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New report on teens and mental health: How screen time impacts kids

The in-depth report surveyed a small group of teenagers about their screen time and other technology habits.

A new report, conducted and published by the Child Mind Institute and the California Partners Project, took an in-depth look at how teens are coping during the coronavirus pandemic and found that many are struggling, relying heavily on screens to handle the isolation of the past several months.

The report included in-depth interviews with 46 teenagers, between 13 and 17 years old, in California. The surveyed teens were asked to keep detailed, week-long journals of their habits and lifestyles.

"During COVID, it became very important for us to look at how the kids are doing, and our kids are not all right," said Dr. Harold Koplewicz, child and adolescent psychiatrist and founder and president of the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit focused on supporting children impacted by mental illness.

What effects did the surveyed teenagers report?

The report used a diverse group of participants from 11 counties in California. To see if there was a connection between teens with diagnosed mental health challenges and increased risk of unhealthy technology habits, the group included 14 teenagers with diagnosed mental health conditions.

"The 14 out of 46 who have a mental health disorder are more symptomatic," Koplewicz said. "The others who are typically developing are also suffering from signs and symptoms of minor depression and anxiety, worries about the future, the uncertainty of the pandemic and what it's doing to their lives. It also seems that they're sleeping less, they're spending more time on screens."

"... Every child and teenager's mental health is affected by COVID," Koplewicz continued. "That means that they may not have a mental health disorder, but they are experiencing symptoms and anxiety, depression, more inattention, more impulsivity."

The report can be summarized in four key findings:

  • Teens are experiencing "a tremendous loss due to school closure and social isolation."
  • Teens have "limited opportunity" to form unique identities.
  • Teens are using "social media and gaming (as) the main way to meet their social needs."
  • The extent of their technology use and its impact "aren't obvious, even to those closest to teens," according to the report.

The report also includes comments from the teens themselves.

"I've been using TikTok a lot recently because it’s mindless and you can scroll through it for hours without feeling like you’ve been there for more than 15 minutes," said one teenager, age 15.

"Sometimes the phone hits me in my face so I must fall asleep with it in my hand," said another 15-year-old.

"Mostly I feel more isolated, like, disconnected from what I used to be," Marleigh Leaks, a teen involved in the survey, told NBC News correspondent Kate Snow. "Even though I am still connected to, like, friends and family, you know, online and sometimes in person — like, I miss being able to just go over to somebody's house or be able to meet up with people at school ... I'm definitely not as happy as I used to be."

Koplewicz said that while excessive screen time might have the negative effects the report described, it is still important for teens to be able to use technology to engage in virtual learning and stay in touch with friends and other social contacts.

"I think all rules have to be readjusted during a global pandemic," he said. "We need screens for kids to be able to do education. Many schools are still doing distance learning, or a hybrid. No. 2, we need screens for them to be able to socialize. ... What's really important is it needs to be structured, it needs to be organized, and parents have a role in monitoring how much time they're spending on screens, when it's not education."

How can parents help their kids avoid excessive screen time?

The report also asked the parents of surveyed teens to write down their own observations of their childrens' technology use. Many wrote that they don't know how to help their children, and aren't sure whether access to screens is good or bad.

"He is playing games with his friends online — I hate it, but he is a social kid and he seems to never tire of it," said one parent.

"Online school continues to be a high concern, filled with negative comments and slight frustration with the current school system," added another.

According to the report, there are several ways parents can connect with and support their kids.

Support sleep by encouraging healthy behaviors like regular bedtimes, not eating large meals late in the evening, and not consuming caffeine more than four hours before going to bed. Try to encourage exercise, since moderate exercise each day can promote restorative sleep and aid health. It can also help to create a schedule that teens can stick to.

The report also urges parents to model behavior they want to see their kids follow. Parents looking to promote healthy screen time boundaries should be aware of how frequently they use technology, and should brainstorm and support alternative activities that can be used to fill time. It can also help to encourage "tech mindfulness:" Basically, when you pick up your phone, think about just why you're using the device and what you hope to get out of it.

"We as the adults have to model," said Koplewicz. "...That means we have to help our teenagers recognize and self-monitor as well as monitoring for them. If they're using for six hours or eight hours a day, that's too much, and that means that we have to supervise them. ... Don't expect your teenager to have that self-control. They may have self-awareness that they're numbing themselves, that they're doing nothing with the screen except just looking at nonsense or something again and again. But they'll need your help to actually change that behavior."