Screen time strikes guilt and fear into the heart of every parent, but few of us know how bad screens can be and what to do about screen use for our kids.

Think Screen Time Isn’t Hurting Your Kids? These 5 Studies Say Think Again

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Few things strike modern parents’ guilt like the words “screen time.” We know because we’re all guilty of overusing screens ourselves and letting our kids have a little more screen time than we should. Let’s start with the understanding that we are the first generation of parents with native technology users, so we don’t have good (or even bad!) examples of parenting with technology to use as a foundation. 

Not only that, but most families are busier than ever, meaning parents are burnt out, and teens are hard to parent, let alone a teen who has been grounded from their phone. It’s a lot, and even thinking about how to manage screen time with your teen or young adult can feel unbelievably overwhelming, to the point where you just avoid it. 

But there are real, life-long, negative consequences for teens overusing screens, and as a parent, it is your job to teach your kids how to have a healthy relationship with technology. Don’t worry, we’re going to help by providing studies that show the negative impact of screen time, as well as a reasonable, down-to-earth approach to setting limits with technology. Together, we’ll find the best way to help your teen or young adult develop healthy habits. 

The Surprising Truth About Screen Time

We have all heard about the negative impacts screen time can have on teens and young adults, and in some ways, it almost turns into white noise. It’s easy to ignore the real, lived impacts screen time can have on your teen because most teens are glued to their phones, and maybe you think your teen’s moodiness is just hormones and not related to their screen use. 

The truth is that screen time can have lifelong negative effects, including cardiovascular disease, significant mental health problems (including eating disorders and suicidal ideation and attempts), poor cognitive development that prevents teens from building the skills they need as adults, and profound social and cultural impacts that can leave teens feeling isolated and lost. 

LEARN MORE: Managing Teen Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

Just because many teens have phones, use social media, and seem unable to stop using their phones doesn’t mean it is healthy for your teen. Of course, the years of adolescence and young adulthood are periods when kids need guidance, support, and the space to make mistakes as they learn new skills, including how to manage their screen time. 

Parents can have the most significant impact there, and once you understand why screen time can have such a damaging effect, you’ll want to learn precisely how to help your teen manage screen time. 

These important brain developments happen throughout childhood and adolescence, but the changes happening during adolescence are particularly important. One study found that screen time profoundly affected problem-solving and communication skills. The more screen time, the more delay in these crucial areas.

5 Screen Time Studies You Need To See If Your Teen Has A Screen

Screen Time And Development 

Our brains actively develop throughout childhood and adolescence. In fact, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until around the age of 25. While the brain is developing, it’s highly sensitive to changes in the environment because it’s making thousands of connections between neurons (brain cells) that eventually form our understanding of the world, relationships, and ourselves. 

These important brain developments happen throughout childhood and adolescence, but the changes happening during adolescence are particularly important. One study found that screen time profoundly affected problem-solving and communication skills. The more screen time, the more delay in these crucial areas. Monitoring and managing screen time throughout development will help your teen’s brain develop problem-solving and communication skills, two areas in which teens need extra support. 

Screen Time And Mental Health

Want to set your teens and young adults up for long-term mental health? Teach them how to limit their screen time and engage with their screen time in a healthy way. One study found that the time kids spent on screens directly correlated to the internalization of their problems, which leads to higher rates of depression and anxiety. 

Remember, teen’s brains are already awash in hormones that, when not managed well, can lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety, and that’s without screen time. Screen time for teens usually means some time on social media, and while social media might be a tool to help keep us connected when used by teens’ developing brains and identities, it can cause profound problems. Social media can lead to bullying, body image issues (and potential eating disorders), sleep problems, anxiety, and depression. Providing guidelines, regular check-ins, and close monitoring of social media can help teens learn the skills they’ll need to manage their screen time and social media use as adults. 

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Screen Time And Physical Health

You might think that a little extra screen time instead of an activity isn’t a big deal for teens, but the truth is that screen time can have lasting, negative effects on physical health for teens. Too much screen time can lead to cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, low HDL cholesterol, poor stress regulation, insulin resistance (leading to diabetes), poor sleep, impaired vision, and reduced bone density. 

While bodies change over time, especially the teen and young adult body, some of the effects of too much screen time can affect your child for life. Managing screen time can benefit your child’s physical health and help them learn other coping skills for big emotions. Teaching your teen that a walk around the block, lifting weights, or shooting hoops can help their body process their emotions is a gift they will use their whole lives. 

A recent meta-analysis of screen time studies from recent years found some shocking correlations between screen time and cognitive function. Those with disordered phone use (meaning a dependency or difficulty not using screens even though they might want to stop) had significantly reduced ability to maintain attention and a profound lack of impulse control.

Cognitive Effects Of Screen Time

A recent meta-analysis of screen time studies from recent years found some shocking correlations between screen time and cognitive function. Those with disordered phone use (meaning a dependency or difficulty not using screens even though they might want to stop) had significantly reduced ability to maintain attention and a profound lack of impulse control. 

