Do adults need screen-time limits as much as young people?

family at dinner table looking at digital devicesHave you ever worried how the digital world we often immerse ourselves in may be affecting our mental health?

As “digital natives” who have never known a world without smartphones, social media, online video games and digital streaming services, children and adolescents are especially susceptible to the digital world’s negative mental health effects.

But it’s easy for young people and adults alike to spend too much time living in this digital world.

Is excessive screen time more harmful for young people?

There are multiple issues to consider. For instance, too much screen time can interfere with sleep in two different ways.

Using a smartphone into the wee hours means that the adolescent isn’t sleeping.

Also, exposure to the blue light from screens inhibits melatonin production, which can impair sleep onset – even when the device is turned off.

Studies have shown that self-reports of depression and loneliness, which is highest in younger age groups, decreases when time spent on social media decreases.

Another factor to consider is that 10-15% of adolescents experience cyberbullying and frequent exposure to racist, sexist, anti-religious or homophobic messages. While more rare, this is an added stress during a vulnerable period of development.

In a pivotal 2018 study, researchers examined three teen mental health outcomes: depression, suicide-related behavior (thinking about suicide, making a plan, attempting) and suicides.

Rates for these outcomes declined or remained stable for decades. But from 2010 to 2015, there was a sharp rise in all three for girls, which also happened to be the precise interval when smartphone use became ubiquitous among teens.

The study demonstrated that from 2010 to 2015, the interval when teen smartphone usage increased rapidly, there was a 33% increase in high levels of depressive symptoms and a 31% increase in suicides.

Recommended screen-time limits for children

The key is moderation — and, importantly, maintaining time for “in real life” interactions. There’s evidence that increased screen time diminishes face-to-face social skills.

That 2018 study suggests that one hour a day of “e-device use” was optimal for children ages 2 to 17.

Those with three or more hours of screen time were 34% more likely to have a “suicide-related outcome,” meaning suicidal ideation, suicidal plan and/or suicide attempt. Those with five or more hours of screen time were 48% more likely to have a suicide-related outcome.

How families can limit digital-world interactions

  • Emphasize face-to-face interactions — sports, music, religious groups, co-curricular activities, part-time jobs or getting together with friends.
  • Parents and guardians can model good non-phone use. For example, establish a “no-phone at the dinner table” rule for the whole family.
  • Establish a “no earbud” rule in the car. Use this as a time to visit with each other.
  • Give guidance about the dangers of too much screen time. Don’t just restrict access to smartphones, gaming systems or computers without first having a real conversation about why you’re doing this.
  • Encourage family activities, such as planning a meal and cooking dinner together, or playing board games together.

Should there be screen-time limits for adults?

The old saying “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” applies perfectly to this situation. Again, parents need to model healthy behavior for their children, including limiting the amount of time they’re spending in the digital world.

When teens were polled in a national survey in 2018, one-third of them said they wished their parents would spend less time on social media. This is a significant increase from the same survey conducted six years earlier, when only 21% of teens endorsed that statement.

Bottom-line: Limiting screen time is a good thing – for everyone.

Mary Fristad is a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.