You should see the cathedral Aaron has built. The spire, towering high above a pine forest. The roof, painted a golden yellow. The grandiose nave and the blue stained-glass windows. They all sprouted from the 16-year-old’s imagination.
Thousands of clicks later, there you have it in Shrektopia, the virtual city he built in Minecraft, a construction video game. Sitting next to him on the gray sofa in Provo, Rachelle Miller Sorensen can’t help but marvel at her son’s digital deftness. A thought pops in her head. Has he ever considered becoming an architect or an engineer?
This, digital health experts would say, is a good example of how virtuous screens can be. At their best, new technologies set adolescents off on a journey of creativity and self-discovery. At their worst, they turn kids into addicted, violent or isolated human beings. At least, that’s what many parents seem to think.
Just take a look at “Parenting in a Tech World,” a Facebook group administered by Bark, a company that sells parental control apps. One mother seeks prep material to give her 9-year-old a talk about “screen time addiction” and “why too many screens are not good for you.” Another vents her frustration at Snapchat, “a “nightmare” for kids. Dozens shop around for new apps or ways to spy on their children. They’re not alone: Nearly 9 in 10 American parents surveyed last year by OnePoll for Smith Micro said it’s their role to monitor and control how their child uses the internet.
The multiplication of glowing devices and apps, from tablets to virtual reality headsets and from Instagram to TikTok, only seems to make parents more nervous. But screens needn’t be considered as dark amulets sucking out kids’ life force, psychologists and anthropologists say.
Rather than focus on how much time children spend on their iPhones, parents should try to understand how they engage with them, they say. They should also realize that digital media come with challenges, but also benefits for mental health.
“Just because a technology is new and scary doesn’t mean it has all downsides,” says Nick Allen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon.
Screen time and mental health
There are plenty of good reasons to worry about children’s mental health. Starting in the early 2000s, more American adolescents reported struggling with depression and anxiety. In a recent advisory, Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, laid out the magnitude of the malaise: Between 2007 and 2018, the rate of suicide among youths ages 10-24 increased by 57%. Over the past decade, the proportion of students who said they were feeling sad or hopeless increased by 40%, and the share considering attempting suicide soared 36%.
In widely shared articles, psychologists such as Jean Twenge have argued that the root cause of this despair is the rise of smartphones, whose adoption by teens started skyrocketing after 2007. “They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed,” she wrote, painting a bleak picture of how adolescents spend their free time. But critics have pointed to evidence showing that eating potatoes or wearing glasses has the same negative effects on kids’ mental health as screens — virtually zero.
That’s because mental health, psychologists stress, isn’t shaped by one but by a welter of individual and environmental factors. Murthy acknowledged that much when he listed, alongside technology, such titanic forces as racism, gun violence, climate change and academic pressure as potential drivers of teenage anguish. He also brought up genetics and socioeconomic status, which researchers say are predictors of mental health problems.
That’s not to say screens can’t have a negative effect on kids. After studying 11,672 children ages 9-10, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that greater time spent on screens was moderately associated with ADHD, poor sleep and poor academic performance. But the link was found to be of low clinical significance, says Katie Paulich, a doctoral candidate at the university who led the study.
“Parents may take some comfort in knowing that screens seem to have very little impact on mental health outcomes,” she says.
The positive side of app engagement
Researchers are now moving beyond a zealous focus on screen time to try and understand how tech benefits or harms adolescents in different ways. Social media, for instance, can be an “amplifier,” says Emily Weinstein, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Being part of the BookTok community, a subset of TikTok where users trade book recommendations, can nourish a teen’s passion for reading. A group chat with friends can help her feel supported and seen. But for some teenage girls — not all — being bombarded with pictures of Instagram influencers might evoke a sense of body insecurity, Weinstein says.
The same app, however, can be used by youths to display their artwork, adding fuel to their creative fire, says Devorah Heitner, the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.” They can also sell their craft on Etsy, a marketplace, and learn to be internet entrepreneurs — when they’re not leading civic-minded communities on Discord, a popular messaging platform.
“I would look at their level of empowerment and their level of creative engagement and social engagement,” Heitner says.
When they get involved in online communities or learn to run Youtube channels and blogs and make content, adolescents learn skills that will help them survive in the digital world later on, says Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist of technology use at the University of California, Irvine. These activities have a “real-worldness to it that they never get to experience through school safe assignments,” she says. “They’re getting real authentic feedback from communities.”
The ubiquity of screens also affords adolescents a window into health information. In a 2018 survey, 87% of teens and young adults said they’d gone online to learn about fitness and nutrition, but also stress, anxiety and depression. This access is especially precious to vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ youths in rural areas, says Lauren McInroy, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and media expert.
These adolescents often face a dearth of support groups in their region or may fear being seen attending. Online networks such as Trevor Space and chats with mental health experts can be a lifeline, she says.
Risks to watch for
But tech isn’t all rosy. Teens participating in workshops organized by Weinstein and Carrie James, a sociologist also at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, described feeling pressured by social media to constantly socialize, be straight-A students and always aspire to be healthier. These pressures exist outside of smartphones, but “digital life can speed up those grinds,” says James. For adults, it can be helpful to ask teens “what’s stressful in general and then how tech makes it better or worse.”
Often, the anxiety tech creates has nothing to do with laptops, tablets and iPhones but arises from parents’ perception that they can be harmful. That’s in part because too much of a burden is being placed on them to be gatekeepers, when, really, implementing safeguards should be tech companies’ job, says Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California Irvine.
Powerful tech companies like Meta and Alphabet are fighting for kids’ attention and hoping to get as many as they can on products like Youtube Kids. Leaks from a former Facebook employee — the company has since been renamed Meta — pointing to internal concerns that Facebook’s apps could hurt teenagers set off Senate hearings and fiery debates about companies’ responsibility to design safe platforms. But parents have to remember that they can’t control everything.
“I won’t see everything my child is doing in that space. But I don’t see everything they’re doing in the offline world, either,” Odgers says.
Miller Sorensen has made peace with this fact. “It removed a lot of that stress and fear for me, I think, to be a little more open-minded.” But she hasn’t given up on influencing how her children interact with the digital world. She allows them enough access to social media that they can riff with their friends on the latest TikTok craze, but not enough that they spend hours on it. The family shares one iPad, one laptop and, since Christmas, one Oculus virtual reality headset. This way, the children don’t develop too strong an attachment to these devices.
Her approach appears to have born fruit. A few months ago, she sat with Aaron in his school’s counselor’s office. When the counselor asked what careers he was considering, the teenager, perhaps remembering Shrektopia and the seed of an idea planted by his mom, responded nonchalantly, “Maybe architecture or engineering?”
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated Carrie Jones is a sociologist at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Her last name is James.