These two factors play a significant role in learning and developing new skills. Without strong impulse control and the ability to focus, teens aren’t able to learn, try new things, get up after a mistake or failure, and keep trying even when they don’t experience immediate gratification. All of these skills play crucial roles in the ability to function as an independent adult. 

Cultural And Social Effects Of Screen Time 

While we call it “social” media, it’s clear that social media isn’t actually making us more social, at least not in a way that improves mental and physical outcomes. Think about the last time you noticed your teen (or yourself) scrolling for an hour through a social media feed, shopping online, or playing a mindless game on their phone. How was their (your) mood after? Were you excited about life, rejuvenated, full of enthusiasm? Or did they (you) roll off the couch in a puddle of apathy, with a pit of dread, jealousy, or emptiness in your stomach?

Most of us experience screen time the latter way, especially if we aren’t conscious and careful in how we use it. When we let our teens (whose brains, again, are already naturally growing and flooded with near-constant hormone fluctuations) have unrestricted access to screens, we’re basically adding kerosene to an already roaring fire. 

Teens with that level of distress aren’t likely to contribute to dinner-time conversation or happily greet you when you come in the door. The social and cultural impacts of long-term screen time use are still unfolding, but we know for sure that helping teens and young adults develop skills around screen time use will help them be more social, happy, and functional adults. 

Beyond Screen Time: Finding Balance

One of the trickiest parts of our kids shifting into adolescence is how our role as parents changes. We are used to being in relative control of everything our child does, when they eat, what they wear, where they go, when they go to bed, who their friends are, etc. But as they hit adolescence, their primary focus is establishing their identities and building the confidence and resilience they need to go out into the world as adults. It’s a difficult shift to make for parents and teens, but a crucial one. 

As your child ages, and especially as they hit high school and their young adult years, the best way to guide your teen is to bring them into the decision-making process. Rather than lay down strict rules (“only 30 minutes of screen time while I sit next to you on the couch!” or “no social media ever in any circumstance”), you want to give your child the information you have (especially studies like those linked here), and then collaborate to make a plan. 

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Establishing a healthy boundary with screen time is an ongoing process you’ll need to revisit as your teen grows. Your job is to be an information provider, a guide, an example, a good question-asker, and someone who follows through on the rules, all without shame and blame.

Framing the conversation as a collaboration meant to help everyone involved is a great start: “I’ve recently learned some new information regarding screen use, and it’s really made me reconsider my relationship with my phone. I think it would be helpful if we could sit down and talk about how our whole family can have a healthier relationship with technology and screens”.  Make the conversation light, make sure to add a snack they love, and don’t expect to come out of the first conversation with hard and fast rules. 

Establishing a healthy boundary with screen time is an ongoing process you’ll need to revisit as your teen grows. Your job is to be an information provider, a guide, an example, a good question-asker, and someone who follows through on the rules, all without shame and blame. 

Curiosity, ease, calm, and connection will help you establish a relationship with your teen based on mutual respect, with the understanding that you are the adult and have the experience, information, and brain functioning your teen simply doesn’t. They need your guidance, boundaries, and expectations to help them grow into healthy adults, even if they seem like they don’t.

Remember, your goal isn’t to control your teen. It’s to ask good, non-judgemental questions (“How did you feel after you scrolled on Instagram for 3 hours”), provide thoughtful feedback (“It sounds like you’re saying it made you feel bummed and apathetic, and your head kind of hurt after, is that right”) and then summarizing a plan (“next time you want to zone out, let’s take a walk to the coffee shop like we discussed in our screen time plan”). 

Your screen time plan can be as structured or unstructured as you want but should include guidelines like the number of hours, when screens “go to bed,” what apps and games are okay, what social media use looks like, etc. As you create your screen time plan, remember you’ll need to make compromises, and you might be the first one to do so. Your willingness to compromise on some issues will show your teen that you’re here to help, not control. 

Need Help Setting Screen Time Boundaries?

Adolescence and young adulthood get a bad rap as being tumultuous, terrible, and overwhelming—and that’s just from a parent’s perspective. Consider how stressful this time is for teens. But it doesn’t have to lead to the negative outcomes of poor physical and mental health, lower cognitive functioning, and lack of social skills that come with overusing screen time. 

By providing information and guidance and working with your teen as a team, you can find a balance that works for your family. Screen time is part of modern life, so teaching our teens and young adults how to balance their screen time use is one of the crucial jobs of parenting. It doesn’t have to be a daily battle; it can be an established understanding in your home, built with cooperation from your teen. 

If it seems like your teen or young adult isn’t willing or available to create a screen time plan for your home, you might need extra support from a team of experts. Screen use is a new parenting issue, and it’s not your fault you didn’t know how to handle it—we didn’t have them when we were growing up; we’re the guinea pigs of parenting with screens. But if your teen or young adult has fallen into unhealthy screen use patterns, they might need the additional help of our team at Pure Life Adventure. Contact us today to see how we can support you and your teen or young adult. 

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