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Screen time and social media have helped teens during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers say

Being active and connecting with others on social media has had a positive effect on teens’ mental health

Teen girl on phone during COVID-19 pandemic
Photo (c) Eskay Lim EyeEm - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus explored the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected how teens use and think about social media. Although the pandemic has forced all consumers to be in front of screens more often, the team found that there are healthy ways to be on social media, and not all screen time should be a cause for concern. 

“I know a lot of parents were very worried about, ‘Oh, my gosh, my kid has so much screen time now,’ but what the research was finding is that children being online was not the important thing,” said researcher Jenna Glover, Ph.D. “It was the way they were engaging with being online. 

“For example, we know that active use can be helpful for a child’s mental health, and it certainly was during the pandemic. If you are creating content, like creating YouTube videos, or if you’re gaming with a friend, and talking with them while you’re doing it, you’re doing something active. That’s super helpful. If you’re passively scrolling TikTok or passively viewing YouTube videos for three or four hours, that’s toxic for your mental health.”

Social media is a source of connection

The team analyzed recent studies that looked at children and teens’ social media use and their mental health, including how much time they spend on their phones and how they use different social media platforms. 

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the study was that not all screen time and time spent on social media is problematic for teens’ mental health. In many cases, young people see social media as part of their lives and as a way for them to express themselves and connect with their friends and family. These platforms can be incredibly beneficial, especially during pandemic lockdown orders when in-person connections aren't happening. 

“There was a huge benefit, during the pandemic, to still being able to interact with peers, see family members, and still have those relationships and build those relationships,” Glover said. “There were certainly major benefits of social media that were really helpful for a child’s resiliency.” 

However, social media habits can become problematic when the intention shifts from connecting with others to a more passive approach. The researchers explained that when teens are mindlessly scrolling through apps, there’s no mental health or developmental benefit.

“...With the passive use, you’re not interacting with somebody; you’re not exploring aspects of your identity,” Glover said. “One of the things we compared it to is calories. Not all calories are created equal. There’s good nutrition and there’s bad nutrition, and technology is the same way. That passive use tends to be more like junk food. It fills children up, but there’s nothing helpful or substantive for their growth in it.” 

Making social media part of a healthy life

While the researchers don’t anticipate these screen time or social media habits changing anytime soon, they do encourage parents to talk to their kids about their time online and how it makes them feel. They also explained that rather than putting limits on hours spent on social media, parents should instead consider how their children are spending their time throughout the entirety of the day. 

“If children are sleeping, eating, doing chores and homework, and interacting with peers and family, then the amount of screen time is not that important,” Glover said. “It’s when those things get disrupted that screen time needs to be looked at to see if that’s what’s disrupting those activities. That’s a real shift in the literature. And it’s a shift in our social consciousness that it’s not about hours; it’s more about healthy activities as the foundation and making sure screen time is supporting those things, not taking away from them.” 

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