A ‘Goldilocks amount of screen time’ might be good for teenagers’ wellbeing

13 January 2017

A new study argues that while a lot has been said by scientists and paediatricians about the possible dangers of teenagers spending time on digital devices or computers, there is little robust evidence to back up their claims. The researchers say they are the first to systematically test for links between well-being and screen time measured continuously, separately for different digital activities and days of the week. They have proposed the Goldilocks theory: that there is a point between low and high use of technology that is ‘just right’ for teenagers when their sense of wellbeing is boosted by having ‘moderate’ amounts of screen time. The researchers suggest this may be because digital connectivity can enhance creativity, communication skills and development. Their findings also suggests that the relationship between screen time and well-being is weak at best, even when young people overuse their digital devices. The paper is published in the journal, Psychological Science.

Using a well-established self-report measure of mental well-being, researchers from Oxford and Cardiff universities analysed how 120,000 15 year olds in Britain felt after using digital technology and how much time they spent on different devices. Nearly all (99.9%) of the participating adolescents reported spending time using at least one type of digital technology on a daily basis. The teenagers were asked about time spent watching films and TV programmes, playing computer games, using the internet, or smartphones for social networking and chatting. The paper concludes that more than ‘moderate’ time can be linked with a negative effect on well-being, but they estimate this is a ‘small’ effect at 1% or less – equivalent to one third of the positive effect on well-being of a good night’s sleep or regularly eating breakfast.

The researchers tested their digital Goldilocks hypothesis against the data, finding that teenagers’ well-being increased as their screen time increased, up to a certain point. After that point, increased screen time was associated with decreased well-being. The study also highlights that the point at which screen times flipped between moderate and potentially harmful screen time were notably at higher amounts and less variable for days at the weekend. The research finds that moderate digital activity does not generally displace other activities essential for mental well-being; however, smartphones at the weekend could be harmful if a virtual social life disrupted other more rewarding social activities that could have taken place in a teenager’s free time.

Thresholds defining the point at which ‘moderate’ use becomes overuse and affects wellbeing negatively varied according to the digital device and whether teenagers played during the week or at weekends, says the study. It suggests time should be limited to I hour 40 minutes for weekday video-game play and 1 hour 57 minutes for weekday smartphone use. Watching videos and using computers for recreational purposes appears to be less disruptive so limits during the weekdays were 3 hours 41 minutes and 4 hours 17 minutes respectively. For weekends, the limit was 3 hours 35 minutes for playing video games to 4 hours 50 minutes for watching videos. The authors speculate that ‘moderate’ levels of digital screen use are lower on weekdays because the weekdays are relatively richer in opportunities for socialising and learning compared to weekends.

Lead author Dr Andrew Przybylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Previous research has oversimplified the relationship between digital screen time and the mental well-being of teenagers. Overall we found that modern use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may have advantages in a connected world unless digital devices are overused or interfere with schoolwork or afterschool activities. Our research suggests that some connectivity is probably better than none and there are moderate levels that as in the story of Goldilocks are “just right” for young people.’

Co-author Dr Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University commented: ‘To the extent that digital activities either enrich teenagers’ lives or displace more rewarding activities, they should have either positive or negative effects on their mental well-being. There have been theories that digital use is disrupting more satisfying pursuits. However, the role of digital technology has a central role in everyday life and online gaming is now a shared way of playing for teenage boys. There is good reason to think digital technology used in moderation is not disruptive and may even support development.’

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News office on +44 (0) 1865 280534 or email [email protected]

Notes for Editors:

The paper, ‘A large scale test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis: Quantifying the relations between digital screen use and the mental well-being of adolescents’, will be published in the journal, Psychological Science.
The researchers analysed data on teenagers’ screen use from the United Kingdom’s Department for Education National Pupil Database.