Boy looking at tablet New research about the impact screens and screen time has on the mental health of our youth is decidedly mixed, says Jason A. Lewis, PhD, Psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

While the rapid adoption of smartphone technology had been previously linked to steep rises in the rates of teen depression, the COVID-19 pandemic and dramatic increase in online learning has made the picture more nuanced.

“The way youth are interacting with screens has changed,” Dr. Lewis says. “We’ve learned not all screen time is created equally and that more screen time is not always bad for mental health.”

Types of screen usage, and why it’s not all created equal

Dr. Lewis notes there is marked differences in the types of screen time – and how much of each is recommended for youth.

  • Passive screen time includes watching TV, videos or games; and may include scrolling through social media or the news. This is often a solitary pursuit and Dr. Lewis recommends limiting it as much as possible for children and teens.
  • Interactive screen time includes online gaming and social media; and often includes interaction with others. Dr. Lewis recommends moderation for this type of screen time. While interaction with peers is generally a positive benefit, gaming and social media can also introduce negative interactions that can impact mental health, such as bullying.
  • Educational screen time includes learning activities such as attending class, having a group discussion, conducting research or seeking out new information.

“More is better for educational screen time,” Dr. Lewis says. “This type of digital interaction is generally more structured, with a common goal – like research for a class – and includes collegiality between the participants.”

Screen time advice for families

Setting healthy limits on screen time while children are still young can have long-term benefits to youth and their families.

Consider these recommendations:

  • Set limits on how much passive or interactive screen time (TV or gaming) is allowed each day.
  • Allow/encourage educational screen time as long as it’s not interfering with other healthy behaviors.
  • Have younger children “earn” screen time after school and their homework is complete.
  • Have screen-free nights or weekends – and join your kids in the practice! Use the time to play a game together, read a favorite book or just relax.
  • Establish screen-free zones — for example, no smartphone use by anyone (including grownups) at the dinner table, in a restaurant or in the car.
  • Keep smartphones out of the bedroom when it’s time for sleep. This may become more challenging for teens, but encourage them to place the phone on vibrate for sleep and place it across the room from their bed.

When to seek help

Most screen time activities – when done in moderation – are not associated with declines in well-being. However, if your child’s screen time is disrupting their normal activities, affecting their academics or social functioning, if they are pulling away from friends or isolating themselves, you should talk to your child’s pediatrician immediately.

Screen addiction and mental health issues are real and can have long-term consequences. Your child’s pediatrician can help refer you to a mental health professional skilled in working with children and teens with screen addictions.

Jason A. Lewis, PhD, is a psychologist and Section Director of Mood, Anxiety and Trauma Disorders in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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