Screen Time Better for Teens than Disconnection

Screen time worries many parents, who fear it interferes with social development. Find out why a new study shows that restricted Internet access is more detrimental to teen self-esteem.

My mom used to refer to the television as “the idiot box.” She would often wander off into another room and read a book rather than sit through the programming the rest of us enjoyed.

I bought my first home computer from Radio Shack about 35 years ago, and I was hooked from the start. I can remember sitting in our dark, dusty cellar, staring at its TV screen late into the night.

So, screen time isn’t a new idea. Even so, parents, teachers and other caregivers coined the term to describe viewing habits about ten years ago.

Shift from TV and Video Games to Smartphones and Tablets

A big part of that concern has been the shift from TV and video game consoles to smartphones and tablets. In 2011, mobile devices represented about 4% of children’s screen time, while in 2017, it had risen to 35%.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that children’s screen time shot up by 52% between 2020 and 2022 because of the pandemic. We all tend to assume that this is a bad thing.

Professor Keith Hampton of Michigan State University studies community and the relationship between digital technologies, social networks, democratic engagement and the urban environment. He’s been introducing students to social network analysis using a cross-disciplinary approach.

More Worried About Adolescents Without Internet Access

Last week, the journal Social Science Computer Review has published Professor Hampton’s study on social media use. In it, he says he’s less worried about screen time than about adolescents without Internet access becoming socially disconnected.

“Social media and video games are deeply integrated into youth culture, and they do more than entertain,” Professor Keith points out. “They help kids to socialize, they contribute to identity formation and provide a channel for social support.”

Most of us think of Internet access as part of our daily routine. This is especially true for most teenagers, who only become disconnected from social media or video games then they or their parents decide to limit their screen time.

Living in Remote Communities with Limted Broadband

However, that’s not the kind of disconnection Professor Hampton and his colleagues discuss in this new paper. Instead, he and his co-author, Professor Inyoung Shin, looked at 2,358 adolescents living in remote communities with limited broadband connectivity.

Often, these youth can only access the Internet at school or in public libraries. Their access at home, if any, tends to be very slow, and their smartphone data coverage is typically hit-and-miss.

The researchers wanted to explore the connection between mental health and the lack of screen time. As Professor Hampton put it, “Rural teens are the last remaining natural control group if we want insight into the mental health of adolescents who have no choice but to be disconnected from screens.”

Compared Self-Esteem and Social Lives

The team compared the self-esteem and social lives of youth with little or no Internet access at home to those with the most screen time. They also considered teens whose parents strictly limited their time in front of the computer.

The first thing the scientists discovered was fairly predictable. Being a girl was the biggest predictor of reduced self-esteem. 

This is consistent with findings from many other studies. Unfortunately, adolescence is a difficult time for young women. Also unsurprisingly, the next major factor in teenagers’ self-esteem was their high school grades.

Link Between Home Internet Access and Self-Esteem

Leaving those well-established findings aside, what stood out from the research was the link between home Internet access and self-esteem. Teens with little or no Internet bandwidth at home had lower self-esteem, and so did those whose parents restricted their screen time.

These effects on self-esteem were only about half as serious as female gender or poor grades. Even so, the team found a clear correlation between Internet isolation and lower self-esteem.

Meanwhile, the amount of screen time teenagers logged didn’t affect their self-esteem very much one way or the other. Even teens whose time in front of devices qualified as “excessive” had higher self-esteem than those who were disconnected for technical or parental reasons.

Youth Culture Has Always Embraced Mass Media

Youth culture has always embraced mass media from the very beginning. “Isolation doesn’t come from being online,” Professor Hampton explains.“It comes from being disconnected from those sources of entertainment and socialization that permeate teens’ lives.“

The findings also challenge the idea that screen time interferes with in-person socializing. According to the results, teens who put in more screen time also spend more time hanging out with their friends in real life.

In fact, teenagers with excessive screen time spent even more time with family and friends than those with limited Internet access. “Perpetuating the myth that teens who spend more time on their devices spend less time with friends and family and that ‘excessive’ time online is harming most teens’ mental health, does more harm than good,” Professor Hampton said.

Be More Permissive and Improve Broadband Access

The solution to the negative effects of Internet isolation seems to be for parents to be more permissive and for governments and utilities to improve broadband access. “This work points to the terrible toll experienced by rural adolescents who were disconnected during the pandemic,” Professor Hampton said. He also stressed “the urgent need to address gaps in rural broadband infrastructure.”

Back in 1922, French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin came up with a new word, the “noosphere.” The idea is that our planet has gone through two global phases and that a third phase is now emerging.

The first two phases were the geosphere, the formation of our physical world and the biosphere, the emergence of living things. The noosphere is the next phase, in which humanity’s social phenomena gradually create a sphere of thought encircling the Earth.

Social Phenomena Create Sphere of Thought

Teilhard thought these social phenomena might include legal, educational, religious, research, industrial and technological systems. Although he didn’t live to see it, his noosphere seems uncannily similar to social media.

If Teilhard’s intuition was accurate, limiting teenagers’ screen time may actually be blocking our planet’s evolution. He saw the noosphere as ultimately culminating in personalization, individuation and unification.

Of course, anyone familiar with social media will find this notion of the noosphere Utopian. The researchers note that harmful content and online bullying can indeed pose genuine risks to teens.

Discuss Risks and Instill Critical Thinking Skills

The team calls on parents to discuss these risks with teenagers along and instill critical thinking skills. Teens whose parents follow this approach and allow some discretion, within reason, on screen time turned out to have higher self-esteem.

Professor Hampton concluded by saying, “I advise parents to not focus on how long your teens spend on screens, but to take an interest in what your teens are doing online and spend time together.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.


Learn more:
Disconnection, not teens’ screen time, is the problem
Disconnection More Problematic for Adolescent Self-Esteem than Heavy Social Media Use
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Co-Worker Support Drives Employee Creativity
Human Tolerance Evolved from Living in Harsh Conditions

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