BYU Study: How Much Screen Time Is Too Much For Kids and Parents?

Experts have warned – and parents worried – about the impact of screen time and social media on the mental health of children, especially teenagers. A new study suggests that parents should turn their attention to their social media practices for the sake of their children.

“Teaching by Example,” published Tuesday by Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution, notes that two old concerns – the amount of time teens spend on social media and the age at which they get their first smartphone – are not reliable predictors of risk for mental illness. health challenges among adolescents.

Parents’ unhealthy social media habits, however, can put their children at risk. Overall, the report said, parental use of media is an even stronger predictor of their children’s mental health than the child’s use of social media.

This does not mean that teens can use social media without the risk of a negative impact. But it’s the way teens use social media, rather than their age or age, that could be a force for good or bad things in their lives, said study co-author Spencer James, an associate professor at the School. of Family Life from BYU and a colleague from the Wheatley Institution.

The report states that depression was highest in teens whose parents reported higher levels of personal social media use. About 10% of teens whose parents report using social media at low levels are depressed, compared to nearly 40% of those whose parents use social media at high levels.

Among the other findings of the study:

  • About 15% of parents say they spend more than eight hours a day on social media.
  • Among children whose parents spend less than half an hour a day on social media, between 7% and 10% say they are depressed. The number rises to 33% -41% of children whose parents spend more than seven hours on social media.
  • The vast majority of children who spend hours and hours a day on social media – 80% – have parents who do the same.
  • For most teens, frequent social media feeds are associated with poor mental health. Of those who regularly take care of their feeds, 86% of females and 79% of males report depression. Among those who rarely or never clean their meals, 35 percent of females and 22 percent of males report depression.
  • About 15% of teens said their parents use social media a lot and are often too distracted to interact when children ask questions or want to talk to them.

Young people have a different vulnerability to the risks that arise, including from the use of smartphones and social media, the study says. It’s called differential susceptibility, and it helps explain why general claims that something is good or bad tend to be wrong for some teens.

James agrees that the same experience affects people differently.

“A lot of this has to do with maturity, a lot with family background. It has to do with your socioeconomic status, the quality of your education, the type of neighborhood you live in, ”she said. “All of these factors will mean that we shouldn’t expect the influence of social media to always be the same for all people. Certainly not among adolescents, a group that in this period is going through a significant maturation or an evolutionary change “.

Why parental use is important

When parents are so distracted by technology that they cannot pay full attention to their children, it interferes with parent-child interaction and damages that relationship. Researchers call it “techno-ference” and say it can have an impact on children’s mental health and sense of well-being.

About half of the teens in the nationally representative study said technology is not a problem in their homes. But for 15%, it’s a big deal. The result is young people who feel they are not important or a priority and feel they cannot count on their parents interacting with them when they need help or have something to say. A similar number said their parents aren’t very responsive, comforting, or understanding.

The report notes that warm parenting was strongly associated with a teenager’s mental health. “Heat is no guarantee of good mental health – there are depressed teenagers in every single category. … But warm parenting seems to make a difference,” the report said.

Technoferenza also strongly correlates with children’s achievement, the report said. When there is very little parental technology, 1 in 12 children struggle with depression. But nearly two-thirds of teens living in homes with a lot of parental technology are depressed.

“When a parent habitually uses social media while the child tries to get their attention, it sends the message that the child is not seen and appreciated by the parent. Unsurprisingly, this can affect a child’s mood, ”said Sarah Coyne, a professor at BYU’s School of Family Life and lead author of the study.

How teens use social media matters

If teens compare with others, it can lead to body image disturbances. And although the study authors suspected that frequently curating their social media feeds could be beneficial for young people because they could choose who to interact with, they found instead that the practice is associated with poor mental health.

However, the findings on transgender and non-binary youth were somewhat opposite. 94% of transgender and non-binary teens who don’t keep their feeds report being depressed. When they curated their feeds, picking and choosing who to interact with, they experienced less depression.

James believes this may be because transgender and non-binary teens often don’t feel safe or accepted in the real world, but online they can find acceptance and support. Other young people who choose and choose may select people they would like to emulate and end up depressed or with body image problems because they confront each other and feel they are not up to par.

The study also found protective factors. Those who take positive action on social media – posting positive comments, liking others’ posts, instant messaging friends – were far more likely to have a positive body image than those who don’t actively use social media.

But researchers warn that fewer than 1 in 5 teenagers are constantly using social media in that kind of active way.

Passive browsing did not provide the benefit seen with active use, but it also did not appear to produce negative results in particular, the researchers said.

The poll also asked for each teen’s favorite social media site: TikTok won the crown, with 31.8%, followed by Instagram at 25.8%, Facebook at 19.2%, Snapchat at 10.8%. , Twitter at 5% and What’sApp a favorite for 2.2%.

A false solution?

The study rejects the “common narrative” that mental health would improve if teens stopped using social media and turned off their phones. Previous research suggests that screen time represents only “0.4% of the variance associated with depression and anxiety,” he noted.

The researchers likened it to the impact eating potatoes has on mental health, “an association that the media rightly rarely points out.” What it boils down to is that “99.6% of the variance in mental health was explained by other factors” such as having a nutritious breakfast or getting enough sleep.

James again emphasized the differences: “We would not expect people who primarily use social media to connect with their family members and share photos of children and cousins ​​to be affected in the same way as people who constantly argue over politics online with their own. crazy uncle and their high school friend “.

He dismissed the idea that the whole problem would be solved if everyone just turned off their phones and computers and talked to each other. Families that have strict rules on media use do not seem to perform better.

“In fact, the opposite is true. We found that teens whose parents set very strict rules on social media were more likely to be depressed. And what this suggests to us is that parents who explain the principles of behaviors or articulate the motivations behind the rules are more likely to find success than just setting hard rules, ”James said.

About the survey

The nationally representative survey was conducted between May and August 2021 and included two groups of subjects: 2,231 adolescents aged 10-17 who were asked about their use of social media, mental health and how their parents use social media. In addition, a paired group of 201 teenagers and their parents were also interviewed. The subjects were part of Qualtrics’ survey panels.

Throughout the report, the authors stressed that they found a correlation, not causation. Parental use was highly associated with mental health outcomes for their teens, but there may be other factors the study didn’t show, they said. They stressed the need for further study on the subject to say what causes the differences.

“Our findings on techno-ference indicate ways in which a parent’s use of technology can potentially disrupt parent-child relationships,” said Emily Weinstein, director of research at Harvard Graduate School of Education and another co-author. of the report. “Future research needs to examine both the content and context of parental use of social media as related to adolescent mental health before drawing too many conclusions.”

The study’s other co-authors are Megan Gayle, a recent BYU graduate, and Megan Van Alfen, a BYU graduate student.

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