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It’s About Context, Not Time: What the Latest Research Says on Teens & Screens

Sexting is (gulp) normal and other findings to consider in news coverage.

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Yes, today’s teens are surrounded by screens. No, it’s not as bad for them as you might think.

That was the upshot of a discussion on screen time at a recent Education Writers Association seminar.

Experts and reporters discussed how ubiquitous social media and device use is impacting the way adolescents learn, communicate, and entertain themselves. The panel, “Behind the Screens: Risks and Rewards of Teen Tech Use,” delved into some hot topics, including sexting, device addiction, anxiety, and depression. Or, as the moderator Ki Sung of KQED public media described it, “every parent’s nightmare session.”

But drawing on their own research, data, and reporting work with adolescents, panelists pulled the curtain back on the screen time boogeyman. Journalists received expert guidance on how to determine if an academic study is up to snuff, why measuring the amount of time on screens doesn’t tell the whole story, and when to be genuinely concerned about the impact of technology on teen mental health.

For a more grounded approach to reporting on the digital lives of adolescents — an age group that scientists now consider to span the range of individuals ages 10 to 25 — speakers offered the following takeaways for reporters:

  • Time is less important than context. Researchers studying device use and social media engagement no longer consider “screen time” to be a reliable predictor of well-being outcomes, such as depression or anxiety. Be cautious of any academic study that continues to rely on the amount of time spent on screens and social media as a key variable that can be directly linked to mental health outcomes.
  • Teen technology use isn’t worry-free, but more time online isn’t inherently harmful. Digital technology use — including social media, gaming, texting, and internet use — becomes problematic when it begins to interfere with a student’s academic life, sleep, or activities they used to find enjoyable.
  • It’s normal for teens to sext. Sexting is a developmentally appropriate behavior for adolescents, particularly for those in committed romantic relationships. Data shows that females and males sext at similar rates.
  • Sleep matters. Studies have confirmed the importance of sleep on adolescent mental health over and over again. Bedtime phone and device routines can be a key intervention opportunity for preventing teen sleep cycle disruption.
  • Talk with teens. Above all, the most important data on the impact of screen time is teen experience. Talking to teens — and really listening to what they have to say — is the best way to understand the role technology plays in their lives.

Beware of Red Flags: Staying Up Late, Skipping School

Drastically increased access to technology such as smartphones and laptops, combined with widespread social media engagement, are relatively new phenomenons shaping our everyday lives. Because of this, nearly all of the research done on screen time’s effects has been conducted after 2006. A common starting point in early studies was to attempt to measure the negative impacts of total online time on an individual’s mental and physical health. But as the field has developed, most experts now agree that time does not equal risk, especially as our online and offline lives have become more fluid.

Screen time as a research variable “misses the mark,” said speaker Sarah Domoff, a professor of clinical psychology at Central Michigan University. Domoff explained that what teens are doing online is just as important, if not more important, than the amount of time they spend online. To illustrate this point, Domoff compared a youth who spends three hours on social media connecting to friends or others who help them solve problems, versus another youth that spends three hours on social media passively scrolling, trolling, or engaging in social comparisons.

“You can’t use hours as the determinant of what’s good or bad about screens,” said Domoff.

Domoff shared her criteria for determining when technology use may be problematic: “What’s really critical is to understand whether or not a child’s digital media use is interfering with their functioning, specifically academic functioning, physical, and mental health.”

For example, are they staying up too late, refusing to go to school, or exhibiting troubling changes in behavior such as avoiding activities they previously enjoyed?

Domoff and other panelists offered the following tips for journalists when presented with research studies on screen time and adolescent well-being:

  • Look at the methods section. Do the authors identify an objective way to accurately measure total time engaged with all screen media (e.g., automatic calculations computing the number of hours using them)? Beware of retrospective measurements.
  • Avoid studies with no context or information about how screen time is being spent.
  • Longitudinal studies are valuable, as are studies where researchers can isolate the effects of specific tasks or interventions on youth behavior.

