“Just tell me how much screen time my kids should have!”
This is often the sentiment of parents I meet who are tired of conflicting advice about kids and technology. I get it. Our risk-assessment capacity is fried, news headlines give us constant whiplash, and we all could use some certainty right now.
That’s why I empathetically wince a bit when I deliver the evidence-based response of “Well, it depends.”
The reality is that time-based screen time recommendations are helpful at the extremes (Too much screen time? Not great for kids. No screen time at all? Not great either, at least for older kids.)
It’s in the middle ground that time-based screen time recommendations fall apart. In the middle ground, outcomes are driven less by minutes and more by the what, when, why, and with who different kids spend time with screens. Their specific skills, strengths, and vulnerabilities are all important factors.
I know, this brings little solace for exhausted parents eager for some concrete advice.
New data sheds even more light on what teens need from us.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t good guidance as we walk this more complicated path alongside our kids. For example, a group of researchers recently studied nearly 4,000 teens and parents and their data holds up a powerful mirror to the kind of parental involvement that is associated with wellbeing.
This study was unique in a couple of ways:
- Rather than just looking for commonalities among the participants in the study, the researchers wanted to better understand if there were key differences between smaller subgroups of teens. This is helpful because a lot of screen time research lumps everyone together which can mask divergent outcomes and obscure granular experiences between groups. For example, on average we might see a slight negative correlation between technology use and wellbeing but this might hide more significant impacts on subgroups who are doing really well or other subgroups who are really struggling.
- Rather than just looking for social media harms, the researchers were interested in social media effects – both positive and negative. In other words, they wanted to identify not only what was going wrong in the lives of some digitally connected youth; they also wanted to know what was going right.
This last point is no small thing. The sole focus on risk and peril can overlook important insights about the strengths, skills, and protective factors that facilitate thriving. We learned the lesson long ago in the field of youth development that we absolutely shouldn’t look away from what is going wrong. But asking “what is going right?” in the lives of teens is equally important.
What do teens who are doing well have in common?
Once we start looking at subgroups of teens, there is some comforting news in the data. A much larger subgroup of teens in this study (about two thirds of them) are doing really well, meaning that they had better health outcomes and higher wellbeing indicators.
You might expect that these teens had very limited screen time and strict rules. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. What did these teens have in common when it came to their parents’ involvement in their media use? Connection, engagement, and good communication. More specifically, these teens tended to have:
- Screen time rules based on content, not just time. Teens in this subgroup did have screen time limits but those limits tended to be based on content and purpose, not just minutes and hours.
- Frequent communication with caregivers about the rules. Teens in this subgroup tended to have more shared decision-making and more communication about screen time rules. As opposed to the other group (whose rules were characterized as either NO rules or STRICT rules), these kids experienced more back and forth. Rather than just acting as “on and off” regulators, their caregivers were willing to talk with their kids about why certain rules were in place and to negotiate together based on their goals.
- Devices tended to be family devices. As opposed to spending the majority of their screen time on personal devices, teens in this subgroup used tablets, gaming systems, and televisions meant for the entire family. With the exception of cell phones for older teens, this meant that this subgroup was more likely to engage with media with other family members and had to negotiate screen time with others.
The smaller subgroup of teens who were more at risk based on measures of mental health and wellbeing tended to experience the inverse. They were more likely to have their own personal devices, experienced either very lax or very restrictive rules based on time, and their caregivers tended to spend more time on social media themselves.
A “balanced” approach helps (even if it doesn’t always feel in balance).
In many ways, this study just reinforces insights from research on family systems in general well beyond screen time. Kids tend to do better when parents avoid being too strict (authoritarian) or too lax (permissive). A “balanced approach” prioritizes connections, meaningful limits, reasonable negotiation, and good communication.
Practically speaking in terms of tech, this showed up in this particular study in a lot of different ways. For example, the data revealed that kids who get their own phone before the age of 11 and after the age of 17 are not doing as well as teens who get phones sometime in the middle of adolescence.
The balanced approach sounds good on paper. In practice it can feel a bit messy and foggy. If we grew up with authoritarian or permissive caregivers ourselves, building these new communication skills can be challenging or unfamiliar. In the middle of a negotiation over video games or a discussion about TikTok and body image, it is easy to wonder, “Is this going to turn out okay?” Plus it is a teenager’s job to pull away from us, making communication trickier. It is tempting in those moments to want to just completely unplug or throw up our hands and walk away.
The good news? Even though this balanced approach can be a delayed gratification activity, the eventual reward is tremendous. Focusing on connection, communication, limits, and skill building gives teens guardrails and the chance to practice the very things that they will need to draw on when they start managing media on their own. Engaging our teens in the issues also invites them into important conversations about reimagining these spaces with their health and wellbeing at the center.
When in doubt – stay connected.
We have decidedly not reached a stage where we can hand kids a phone and wish them luck. Nor do they benefit when we spend all of our energy lamenting tech or talking about restricting use.
So exactly how much screen time should tweens and teens have? Not too much. Not too restrictive.
What’s just right? It depends. But the best path forward is to figure it out together.