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

When to worry about your teen's screen time

A male teen on his cellphone.
SpeedKingz / Shutterstock

How much time your kids spend in front of a screen 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 whether there should there be limits on screen time. Although this is something parents can monitor when their kids are younger, 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 when it comes to regulating screen time.

So how much time is too much screen time for teens? Parents may be surprised to learn just how much time the average teen is spending in front of a screen. There are ways to help manage teen screen time without making them 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.

Three teen boys looking at phones
Maskot / Adobe Stock

Average screen time for teens

According to a study conducted by Jama Pediatrics, teens are spending on average almost 8 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 turned online during the pandemic to remain somewhat connected to their peers through their screens, but it can still be a worrying number.

A group of teens looking at their phones. / Shutterstock

Should parents be worried?

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 found teens were spending more than 7 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 times on screens from participants from 2016 to 2020 found a link between higher screen times 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.

A teen using social media on her cell phone. / Shutterstock

What are the symptoms of too much screen time?

Worried your teen is spending too much time in front of a screen, but not sure what to look for? Although screens can help keep your teen connected to their friends and family, too much can lead to a variety of issues. Dr. Kara Hartl explains a few of the mental and physical symptoms your teen may be exhibiting due to too much screen time, including;

  • Poor sleep
  • Low energy levels
  • Reduced attention span
  • Mood changes
  • Mental fog
  • Short-term vision problems
  • Poor social skills
  • Weight gain

There are times when your teen will need to be on a screen for extended periods of time, especially when school work or jobs dictate. If you’re concerned about your teenager and their screen time, speak to them openly and honestly and reach out to your family doctor if you’re seeing any physical or mental changes you think may be a result of too much time on screens.

Three teens on screens
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

How can parents limit screen time?

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. Screens were one of the things that have allowed teens to stay connected to their peers throughout the pandemic and those habits have stuck for many kids.

There is still obvious benefits to limiting screen time, even with teenagers who don’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 beyond, having helped them feel connected to their friends and find their own community of like-minded individuals. 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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Kelli Catana
Kelli is a freelance writer who has covered the world of entertainment, pop culture, parenting, and lifestyle for various…
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