practiced in moderation.

Finally, given those limitations, let your child enjoy their screen time. There is happiness in moderation. Getting anxious about any and all time your children spend on a smart phone or other device is comparable to our parents being anxious about the time we spent with video games or role-playing games. We turned out OK, didn’t we?