Daniel P. Keating Ph.D.

Stressful Lives

Stress

The Real Sources of Teen Stress: It's Not Screen Time

New research debunks the claim that screen time is the source of teen problems.

Posted Apr 08, 2019

The specter of screen time causing major problems for today’s teens has garnered significant attention recently, with one prominent author and researcher arguing in a Time magazine article that we should “stop debating whether too much smartphone time can hurt kids” and just get on with protecting them. Besides being an odd position for a researcher to take (stop debating?), there are a number of practical and policy reasons, in addition to scientific ones, to seriously question this recommendation. One of the major ones is that it creates a sense of panic among parents who may then feel obliged to engage in attempts to limit an activity that may be central, or seen as central, to many teens—and crucial social connections with peers. Before pushing parents’ panic buttons to walk that road, it’s important to evaluate how strong the evidence actually is.

There have been a number of criticisms of the methodology used to assert these presumed major dangers for adolescents, especially comparing the time series of increases in screen time with the adolescent suicide rate. With all correlational observations, caution in inferring causes is important, but with time series data there are extra cautions—for example, regarding when to start and stop the time series (a change of only a year or two can alter the picture dramatically). But a more serious challenge has just been published, finding a near-zero correlation between screen time and adolescents’ well-being: “little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement—measured throughout the day or particularly before bedtime—and adolescent well-being.” The importance of this new study is that it used a much stronger methodology: time-use diaries rather than self-reports that have significant reliability problems; and a three-country study that avoids attributing broad impacts of stress to other factors that may be specifically problematic for the U.S.

Making major practical and policy implications based on thin and controversial data not only runs the risk of influencing parental interactions with their teens in ways that may, in fact, be counterproductive, but also can distract us from the study of other, more substantial sources of stress, and from taking actions on those fronts.  This opportunity cost is not trivial. If we come to think of screen time as the primary source of problems, it seems to make things easier both by having a scapegoat for bigger problems, and by presenting a “simple” solution that is ineffective, or worse.

This is not to say that increases in teen stress and its consequences aren’t real. They are. But this is part of a larger stress epidemic that is especially prominent in the U.S. When we take a closer look at the major sources of teen stress by looking at multiple factors, it is highly likely that larger social forces are in play. Physiological stress indicators have been rising generationally for at least four decades, as has greater inequality in those indicators. At the same time, social and income inequality has been rising significantly, social mobility has been declining, and investment in human development has also been going down. Countries that have resisted those trends (of a sample of almost 30 nations for whom data are available) show better patterns of adolescent health, educational achievement, and social engagement. Tackling those problems is admittedly more daunting, but is more likely to get at the actual major sources of teen stress and well-being. From this perspective, a “sky-is-falling” view of screen time is mainly a distraction.

In addition to broad societal forces, we can also look at what role schools are playing in the increases in teen stress. It is clear from multiple surveys that teens identify schooling, and especially the rising competition for the perceived scarce resource of admission to elite, prestigious colleges and universities, as a major stressor. The recent high-profile case of parents using illegal means (false test scores, false claims of athletic exemptions) to rig the system shows the tip of an iceberg of the extreme teen and family obsession with this distorted part of a supposedly “meritocratic” system. Reforming this system would go a long way in reducing overall teen stress.

Finally, for such a dramatic claim, it would be valuable to have some hypothesized mechanism on how screen time can lead to such negative outcomes, ideally including social, psychological, and biological underpinnings. In contrast to established linkages from developmental experiences to core biological changes (neural and epigenetic) that affect stress response and its health and behavioral consequences, and the origins of those chronic and/or toxic stress experiences in social forces, the current scare on screen time is mostly silent on the underlying mechanisms. 

We really do need to do better by our children, teens, and youth, but focusing on a technological scapegoat (rather than focus on how we can actually break the stress cycle), along with a seemingly simple solution, won’t get us where we want to go.