Screen Time and Our Teens’ Mental Health Crisis

In a 2018 survey half of the parents questioned believed that smart phone usage negatively affected their child’s mental health. And nearly half thought their child was actually addicted to the device.

The parents are right. Study after study points to screen time as a significant predictor of decreased mental health in young people. And parents instinctively know this: something isn’t right with too much screen time. Our kids aren’t themselves – they might get despondent, irritable or aggressive. It’s concerning, but sometimes we wonder what can we do about it? It’s the way of the future after all.

It shouldn’t be. Here’s why.

The Research

From the early 1960s to the early 2000s, measures of wellbeing have consistently risen, particularly for our teens. This data measures things like self-esteem, life satisfaction, happiness, job satisfaction and friendships. However, from 2012 the trend has started to reverse. Rather than data showing wellbeing generally increasing, it is now steadily decreasing.

2012 is also the year that smart phone ownership tipped over to the majority of mobile phone users. It’s the year that their use became widespread among teenagers. And, it’s the year where data shows a surge in depression, anxiety and suicide amongst our teens.

A new study shows that this is not just coincidence. Over 1.1 million young people answered questions about their wellbeing and their screen time use. The data showed that that too much screen time is toxic to our kids. Teens who spend more time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy. They are more likely to be lonely, depressed, anxious and even suicidal. In fact, nearly half of teens who spent five or more hours a day on a device had contemplated, planned or attempted suicide at least once.

Our teens are in the midst of a mental health crisis, and screens are a big part of the problem. To be clear, screens are not the problem, nor are they the only problem. But they are a genuine contributor to the mental health problem.

The Goldilocks Zone

But it’s not all bad news.

In the story of Goldilocks and the Three Little Bears, Goldilocks is always looking for the ‘perfect’ thing – porridge that is neither to hot nor too cold, a chair that is neither too big nor too small and bed that isn’t too hard or too soft. Each of these things she wanted just right.

This has led scientists and researchers to adopt the idea of a Goldilocks Zone, or the place where all things intersect to make the perfect combination. And now, the University of Oxford has applied the phrase to screen time.

Researchers have discovered there is a point between low and high use of technology that is ‘just right’ for our teens. This is the magical intersection where digital connection can increase creativity, communication and development, and where wellbeing is boosted rather than harmed. This is the Goldilocks Zone.

But where is the Goldilocks Zone? What is the right amount of screen time for our teens? Unfortunately there is no hard and fast answer to those questions. It varies, depending on the child and the device, and whether it’s a weekday or a weekend, and depending on what other activities your child is missing out on in favour of screen time.

As parents it’s our job to help our teens use screens in a way and in an amount that boosts their wellbeing. The below guidelines can help us do just that.

Screen Time Guidelines

  1. Use your common sense. As parents, you know your children best. Trust yourself. Use your common sense, be discerning and exercise your own good judgment when it comes to screen time use.
  2. Consider content and context in determining limits. While some people get caught up on “how much” screen time is ok, my preference is to focus on “what type” of screen time is best. If their screen diet is junk, then keep it short, just like you limit the amount of sugar they eat. If they’re doing valuable and legitimate learning or truly useful social things, be more flexible. Content matters. So does context. It’s not ok to have screens in rooms or at the table. You may have other rules too. The context should determine whether kids are ok to be on screens. Friends over? No screens! Chores done, homework done, and reading done? Sure, have some fun on screens. When considering all the things our kids are missing out on when they are on screens – time to develop and deepen relationships, to be creative and to engage in physical activity – we want to be intentional about how and when screens are used.
  3. Encourage other activities. When your kids ask to play videogames or use the tablet have a list of things ready to suggest instead. Things like:
    • Have you played outside?
    • Have you spent time with a friend?
    • Have you read a book?
    • Have you tidied your room?

What you suggest, and how firmly you suggest it, is up to you. But by engaging in these types of activities, children will do much more for their brains, their bodies and their wellbeing, then sitting in front of a screen. (I’ve written additional suggestions here.)