Also, it’s always a good idea to consult an independent expert besides the study author, for some outside perspective.

‘Teens Under Stress’

Education reporter and panelist Jenny Brundin shared insights from her seven-month reporting project at Colorado Public Radio. For the series, “Teens Under Stress,” she interviewed and followed teens in their daily lives. One element focused exclusively on the feelings teens expressed about their time spent online.

“The more you interview them, a lot comes out about their conflicted relationships with their phones,” said Brundin. For example, Brundin learned that while teens love how their phone connects them to each other and the world (and to memes), they also feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of bad news. Some youths she spoke with ended up deleting apps like Snapchat or turning off notifications.

But others, like José, a teen featured in her series, shared ways their phone use was troubling. Brundin played a clip from an audio diary José produced as part of her project: “I guess I used Facebook a lot just cause I wasn’t feelin’ today,” José said. “And by that I mean, I didn’t feel good today. So I … just hopped on social media to kind of block everything else out.”

Brundin encouraged journalists to frame a narrative of teen life that considers the various issues on the minds of young people, such as climate change, going to college, and standardized testing. Also, explore the tensions and complex emotions teens express about their use of technology and social media.

Are Concerns About Teen Sexting Overblown?

As awkward as it is to talk and think about teen sexting — electronically sending a sexually explicit image, video or message — the reality is that teens engage in the activity. And sexting is nothing to worry about, said panelist Jeff Temple, the director of the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.

“Teens are going to be interested in sex. As a psychologist, I’d be worried if a 16-year-old was not interested in sex,” said Temple.

Temple, who studies adolescent behaviors such as sexting, dating violence, and cyberbullying, addressed what he considers four myths about teen sexting:

  • Myth #1: Sexting is an inherently risky behavior. According to Temple, sexting is actually a developmentally appropriate behavior. About 30% of teens sext, especially those who are 16 or 17 years old. “When they’re doing it consensually, we don’t see any negative problems associated with that. We see it as a part of normative development,” Temple said. Like sex, if sexting is happening with teens under 15 years old, if it is pressured, coerced, or unsolicited, or happening between an adult and a teenager, then worry is justified.
  • Myth #2: Sexting among teens is on the rise. It technically is, but this development coincides with an increase in smartphone ownership among young people.
  • Myth #3: Girls sext more than boys. In a meta-analysis — a study of studies — Temple found that males and females send naked pictures of themselves to the same degree.
  • Myth #4: Teens sext to hook up. It happens, but in most cases, sexting seems to be an end in itself.

Takeaways and Story Ideas for Journalists

The one constant with technology is rapid change. Apps rise and fall, new platforms emerge. And research on the impact of these experiences struggles to keep up.

Emphasizing the vital role journalists play in communicating how technology use impacts everyday teen life and well-being, Domoff said, “[The public] will turn to your articles … to get information because the science cannot keep up as quickly as some of these changes.”

Panelists left reporters with a handful of fresh story ideas:

  • Brundin invited parents into a recording studio to talk about phone use, and then brought their kids in to reflect on what their parents said. This exercise generated discussion that could be a fun idea for journalists in newspapers, radio, and television broadcasting.
  • Look into local school district policies on cell phones and device use. What restrictions are typical and how do they vary from place to place? Do they work?
  • Talk to adolescents to find out what coping and strategies they’ve found useful for managing excessive device use.
  • Take a closer look at new games and apps marketed to teens that involve money. More and more teens are earning money by monetizing content, while others are engaging in riskier online activities, such as “loot boxes.” Domoff urged journalists to look into the predatory side of mobile gaming.
  • Solutions-based stories. “How can I deal with this as a parent?” said Brundin. “How can I deal with this as a teacher? How can I deal with this as a teen?” She added: “We were getting teens reaching out to us. Think about how your story can be a resource people can refer to later for information.”

The biggest takeaway? Talk to teens. And listen to what they have to say.