Most conversations around teenagers and media tend to focus on the potentially negative impacts of too much screen time. Advice for prying digital devices away from teens abound. The conventional wisdom is that zero screen time would be optimal, but just not realistic.
According to a recent study by Oxford researchers, however, zero screen time for teens is not only an unnecessary goal, it may not even be desirable. In fact, the research suggests that a “Goldilocks effect” exists where a certain amount of screen time actually increases the mental well-being of teens – yet doesn’t lead to harmful effects.
Dr. Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at Oxford University, conducted the study on screen use among teens, which was recently published in the journal, Psychological Science. Prior to his research, Przybylski found the existing literature addressing screen time for teenagers was, in his words, “rich in opinions, but short on evidence.”
By and large, the opinions he encountered were that screen time was inherently problematic for adolescents. He realized that most parents, educators, and even medical professionals were quick to believe these opinions, even though they were based on anecdotal evidence as opposed to research.
Przybylski and his fellow researchers sought to address the discrepancy between what is considered common knowledge and actual research around adolescents and screen time. They collected self-reported data from over 120,000 15-year-olds in the United Kingdom. Participants responded to a survey that addressed their mental well-being and the amount of time they spent using a variety of digital devices.
Based on the data they analyzed, Przybylski and his team of researchers concluded that “modern use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful” on teenagers. In fact, more than that, they found that screen time actually, “may have advantages in a connected world.” They found that “certain levels of engagement [with digital devices] … are moderately correlated with well-being.”
The Goldilocks Effect
The study showed that there is essentially a screen time sweet spot for teens, where they experience an increase in mental well-being during screen time, up to a certain point. If screen usage went past this sweet spot, however, the study found there were negative impacts. This sweet spot, where screen time is not too much, not too little, but just right, was dubbed the “Goldilocks effect” by the Oxford team.
Interestingly, while researchers found the “Goldilocks effect” varied across devices and on weekdays versus weekends, it did not vary across gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. According to the study, the optimum screen time for different devices on weekdays is as follows:
- Computers: Four hours and 17 minutes
- Television and movies: Three hours and 41 minutes
- Smartphones: One hour and 57 minutes
- Video games: One hour and 40 minutes
The sweet spot for weekend screen usage increased across all types of digital devices.
Almost all of the respondents reported that they spent time on at least one digital device every single day. Although the study examined the variety of devices used for screen time, it did not address the potential impact of cumulative screen time across devices, or how that behavior could affect the “Goldilocks effect.” Yet, we know teenagers today have an average of three devices each that they use daily.
What Does This Mean for Parents?
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this research is that moderation is key. Therefore, rules around screen time should be flexible, not rigid. While this recent study provides an excellent guideline for screen time limits, every kid is different. The best practices and the sweet spot for screen time will vary across families – even across individual teens growing up in the same household. Teens need to balance screen time with their unique needs and responsibilities.
This research does suggest that past paranoia around screen time may be misguided. The key is setting guidelines and time limits that allow your teens the flexibility to get the most benefits out of screen time – without going too far outside of the Goldilocks zone.