  1. Make sure Goldilocks Screen Time is Healthy Screen Time. Even when the kids are using screens, make sure that they are having positive screen and media experiences. Even better if these are shared as a family.

Active, positive use of screens should be encouraged, but as parents we know when enough is enough. And certainly our teens have had enough. If we can get them to put down the game controller and head out on the oval, or set aside the iPad and get their nose in a book, we’re going to have happier and healthier kids.

If you have younger kids, I’ve written about guidelines for screen time for our little ones, here.


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Body & Cyber Safety: How to Pre-arm and Protect Your Children

In the past week I’ve been contacted by several parents. They’ve asked a number of questions, all along the same lines*:

I discovered yesterday that my 5 year-old daughter has been sexually touched (quite horribly) by an older boy at her school. We have talked about being safe so many times. I thought we had it covered. And yet this has occurred. Turns out the older boys have been exposed to porn and said they wanted to do what they saw in the video. I’m devastated.

And this one:

I need to know how to handle this. You have visited our school and talked with students and parents about technology, sexting, and pornography. My 13 year-old daughter has had all the talks. She knows that NO MATTER WHAT, she should NOT get involved. Well guess what? It’s happened. She did it. A boy has been pressuring her for weeks, in person and on Instagram and Snapchat, and she finally succumbed. We know the boy and his family and I contacted them. My daughter is not the first girl he has done he has done this to. What do I do?

The past week is not particularly different to other weeks when these kinds of emails land on my Facebook page or in my inbox. Other emails included one from a mother whose 8 year-old son was shown pornographic content in the school playground, and another from a parent whose 9 year-old child was approached via Instagram for explicit images.

While very different, each situation contains a number of important similarities:

First, these children are young. It is common for primary school-aged children to be involved in these circumstances.

Second, in almost all cases, it is a girl who is being harassed or harmed in a sexual way by a boy.

Third, social media is implicated consistently.

Fourth, young people are being harmed by what they are seeing or what they are doing, with pornography acting as a potential influence in too many cases.

There are three things I want to highlight for every parent to teach their children about: social media, body safety, and pornography.

Social Media

(It’s worth noting that the central – perhaps the only – reason that children have to be 13 is because of US laws that prohibit the collection of personal information on children under that age. It has nothing to do with the emotional and psychological readiness of the children to maturely navigate the online/social world.)

Parents must understand that Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter are hotbeds of danger.

While it is true that many children use these sites every day without harm, there are significant risks associated with these platforms. Adult grooming is one, but so too is the exposure to explicit content, and the harassment from peers that occurs all-too-often.

Wellbeing vs Screentime graphAdditionally, recent research from the UK indicates that using these platforms is associated with reduced wellbeing and increased risk of depression, stress, and anxiety. And Australian studies with adolescents show that as time on screens (gaming and social media) increase, so too does psychological ill-health.

If your children want to be on screens, ensure they are old enough for the accounts that they want – and note that being 13 doesn’t mean they’re old enough. They should be able to maturely utilise the platforms and not become a servant to them (and we all know some adults who still can’t do that). Talk with them about the risks. Invite them to share how they’ll respond to dangerous situations. Keep screens in public spaces. And know what they’re doing, who they’re “friending” and connecting with, and what they’re viewing.

Many parents tell me that they’ve installed software to keep their kids safe online and to monitor what they’re doing. This may offer some modest protection while your child is using devices protected by the software. However, this seems to be the equivalent of fencing our swimming pool. It provides a level of safety that is important.

But we can’t fence the ocean.

Once our children are out of our home or using another person’s device, our protections are unhelpful. We need more than software to protect our kids. We need to talk with them and teach them how to use social media safely, how to respond to inappropriate requests, and what to say to someone who is pressuring them to do something they know is wrong.

