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 games.

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 matter.

“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 individual differences.

“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 interest.”

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 activities.”

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.”


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