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Why Are Screens Bad for Teens?

How to protect mental health for children raised in a digital world.

Key points

  • Screen use is a "public health emergency" threatening youth mental health.
  • Understanding the risks can help us prevent and avoid most threats to mental health.
  • Research indicates several guidelines for optimizing healthy screen use, especially for teens.
  • Changing the way we think about teens and screens is the key to solving this mental health crisis.

For psychologists, every month is Mental Health Awareness Month; in May, the general public joins us. This month is when we take extra time to reflect on psychological and emotional needs that often go unnoticed until there's a serious problem. That said, right now there's already a serious problem we need to pay attention to, because it’s masquerading as "normal" behavior: teenagers overusing screens.

Recently, the surgeon general released an advisory statement warning that screentime, and social media use in particular, is threatening youth mental health to a degree that he considers it “the defining public health issue of our time.”

I couldn't agree more. I routinely give presentations and webinars for middle and high schools all over the country, helping concerned parents and educators recognize the warning signs of screen addiction and learn to attend to mental health red flags in teens. I have witnessed first-hand how many caregivers are beside themselves wanting to do something to change the tide with teens and screens. Many administrators in education are launching new policies to limit smartphone use in schools, but is that enough to curb the disturbing trends we’re seeing?

Probably not—although I applaud them for trying.

Unlike many other maladaptive behaviors teenagers are susceptible to, we can’t issue a zero-tolerance policy on screens. For drugs or alcohol—it’s easy to draw firmer lines in the sand. Vaping, for example, is never healthy for teens and can be avoided entirely. But smartphones and screens are a necessary evil in teenage life, and it’s not all bad: they provide connection, ease of communication, assist with learning, and help teenagers gain independence at a critical time for learning such independence.

Unfortunately, they also are fraught with qualities that promote mental illness, especially in teenagers, so threading the needle is exceptionally difficult.

Social media, in particular, poses significant risks to teens, who, according to a recent Gallup survey, spend an average of five hours a day engaging in this online activity. The American Psychological Association (APA) released a health advisory about social media use in adolescents in 2023, as well as a follow-up last month on the certain features and functions that are most hazardous to teens’ mental health. The group highlighted that “platforms built for adults are not inherently suitable for youth,” in part due to the neurological and developmental differences between adolescents and adults. In particular, adolescents are more vulnerable to becoming obsessive or anxious about building likes and follower counts, and more impressionable and vulnerable to AI-driven content suggestions, paid advertisements, and suggestions to engage in illegal or harmful behavior. The APA also points out that youth are more vulnerable to excessive use when presented with features like an infinite scroll of content, to distraction when apps are enabled to push notifications to their phone, and to insomnia when they have access to their devices at night and use them instead of sleeping.

Screens are also ways that teens access other potentially addictive behaviors. For example, recent research shows that about 85 percent of teenagers play video games regularly (including 97 percent of boys), for an average of nearly two hours daily. This trend is leading to a rise in internet gaming disorders, gaming addictions, and serious mental health decline. Results from the largest study to date on the longitudinal impact of gaming and teens demonstrated that 1 in 10 teens exhibited “pathological video gaming behavior,” and the effects worsened over time—these teens showed markedly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and aggression. Video games are also gateways to gambling behavior, which can have long-term financial and mental health implications for teens.

But even when kids aren’t gaming, using social media, experiencing cyber-bullying, compulsively texting, or generally impacted by the ill effects of screen use, there may be damage being done to the developing brain that isn’t immediately apparent. Screen time—particularly in the evenings—can be linked to increased rates of insomnia in teenagers, which, in turn, has a host of side effects, including irritability, difficulty concentrating, a weakened immune system, and heightened anxiety. Research shows that even just having a screen-based device in the bedroom (even if it isn’t on or being used) can impede sleep and increase stress levels. Nearly two-thirds of teens who report having technology in their bedrooms experience problems with sleep and subsequent health-related comorbidities.

So what can we do?

Despite the numerous pitfalls, the answer here isn’t to bar kids from accessing technology—it’s to teach them to use it. Michael Rich, of Boston Children’s Hospital, writes in his new book, The Mediatrician’s Guide, to think of technology like you would a power tool, like an electric drill:

“It is a tool that can provide possibilities and freedom but, used thoughtlessly, can hinder or harm the user and others. It should be provided when the child needs and can use that tool responsibly and with respect for themselves and others.”

Harm can be done when smartphones, tablets, and computers are handed to kids without boundaries, directions, guidelines, or close supervision. Part of the problem is the way we think about the integration of screens into our daily lives, and part of the problem is not fully understanding the risks to our kids. We understand, for example, that letting a 13-year-old drive a car is dangerous and life-threatening. Would you hand your teenagers the keys to the car without properly training them how to drive? Of course not. However, fewer people are aware that heavy use of social media (more than two hours per day) has been associated with an increased risk of suicidal ideation and attempts.

Teenagers need to be taught, trained, and monitored for how to utilize screens safely to help offset the mental health implications that stem from accidental misuse and overuse.

A 2019 study suggests keeping the “4 M’s” in mind when moderating screen use in teens:

  1. Manage screen use: parents need to be “present and engaged when screens are used,” enforce parental controls and privacy settings, always hold the logins and passwords to their children’s media accounts (and check them regularly), and engage in frequent conversations with teens about healthy online behaviors.
  2. Meaningful screen use: place emphasis on educational and social online experiences (e.g., facetiming with friends, taking an online class), and help teens choose developmentally appropriate content for engagement.
  3. Model healthy screen use: parents need to put screens away regularly. Turn off TVs, silence cell phones, make “media free” time normalized in the household, not just a kids-only rule.
  4. Monitor for unhealthy screen use: complaining about boredom without technology, fighting rules for limiting screen time, negative emotions following texting or other online activities, interference with sleep or social activities due to screens are all warning signs and need to be heeded.

Screens provide all of us with unparalleled access to information, entertainment and social connection, and it’s understandable that teenagers would want to capitalize on these opportunities. However, now that we are aware that there are major mental health detriments associated with too much screen time, we can take action to do something about them. And while eliminating screens isn’t the best option, we can reduce the harm that screens cause, and lean into the positive opportunities that thoughtful, well-monitored screen time can provide for kids.

More from Aaron Weiner Ph.D., ABPP
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