Body Safety

Our children, no matter how well protected we keep them, will come into contact with others who have not necessarily received the same level of protection we have provided. Some of those children may have been exposed to pornographic content online, or have experienced inappropriate sexual touching. It is vital that our children know how to be body safe, and know how to resist the pressure that others may place upon them.

Teach young children (from the age of 2) that no one should ever look at or touch – or ask to look at or touch – any part of their body that is covered by their swimwear or underpants. A parent might wash these private parts for a child in the bath, or a doctor might need to view these parts with permission, but that is the only time these body parts should be looked at or touched. Our children need to know the difference between “good” touching and “bad” touching. And it is up to us to have the conversations with them about it. (Some useful resources are here.)

Teach older children that it is not ok to use digital media for looking at, or showing, those private parts. And then invite them to discuss why that might be the case. Help them to understand that sharing images might lead to long-term consequences, and that others might also see what has been shared.

Body safety means we teach our children how to keep their body safe. It is up to parents to ensure these conversations happen consistently.


Liz Walker, founder of “Porn Harms Kids” explains that exposure of children to pornography has reached critical levels. A major study from Sydney Uni indicated that 45% of adult males were first exposed to pornographic content between ages 11 and 13. In a 2010 survey of English 14-16 year-olds, nearly one-third claimed that their first exposure to pornography was at 10 years or younger. A 2015 survey in the UK showed that 1 in 5 twelve to thirteen year-olds believed that watching porn is “normal behaviour”.

Unwanted exposure to pornography among minors is increasing, with the number of 10-12 year-olds accidentally seeing porn rising from 9% to 19% between 2000 and 2005, and from 28% to 35% for 13-15 year-olds. In another study of 16-17 year-olds, a large number of both males (84%) and females (60%) had experienced unwanted exposure to pornography while online.

Now… take a look at the dates. The data are old. We’re back at 2005 before iPhones and 3G wireless Internet. Or we’re back at 2010 Why? We can’t ethically ask young children about their pornography exposure. We have to wait until they’re older and ask them to retrospectively recall when they saw what they saw.

Our best guess is that kids are, on average, seeing pornography at around age 9 or 10 today because of wireless, portable tech. And there is consensus that about 99% of boys and around 70% of girls have been exposed to pornography by the age of 15. Parents are consistently describing incidents like those above where pornography has impacted their children’s lives – always with negative consequences.

Research is highlighting that children’s exposure to pornography increases the risk that they may act on what they’ve seen. Too often, this occurs with another vulnerable young person. NSW Police report that child-on-child sexual assault is at an all-time high, with the proliferation of pornography via screens being the most often-blamed reason.

What do we do?
As the first generation of parents to deal with these challenges, we are facing some tricky times. No matter how well we parent our children, they will be affected and influenced by others who may not have had the same level of parental involvement. Sometimes they will be harmed by those children.

Parents can best protect their children by:


Don’t let young children near social media. Minimise screen time. Ensure they are taught about body safety.


At some point, cocooning children will not be enough. This is when we must pre-arm them. The most effective pre-arming occurs when our children trust us and our relationships with them are close and loving.

We want to be having daily involvement and connection with them about the little things so that when the big things arise we have the relationship foundation in place to guide them.

The best pre-arming conversations are not lectures. We ask questions and listen to how our children feel about the issues we are discussing, and invite their ideas for how they would respond in tricky situations.

Setting Limits

Our children need us to be parents. They need us to lead. This might mean things can be uncomfortable from time to time. But they need to know what our limits are and why. We should only allow social media with appropriate protections and at the right age.

Parenting may never have been more challenging. It may also never have been more important.

* Details changed to preserve anonymity

For help talking to your children about body safety, respect and consent, check out these great resources…

Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept - body safety book by Jayneen SandersNo Means No - by Jayneen SandersBody Safety Education by Jayneen Sanders



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Six Ways To Be The Best Parent You Can Be

Think of the times that your parenting has been its best. Those times where you were unconditionally there for your child and it felt “right”.

