Over the past decade, the amount of time spent on the internet has dramatically increased (Statista, 2021). How and at what ages people go online has also shifted. As a growing portion of children’s and young people’s time is spend watching the screens (Twenge et al., 2019, p. 329), it is important to understand whether and how this affects their mental health and well- being. This understanding is especially important form a child protection perspective and potential harms need to be considered when developing child protection policies or national digitalization strategies (Kardefelt-Winther et al., 2020). Many of these concerns have been raised among health professionals, educators and parents (Twenge et al., 2018), which then prompted organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to recommend the limits1 for time spent on screens for children and adolescents (Radesky and Christakis, 2016). But is the screen time the one factor that we should focus on?

To understand well the contexts of this essay, key concepts must be clearly defined. Screen time refers to “anything that involves watching a screen, such as a TV, computer, or mobile device” (Olson et al., 2015) and “any other activity that involves watching a screen” (Aong, 2013). Well-being is a term that is commonly used but inconsistently defined. It can be viewed as an inherently positive state such as happiness, or as a continuum from a positive to a negative state, such as self-esteem. One’s well-being can also be defined in terms of their environment (standard of living), absence of well-being (depression), or in a collective manner, as a shared understanding. At the individual level, it can be defined and operationalized within a specific domain – physical, social, cognitive, or psychological. This essay focuses on the latter of these domains. (Pollard & Lee, 2003, p. 62-64)

What do we know so far

Several researchers successfully documented associations between screen time and poor health outcomes such as obesity and lack of exercise (e.g., de Jong et al., 2013; Chiasson et al., 2016; Poitras et al., 2017). However, the conclusions on associations between screen time and more psychological aspects of well-being have been inconsistent (Twenge et al., 2018). 

In their research, Hamer et al. (2016) focused on identifying the magnitude of total daily screen time and the relations between screen use and mental well-being indicators among 10–12-yearold children. Findings showed association between negative symptoms and screen time, with symptoms being more common with increased time spent on screen use. Although the nature of observed relationship between screen use, and mental well-being in participants remained unexplained after the study, the authors suggest that the consistency of the findings is by far too clear to be considered a coincidence.

Research conducted by Babic et al. (2016) exanimated longitudinal associations between changes in screen-time and multiple indicators of mental health among a sample of adolescents. Significant associations between psychological well-being, recreational screen-time and computer use were found. Adolescents’ psychological well-being can be negatively affected by a number of mechanisms, some of such related to cyberbullying[1] or compulsive internet use. Increased negative feelings such as helplessness, depression, social dissatisfaction or lower selfesteem were reported.

Kardefelt-Winther et al. (2020) argued that almost all published research on this topic is from high-income countries, thus conducted a study across four countries of varying wealth. Data of internet-using children aged 9 to 17 years in Bulgaria, Chile, Ghana and the Philippines was compared. Different patterns across these four contrasting countries were observed, though some similarities appeared. Lower life satisfaction was associated with higher-frequency use of the internet in Bulgaria and Chile, opposed to Ghana and the Philippines where no such pattern was observed. The quality of participants’ close relationships showed to be much more associated with their life satisfaction than did time spent on the internet in all four countries. The authors thus suggest that time spent on the internet does not appear to be strongly linked to children’s life satisfaction, and results from one country should not be assumed to transfer to another. 

Przybylski and Weinstein (2018) analyzed nearly 20 000 children aged from 2 to 5 years. Though the research finding was that digital screen use increases with age, the relations between digital limits recommended by American Academy of Pediatrics and well-being received no empirical support. Their additional analyses replicated results reported from studies with older children, showing there may be some extremely small positive effects of digital engagement at levels higher than what many might assume (up to 7 hours/day). 

All above mentioned studies suggest that further longitudinal and experimental research is needed to improve the understanding of the link between screen time and impact on well-being of children and young people. Though it appears there are much more relevant factors to be focused on than screen time. According to Blum-Ross and Livingstone (2016, p. 27), the longheld focus on screen time is now obsolete, and the focus should be shifted from policing screen time to the screen context in which the screens are used, content that is accessed, and connections fostered through screens.

Let’s do it different  

In times where digital technologies provide the infrastructure for all dimensions of society, it is no longer possible to frame media use as an optional extra. Screen time now does not only include entertainment, but also time for learning, creating or sustaining relationships, accessing information, enhancing creativity and even civic action. Although risks and problems arising from screen use cannot be ignored, the often-common understanding that screen time is a uniform or inevitable problematic activity needs to be changed, as children’s and adolescents’ rights to play, express themselves and access information are at stake (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2016, p. 27). 

In their project Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research, Blum-Ross and Livingstone (2016) argue that current research practices need to move beyond a heavy focus on risk with little recognition of opportunities. Moreover, although it is well known that negative life outcomes and greater screen time is both linked to social disadvantage, many studies fail to measure adequately the socio-economic circumstances of their participants. A multidisciplinary approach to research is needed as one-size-fits-all does not apply here (BlumRoss & Livingstone, 2016, p. 16).

Current advice with a heavy focus on limitations of screen use leaves parents and caregivers unsupported in finding opportunities for themselves and their children to create, connect and learn together via digital media. The research has shown that parents evaluate and discriminate among different types of media contents and activities offered to their children, based on children’s age, needs, interests or resources they have. In this process, albeit unevenly and unequally, they themselves gain a certain digital expertise, which can be a valuable resource for their children if appropriately harnessed. (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2016, p. 27-28) To support this process, resources are needed for parents to learn how to mentor and collaborate with children through digital media. These recourses need to be tailored according to diversity in the interest and values, as well as the lev el of digital expertise and resources. In a digital age, providing parents with the tools and empowering them to develop their own expertise, considering their own unique circumstances, and maximizing their children’s opportunities while minimizing risks of harm will surely be of wide benefit. (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2016, p. 28)

What is the conclusion?

In the time of digital era where technologies and media can no longer be taken as an optional extra, it is important to understand whether and how their use affects the mental health and well-being. This understanding is especially important form a child protection perspective as children start with media use at more and more younger age. Many concerns have been raised among health professionals, educators and parents, which led to a public discussion on negative effects of screen time on young people’s well-being. However, the conclusions on associations between screen time and psychological aspects of well-being have been inconsistent. Current research practices need to move beyond a heavy focus on risk with little recognition of opportunities and a more multidisciplinary approach to research is needed. Although risks and problems remain, screen time should be seen not just as time for entertainment, but also time for learning, establishing and sustaining relationships and a place for creativity. Focus should be shifted from limiting screen time to the screen context in which the screens are used, content that is accessed, and connections fostered through screens.   


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[1] Harassment through technology via online gaming or chat forums

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