New Research: If Happiness is the Goal for Teens, Screen Limits are the Path


On the heels of two of Wall Street’s largest investors asking Apple to study the health effects of its products and help parents manage children’s use, a new research study is adding to the body of research which suggests screen limits have real positive impacts for kids and teens.

Previous research has found that parental monitoring of media in middle school is associated a host of positive outcomes, including better sleep, more prosocial behavior, improved grades and more time spent reading.

That study assessed children in middle school and parents seem to be more comfortable setting limits around younger children. Teenagers pose the real challenge, as parents feel they need screens for their social lives, work and school. Additionally, teens will soon be on their own and parents worry that limits will just cause them to overdo it later.

However, the research suggesting teens’ time online may not be time well spent is starting to stack up. One study found that time spent online by teenage girls was associated with the belief in the thin ideal, poorer body-related self-esteem and increased dieting behavior (Tiggemann & Slater, 2013). More than half of teens themselves report feeling addicted to their phones and social media accounts, feeling compelled to constantly check. And a recent survey by the American Psychological Association links that “need to check” is a significant source of stress for most Americans.

Tell Me About the New Research

The new research had a very large sample size: a total of 1.1 million 8th, 10th and 12th graders were assessed in nationally representative yearly surveys from 1991-2016.  The researchers found that psychological well-being (composed of self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness) suddenly decreased after the year 2012. The study tied the measure of psychological well-being to teen’s activities.

The big take home?

“Adolescents who spent more time on electronic communication and screens (e.g., social media, the Internet, texting, gaming) and less time on nonscreen activities (e.g., in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, attending religious services) had lower psychological well-being.”- Twenge, Martin & Campbell, 2018

An obvious caveat is that those teens who spent a small amount of time engaged with screens were the happiest. In other words, no screen-time was associated with lower psychological well-being, a small amount of screen-time was associated with highest psychological well-being and then the positive effect of screen-time dropped off, such that more time led to lower well-being. The teens with the highest levels of psychological well-being were spending only between one and five hours per week with media, which is significantly less than the average amount of time spent by teens in the United States today. The least happy teens were using screens for more than 20 hours per week. According to common sense media, teens use an average of nine hours of entertainment media in a day.

The research by Twenge and colleagues also assessed the relationship between other activities, namely homework, exercise/sports, religious activities, and face-to-face social interaction, and psychological well-being. All four of those activities (even homework!) were associated with improved psychological well-being. The research favors the displacement hypothesis: time spent with screens is taking away from other activities that have positive associations with well-being and child/adolescent development.

What’s a Parent to Do?

Encourage and focus on activities that are associated with well-being. For younger kids, this is the basis of our SPOIL system for prioritizing child’s play. For teens, encouraging face-to-face social connection and sports or exercise had the biggest bang on the psychological well-being variables. Lastly, feel okay about setting some healthy limits around media use.

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