When I ask parents to tell me about those times, these are the answers I hear:

  • Dinner time conversations
  • Holidays with no agendas
  • Weekends at the park or the beach
  • Playing games in the lounge room
  • Walking and talking
  • The last ten minutes each night when I tuck them in and we just chat

It seems that time together, really focusing on one another, is the most powerful way for us to build strong relationships and feel like great parents.

No parent has ever told me they felt like they were being the best parent they could be while they worked overtime at the office or snuck away for a weekend. These things are sometimes necessary and valuable, but while paying the bills or getting some ‘me-time’ can help us to be good parents, ‘we-time’, or time together, brings out the best in us, and our kids.

The following six ideas are research-backed ways to help you be the best parent you can be, and also bring out the best in your children:

Be Mindful

Mindfulness is having a moment-to-moment awareness of experiences. It means being where your feet are.

Mindfulness leads to tremendous benefits, including better focus, decreased stress, increased memory and, improved relationship satisfaction. When we’re mindful we respond well to, and communicate well with, our loved ones.

The first and most important step to being mindful, is to turn off your smartphones. Technology disrupts our relationships with our children by limiting our ability to tune in to them. It stops us from truly paying attention to them. Turn off the tech, slow down and savour the moment with your kids. Take time to talk about the clouds in the sky, or to sit on the couch for an extra long cuddle. Being present helps our stress levels drop and our happiness increase. Life is simply better.

Give Lots of Physical Affection

Hugs, snuggles, shoulder rubs, even smiling eye contact – these are some of the ways that we give affection. And they feel great! But studies show that physical affection also provides stress-buffering support to our kids. Hugging releases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin fights depression and stress, and underlies trust. So hug your kids in the morning, at night and as many moments as you can in between. The more you hug your kids, the less effect stress has on them.

Build on Strengths

Strengths-based parenting is when we identify our children’s strengths and encourage them to grow and use those strengths. These become the inner resources of your child that they can access to cope with conflict and manage the rigors of school. Identifying and developing our children’s strengths also boosts resilience and reduces stress. It leads to stronger emotional, academic and social skills and that in turn promotes greater life satisfaction.

Be Grateful

Grateful people are consistently happier, healthier and more optimistic. They have better relationships – at school, at work and at home. Taking time out to be grateful toward our children builds a sense of trust and solidarity between our kids and us and helps us be better parents. So slip a note of thanks into your child’s lunchbox, or onto his pillow. Teaching or encouraging our children to be grateful is one of the best ways to boost their wellbeing.

Look Forward with Hope

We are happier, better, more pleasant people when we expect good things. It makes sense then that one of the best characteristics we can teach our children is to have hope. Hope is an antidote to both depression and anxiety, and hopeful children are more resilient and goal-oriented, and have greater success in life.

We can help them be hopeful by talking about the good things we expect, working with them to set goals and brainstorming ways to make those goals happen. Teaching our kids to have hope is one of the best things we can do as a parent.

Listen and Empathise

Our children have big emotions. Sometimes it is inconvenient, but our children need to express those emotions. To be the best parents, we need to listen and show that we understand.

To really listen, we need to stop, look and listen. Stop what you are doing, look your child in the eye and really listen. Listening and acknowledging thoughts and feelings shows our kids that we understand and we care. Really listening is how we draw our children closer. It is how we become the best parents we can.

Ultimately, it pays to remember that we all fail. We all struggle. We all find this parenting gig pretty tough. But by working on these six things, especially when we may not want to, we will become better parents and bring out the best in our kids.

And when we fail, we should remember that we don’t have to be the best parent in the world. We just have to be the best parent in their world.



For more parenting tips check out Dr Justin Coulson’s book 10 Things Every Parent Needs To Know

The post Six Ways To Be The Best Parent You Can Be appeared first on Dr Justin Coulson's Happy Families.

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