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How much screen time is too much for teenagers? You might be surprised

Screen time has always been a hot-button topic for parents. Parents find themselves questioning how much is too much, how young is too young for screen time, and should there be limits on screen time? By the time kids become teenagers parents often feel a lot less in control of screen time. Add in a worldwide health pandemic that literally forced kids to learn and socialize online and it can all be very confusing.

So how much time is too much screen time for teens? Parents may be surprised to learn what the average screen time for teens actually is. There are ways to help manage teen screen time without making your teen feel like they’re being punished, especially if you sit them down and explain some of the effects screen time has on their productivity and development.

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Average screen time for teens

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According to a recent study conducted by Jama Pediatrics, teens are spending on average almost eight hours in front of a screen every day. This isn’t taking into account online learning either, but instead includes time gaming, texting, scrolling through social media feeds, video chatting, browsing the internet, and watching or streaming movies, videos, or television shows. It’s not totally surprising given how much teens have been isolated during the current health pandemic and how they’ve actually been able to remain somewhat connected to their peers through their screens, but it can still be a worrying number.

Should parents be worried?

A group of teens looking at their phones.

It’s easy to look at that number and be worried that your teenager is spending the majority of their day in front of a screen, but there are many factors to take into consideration. Lots of teens use their phones, laptops, and other devices not only for entertainment purposes but for other reasons too. A 2019 report by Common Sense Media also found teens were spending more than seven hours on screens daily, often using their devices to seek information. “It gives young people the chance to look for resources on information that they’re grappling with and to use apps that help them meditate or sleep, to connect to peers who might be going through similar challenges that they’re going through, to offer support to other people,” co-author of the report Vicky Rideout told CNN. This report also noted that many teens would have their phones streaming a show or movie while doing something else, or even have two different devices online at the same time, effectively doubling their reported screen time.

However, a study on brain development comparing screen time from participants from 2016 to 2020 found a link between higher screen times being associated with poorer mental health and more stress. “As screen time increased, so did adolescents’ worry and stress, while their coping abilities declined,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Jason Nagata told USA Today. “Though social media and video chat can foster social connection and support, we found that most of the adolescents’ screen use during the pandemic didn’t serve this purpose,” he said.

A related study, also led by Dr. Nagata, found a link between excessive screen time and eating disorders. “Teens that spend a lot of time sedentary in front of a screen are more likely to overeat,” Nagata said.

How can parents limit screen time?

Getty Images - Klaus Vedfelt

Let’s face it, it can be a lot easier to limit screen time when your children are younger. Once they become teenagers it seems close to impossible to regulate how much time they’re on their screens, especially now with virtual learning and social distancing. Screens have been one of the things that have allowed teens to stay connected to their peers throughout the pandemic which has brought a lot of relief to parents. Even before the current pandemic, a 2017 study out of the U.K. found that screen time could have some benefits for teens. “Moderate levels of daily screen time do not appear to be harmful,” lead researcher Andrew Przybylski told WebMD. “In fact, even excessive levels of screen time appear unlikely to have significant negative effect. We speculate that moderate screen use might reflect active social lives, playing games to relieve stress, or expressing oneself artistically online.”

There are still obvious benefits to limiting screen time, even with teenagers, that doesn’t require parents to implement strict rules. Some experts suggest setting guidelines around when screens aren’t welcome, such as at mealtimes or when dining out. Try to limit screens right before bed or delay how early in the day teens reach for their phones. The AAP also warns parents that screen time shouldn’t come at the expense of other interests, so encourage your teens to make time in their day for non-screen-related activities. Experts also suggest that it’s more important for parents to monitor what their child is watching more than how much of it.

The internet and online connectivity have been a saving grace for many teens during the pandemic and have helped them feel connected to their friends. Limiting screen time for teens can be hard, but teaching them how to be online safely and modeling healthy screen use yourself are ways parents can help their kids balance their screen time.

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