There has been a shocking 33 percent surge in depressive symptoms among teens, beginning around 2012. While a number of factors may contribute to this trend, there is mounting evidence that one of the main causes is screen time, online browsing, and lack of face-to-face interaction.
Specifically, studies have found that Facebook causes declines in youth happiness, that new media screen time increases depression and suicide-related outcomes in teens, and that teens are replacing sleep with time online, and suffering mental health consequences.
The harm of screens comes from a variety of sources. First and foremost, time spent on screens is time spent isolated from others, when face-to-face interaction is a mainstay of mental health. Secondly, time spent on social media sites is found to harm life satisfaction, across basically all demographics. Finally, screen time hurts the time and quality of sleep, when sleep is intimately connected with mental health and depression in young people.
What can parents do to best limit their kids’ screen time and help protect them against depressive symptoms? While it can often feel like you’re fighting a losing battle against the onslaught of technology, there are a number of simple steps you can take to turn off the screens and encourage other healthier activities both in and out of your home.
Tips For Limiting Teen Screen Time
While we can’t say for certain that screen time can cause depression in teens, there is enough evidence that the two are strongly correlated that most experts agree that limiting screen time is beneficial to children. Here are a few of the best ways to limit screen time in your household.
- Set limits. Teens spend an average of nine hours a day consuming media – and not all media is created equal. Experts suggest the upper limit for kids under 18 should be 2 hours of recreational screen time per day. In addition, the more of that time that is dedicated to enriching and educational screen time, the better.
- Encourage face-to-face interactions. One of the reasons researchers think screen time is harmful is because it takes away opportunities for real human interaction, which is proven to boost mental health. At the same time you discourage screen use, you should encourage social activities like playing with neighborhood kids, participating in after school sports, and eating meals as a family.
- Ban screens from bedrooms. Many kids are using screens after lights out, and losing out on vital hours of sleep that help them develop in a healthy manner. Ensure your kids aren’t subbing screens for sleep by banning phones and tablets from bedrooms.
- Have a screen drop-off point. Put a box or basket at your front door and have family members (and friends and relatives, too) drop off technology as they enter the house. In our changing world, kids sometimes truly do need phones to stay safe, keep in contact with parents, or coordinate transportation when outside of the home. But they simply don’t need a phone on them while at home.
- Set an example. Teens aren’t the only people whose mental health is affected by screens and social media -- adults struggle with phone addiction, sleep issues, and depression, too. Model the behavior you want in your kids by limiting your own screen time (you’ll also benefit!)
There are a number of helpful apps that can also help you and your kids limit screen time. While you shouldn't rely on apps alone to restrict your kids’ engagement with technology, they can be extremely helpful tools:
- Google Family Link. This software allows you to track your kids’ activities, set time limits, and even set a bedtime -- which is so important to keeping your kids healthy. Only available for Android phones and devices.
- Apple Parental Controls. These new controls work much like Google’s family controls: you can block certain apps and websites, track activity, and shut down devices at dinner time and bedtime. It also lets you see their notifications and control in-app purchases.
- OurPact. This app allows you to block websites, block apps, limit screen time, and track your child’s location. You can also schedule approved screen time and get alerts when your child leaves certain zones.
- Azoomee. This suite of hand-picked content ensures that when your kid is watching a screen, they are learning and engaged, whether they’re playing a game or watching videos. Because managing what kind of screen time your kid gets is just as important as limiting the time.
Always Be On The Lookout For Signs Of Depression
With teen depression on the rise, it’s more important than ever to be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression in your kids, no matter how much or little screen time they’re getting.
If your teen is showing the following depressive symptoms, get in touch with their pediatrician today.
- Increased crying and sadness
- Loss of interest in activities
- Insomnia or oversleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in behavior, such as aggressive, disruptive, or risky behavior
- Agitation and restlessness
- Use of drugs and alcohol
- Neglected appearance and hygiene
- Poor performance in school
Having a teen can be challenging, especially in a quickly-changing world that is so different from the time when we grew up. Being aware of technology’s effects on the wellbeing of your children, as well as the signs that your kids might be depressed, are two simple actions you can take to ensure their health and happiness.
About Sarah Aswell
Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana with her husband and two daughters. Her writing has appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, Healthline, Success Magazine, Working Mother, and Scary Mommy.
- The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication
- Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults
- The association between social media use and sleep disturbance among young adults
- Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds
- Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time