What is worst: disconnection or too much screentime?

This study could lead to some debate in many households as it compares the self-esteem and social activities of teens with no or poor home Internet access to teens who are the heaviest users of screens as well as teens with parents who tightly control or limit their screen use. And the easy answer is: what children do online is more important than how long. So talk… But at the same time: that’s often easier said than done.

The study used a very specific sample and surveys, which could bring up several comments about how common the results could be. Still, if I look at some other research, the results are less surprising than one might think.

From the press release:

Keith Hampton, a professor in the Department of Media and Information and director of academic research in the Quello Center, says he doesn’t worry about screen time — he worries about adolescents who are disconnected because they have limited access to the internet.

“Teens who are disconnected from today’s technologies are more isolated from their peers, which can lead to problems,” Hampton said. “Many young people are struggling with their mental health. While adolescents often grapple with self-esteem issues related to body image, peers, family and school, disconnection is a much greater threat than screen time. Social media and video games are deeply integrated into youth culture, and they do more than entertain. They help kids to socialize, they contribute to identity formation and provide a channel for social support.”

Hampton and his colleagues study disconnection. For most teens, internet access is a part of their everyday life. These teens only experience disconnection when they choose to limit their device use or when their parents step in to control the time they spend online.

However, a large pocket of teens, living primarily in rural America, is disconnected for a very different reason. They live in households where there is an extremely weak infrastructure for broadband connectivity. These teens often have no internet access outside of school, very slow access at home or spotty data coverage using a smartphone.

“Rural teens are the last remaining natural control group if we want insight into the mental health of adolescents who have no choice but to be disconnected from screens,” Hampton said.

In a peer-reviewed paper based on a survey of 3,258 rural adolescents, Hampton and his team compared the self-esteem and social activities of teens with no or poor home internet access to teens who are the heaviest users of screens as well as teens with parents who tightly control or limit their screen use. Here is what they found.

The single largest predictor of having lower self-esteem was, simply, being a girl. This was unsurprising, as the heavy toll of adolescence on young girls has been well established. The second largest determinant of self-esteem, for girls and boys, was poor grades in school.

Teens who had poor internet access at home and teens who had parents that exerted the most control over their media use also had substantively lower self-esteem — although only roughly half of the lower self-esteem experienced by a typical girl or those with low academic performance.

The amount of time teens spent on screens, whether it was watching videos, playing games, or using social media, did not play a big role in teens’ self-esteem. Even teens who were “excessive” users of screens reported higher self-esteem than those who were disconnected because they had poor internet access or their parents exerted a lot of control over their time online.

Why? Because media is deeply integrated into youth culture.

“Isolation doesn’t come from being online, it comes from being disconnected from those sources of entertainment and socialization that permeate teens’ lives,” Hampton said. “For most teens, that’s social media, video games and sharing the videos they watch online. It is often how teens get their information, communicate and share.”

This does not mean that teens are not spending time socializing in person. Teens who spend more time using social media and watching videos spend more time socializing. Hampton found that every hour spent on social media was accompanied by 21 minutes spent with friends. “Excessive” users of screens were spending more time with family and friends.

“Perpetuating the myth that teens who spend more time on their devices spend less time with friends and family and that ‘excessive’ time online is harming most teens’ mental health, does more harm than good,” Hampton said. “When parents exert too much control over the time their teens spend on screens, they cut kids off from peers and the social support that protects mental health. While this survey was done prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this work points to the terrible toll experienced by rural adolescents who were disconnected during the pandemic and the urgent need to address gaps in rural broadband infrastructure.”

Hampton said this does not imply that social media platforms are benign. There are real risks to mental health from online bullying and algorithms that focus teens on content that can be harmful. And some teens are more susceptible to harm than others.

Yet, this research shows that when parents have conversations with their teens about the risks of media use, focus on helping teens develop critical media skills and give adolescents greater autonomy over their media use, teens report higher self-esteem.

“I advise parents to not focus on how long your teens spend on screens, but to take an interest in what your teens are doing online and spend time together,” Hampton said.

Abstract of the study:

Some argue that social media use displaces time that adolescents spend with friends and family and is therefore associated with lower psychological well-being. They reason that young people who experience “disconnection,” because their parents actively restrict media use, or they have limited material access to the Internet, are better protected from psychological harm. Prior research has misspecified and exaggerated the magnitude of the relationship between screen time and adolescent psychological well-being. If the harm associated with heavy (excessive) or even average use of new media has been overstated, then the recommendation of disconnection may also be problematic. New media use is heavily integrated into youth culture and sociality, restrictive media parenting practices or digital inequalities may rob adolescents of experiences that would otherwise be protective of self-esteem. We conducted a survey of rural adolescents, who are more likely to experience disconnection at home because of a lack of physical availability of broadband, not simply affordability. Based on that survey, we find that a negative relationship between screen time and lower self-esteem is eclipsed by a more substantive, negative relationship to inequalities in material access to the Internet and restrictive mediation of media by parents. Findings show that new media use does not substantively displace time spent socializing with family and friends and in other social activities (e.g., volunteering). Omitting the supportive, indirect relationship between time on social media and self-esteem, through time spent socializing, exaggerates the negative relationship between social media use and adolescent well-being for girls, and for boys, misspecified the direction of the relationship. Adolescents, who experience heavy restrictive mediation of media by parents or have limited Internet access at home, tend to report substantively lower self-esteem than heavy users of any new media.

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