How Screen Time Affects Teens: Mental Health and Depression

August 4, 2023

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Young people are using cellphones and computers more than ever. Learn what that means for their well-being.

Digital technology certainly has its benefits: We can communicate with loved ones more easily, find information with a quick search and capture special moments instantly with phone cameras. But for teenagers who have grown up in a world of virtually limitless information and entertainment on the internet and social media, knowing when to stop or how to have healthy boundaries can be challenging.

According to The Common Sense Census, teens use screen media — phones, computers, tablets and televisions — for entertainment for more than eight hours each day, on average. What effect does that have on their mental health? The Yale School of Medicine recently reported that, in a study of more than 5,000 9- and 10-year-olds, time spent on digital technology directly correlated to the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety within a couple of years.

Screen Time for Adolescents Is Up

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the rise in screen use for teens: The Common Sense Census reported a 17 percent jump in entertainment screen use among teens and tweens between 2019 and 2021, compared with increases of 11 percent for teens and 3 percent for tweens between 2015 and 2019. In fact, nearly half of all teens say they use the internet “almost constantly” now, up from just a quarter of teens in 2014-15.

The Link Between Social Media and Teenage Mental Health

Social media is relatively new — Facebook and Twitter have been around for less than 20 years, while TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat are even newer — so we’re still discovering its long-term effects. Although social media isn’t inherently bad, misusing or overusing it can take a toll on adolescents, whose brains are still maturing. These are just a few of the ways social media can affect young people’s mental health:

  • Bullying: In 2021,16 percent of high school students said they were bullied through text messaging or social media in the past year.
  • Body image: About 1 in 3 girls say they feel bad about their bodies at least once a week when using TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.
  • Sleep: When teens stay up late staring at phones and other screens, the blue light that is emitted inhibits their bodies from secreting melatonin and they get less REM sleep, which can affect short-term memory.
  • Depression: In 2019, 1 in 3 high school students in the U.S. reported within the last year, they had felt so sad or hopeless, they couldn’t take part in their normal activities. That’s a 40 percent increase from 2009, a spike that could correlate to the rise in social media over the past decade.
  • Anxiety: Nearly half of teens surveyed about an increase in anxiety, stress and depression blame their overuse of social media.

Read More: Teens and Technology: What to Do About Social Media

How to Set Healthy Screen Boundaries

If it seems as if your teen or tween is on the phone or computer every waking moment, it might be time to talk about setting limits. And you might find your child is open to it —according to Psychology Today, 1 in 4 teens want their parents to impose limits on screen time.

Start by having an honest conversation with your child about social media use and screen time. Talk about why it’s important to take breaks from screens and engage in interpersonal activities and socialization. Cover mental health, too — explain that you are a safe person to talk to if your child is feeling sad, lonely or stressed.

How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

There’s no precise answer for how much is too much screen time for adolescents, but a study published by the American Psychological Association found young people who limited their daily screen use to one hour felt better about their appearance and bodies. That doesn’t mean they need to go cold turkey, though. Start by recommending your kids cut their screen use by 25 percent, then reduce it little by little as they get used to less time on their phones. Try implementing a no-screen hour after school or before bed, and fill the new free time with fun activities involving friends or family.

Consider making house rules everyone follows — yes, even parents. According to Psychology Today, 1 in 3 parents say they spend too much time on their phones, and more than half of teens say their parents are often distracted by phones or other screens when the teen is trying to have a conversation. If you limit your phone time and make yourself available more, your children might naturally follow suit — and you may just find yourselves enjoying better-quality family time.