If you’re a parent of a teenager, you’re doing your best to set limits and boundaries on screen time. (You’re also probably just trying to keep up with all the ways teens use technology, because they’re changing all the time.)

This is a brave new world for everyone, not just parents but scientists, too. There’s a lot of work underway to understand how exposure to new technology affects the mental and physical health of teens.

A new study out this spring offers up some important information. Scientists from several U.S. universities came together to study how four different forms of screen use affected sleep and depression in teenagers. They found:

  • Greater amounts of screen time throughout the day led to more sleep problems and more symptoms of depression in teens
  • The sleep problems caused by most forms of screen time accounted for the depressive symptoms

What types of screen use did scientists investigate? Web surfing, social messaging, TV/movie watching, and gaming.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s look at these connections more closely:

  • Sleep and depression are connected, as numerous studies show. Not sleeping well can increase risks for depression, and depression can also lead to sleep problems.
  • A large and growing body of scientific research shows that screen time interferes with sleep, both reducing sleep quality and shortening amounts of sleep. (There are a number of reasons for this, including artificial light exposure and the stimulating content that’s being consumed on the screens.)
  • There’s also evidence showing depression in teens is on the rise in the U.S., and that teens who log a lot of screen time are more vulnerable to depression and other mental health issues.

What the latest study found is that poor sleep may be an important link between screen time and depression in teens. More screen time means less sleep, and less sleep makes teens more likely to have symptoms of depression, the study results suggest.Social media and teens

Greater amounts of web surfing, social messaging, and TV/movie watching all created more insomnia symptoms and shorter sleep amounts, and these sleep problems fully explained the higher rates of depression symptoms in teens who spent a lot of time in these activities.

Gaming had a strong connection to depressive symptoms in the teens who took part in the study. But the researchers found that their sleep problems only partially explained these symptoms.

The takeaway? Sleep and health experts tell us it’s important to work with our kids and teens to manage their screen time throughout the day, and especially near bedtime. This study is more evidence suggesting we take that advice seriously. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to set screen-free times (such as dinnertime and bedtime) and screen-free zones (bedrooms) in the house, and to pay close attention to balancing electronics use with other, non-screen activities on a daily basis.

Here are some other useful, realistic tips for managing screen time with your kids. (Hint: They include managing our own screen use as adults.)


Written by Caitlin Reynolds