Teens and Screens: How Much Is OK?

teen, screen time, laptop
(Image credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)

For parents, trying to separate teens from their screens may seem like a daily battle. But now, some parents can rest easy: A new study suggests that lots of screen time isn't all that bad for teens.

Getting up to 6 hours of screen time didn't have any negative impact on the behavior of teens in Florida in the new study, the researchers found.

And when screen time went beyond 6 hours, the negative effects were very small, according to the study, which was published Tuesday (Feb. 7) in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly.

The new findings support the American Academy for Pediatrics (AAP) 2016 screen-time guidelines, which did away with its previous recommendation to limit screen time in teens to 2 hours a day, and instead recommended that parents make sure their teens’ screen time doesn’t occur at the expense of healthy activities, such as exercise and sleep. [Healthy Viewing: New Screen Time Guidelines for Kids]

"Although an 'everything-in-moderation' message when discussing screen time with parents may be most productive, our results do not support a strong focus on screen time as a preventive measure for youth problem behaviors," study author Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, said in a statement.

In the study, Ferguson and his team examined data on more than 6,000 Florida teens, with an average age of 16, who participated in the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a national yearly survey that monitors adolescent behavior. The researchers looked at the amount of screen time the teens got, and compared this with the amount of risky behaviors they participated in, such driving dangerously, getting bad grades and committing minor crimes.

The researchers also considered factors that may have had a positive effect on the teens, including physical activity, sleep and family involvement, according to the study.

Screen time was divided into four categories: Abstainers reported no screen time at all; "low" users got no more than 2 hours of screen time a day; moderate users got between 2 and 6 hours a day; and excessive users were those who used screens for more than 6 hours each day.

The researchers found that the relationship between screen time and negative outcomes, such as bad grades in school or depression, was dose-dependent. In other words, as screen time increased, so did the likelihood of negative outcomes.

But it took a lot of screen time before the negative effects kicked in, the researchers wrote. Exposure to screen time "in considerable excess of the AAP's historical two-hour maximum recommendation [were] required before associations with negative outcomes were noticeable," they wrote.

Indeed, the researchers observed negative effects for only the small number of teens who got more than 6 hours of screen time daily.

Moreover, the negatives were very small: Compared with teens who abstained, those who got more than 6 hours of screen time daily had a very slightly higher risk of having symptoms of depression, having a lower grade-point average and participating in minor crimes, the researchers found.

But given the small effect, "it is unclear whether such small associations warrant the degree of attention they often receive from professional advocacy groups," the researchers wrote.

"Screens of various sorts are increasingly embedded into daily life, whether they involve education, work, socialization or personal organization," Ferguson said. "Setting narrow limits on screen time may not keep up with the myriad ways in which screens have become essential to modern life," he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.