Mom, stop telling me to go play outside.
You've heard the complaints about teenagers and
technology. Parents warn against the dangers of spending too much time on the
internet, advising children to go outside, get fresh air and exercise. Professors designate appropriate times to use laptops. Older
generations criticize our frequent use of smartphones.
But using technology might not be as harmful as we thought. A
recent study published in Psychological
Science suggests that moderate
technology use can actually be beneficial for teens.
“It’s not surprising that they found that media has a
positive effect on well–being. That’s something that we already see,” said Dr.
Amy Bleakley, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications who teaches
a class called “Teens and Screens."
The researchers observed that, for a specific period of
time, teenagers’ well–being improved the longer they spent using digital devices. These time limits were estimated to be an hour and 57
minutes on a smartphone, four hours and 17 minutes of computer or laptop use, 3
hours and 41 minutes of watching videos and an hour and 40 minutes playing video
The researchers concluded that the connection
between well–being and screen time was relatively weak. Even large amounts of screen time were
expected to lead to little negative effects—but there are other contributing factors that determine the severity of screen damage.
What sites are you on?
Professors at Penn emphasize that the content of sites, not just the amount of time spent on them, adjusts the impact of screen damage.
Dr. Deena Weisberg, a psychology professor who specializes in development, said, “I’m certainly not somebody who thinks that
screen time is just always and forever bad. There are good apps, there are good
social networking sites that can serve a lot of really good functions but like
I said, it all depends on who is using that kind of media and when and for what
purpose and how much.”
“You’re looking at
the time that they spend doing it, that they spend with media, and also the
content of the media. So it’s hard to say just two hours with a digital device
is going to improve well–being. It depends what’s going on in those two hours,”
said Dr. Bleakley.
“I don’t know that time is really the way we should think
about it, you know, how many hours. I really think it’s more when, with whom? You
know, are you using social media? How are you using it? If you’re using to be
entertained, or to be connected or even to be educated,” said Dr. Amy Jordan, a
professor at Annenberg who studies youth and media.
She also explained that the form of media doesn’t really
“It’s really all about the content. So television per se is
no better or worse than video games…it’s
all about the content. It’s not about the platform. It just depends on what you
do with it.”
No "One Prescription"
Professors discussed the challenges presented by
attempting to establish guidelines.
“I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to say, 'You
should spend no more than x amount of time with x medium because it will cause
x effect.' That equation doesn’t work anymore,” said Dr. Jordan.
“I think that there is not going to be one prescription. I
think that there’s not going to be one template that everybody should use.”
Dr. Bleakley agreed and stressed the importance of
“I think it’s hard to come up with a hard and fast rule
that’s going to work for everyone,” said Dr. Bleakley.
“It’s hard to say what media use is going to be beneficial
for some people versus other people. I think it really depends on a unique
combination of an adolescent’s environment and their own personality and
However, Dr. Weisberg explained the relationship between
guidelines and public health issues.
“If it’s a matter of public health, like that, you just have
to pick some number, realizing that it’s arbitrary…The one–hour limit might
depend both on the person you’re trying to work with and also the sort of thing
that they’re doing,” said Dr. Weisberg.
A Balanced Diet
Professors emphasized balance as contributing to positive
and healthy media use.
“My personal perspective is that balance is always
necessary…finding the right balance between how much time you spend with
screen media, how much time you spend in social interaction, how much time you
spend working on schoolwork is really critical,” said Dr. Jordan.
Dr. Weisberg said, “There are apps...and some
of them are good and most of them are just not…some of them are really just
candy, they’re just timewasters. And that’s fine, you can have candy on
occasion, you can have dessert after dinner. We shouldn’t cut everything out
because it’s merely fun…You should be able to have some fun, but you should not
be having candy for dinner.”
“As with anything, I think that moderation is the key,” said
Dr. Bleakley. “I think you start to see issues when media use, as with other
things, is in excess. So if you have a teen who engages in a range of different
activities and watching TV or spending time on social media is part of that, other
than potential exposure to problematic content like violence or bullying or
something like that, the teen isn’t really at a disadvantage for media use.
It’s when media use starts replacing other activities and becomes more of an
isolating factor than a connecting one.”
Dr. Weisberg also addressed the danger of letting technology
take up too much time.
“If they’re spending time on screens, they’re not doing
other things for instance," she said. "So if you’re on a screen, you’re generally not
exercising your body or having social interactions with other people or
learning about the physical world around you. So it’s not the app per se, it’s
that it’s taking you away from time that you could be spending on those other important
However, Dr. Jordan didn’t agree that technology takes up
time that could be better spent doing other things.
“I don’t think that moderate amounts of media use is necessarily
displacing time that would be better spent doing fill–in–the–blank, doing schoolwork
or exercising or whatever…if you are finding ways to make your day meaningful
and part of that is some time spending with social media then it’s not
automatically always going to be a bad thing.”