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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Screen

August 27, 2020

Filed in: Technology

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​Author: Linda Wilbrecht, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, UC Berkeley

During the COVID-19 pandemic, screen time and internet use have been a lifeline to the world, a panacea for boredom, and even a babysitter while a parent works. So, is it something we really need to be fighting to stop?

The good news is that screen use can be compatible with healthy psychological development. Recent research from University of Oxford Professor Amy Orben suggests screen time alone is not a strong predictor of well-being in adolescents—it may not be the amount of screen time that is important, but what we are doing with our screens.

The screens are not going away, so the challenge is to discover which aspects of screen time may promote healthy development. Each individual has different needs, access, and abilities, so there is no one-size-fits-all advice. However, we can use principles of developmental science to identify which deep-seated needs might be met by screen time and work to support quality screen time that serves those needs.

Positive and reciprocal social connection

Social connection is important to all humans, especially during adolescence. Online time can be quality social time. For many kids, time spent online chatting to friends on a service like Discord, Zoom, or FaceTime can strengthen friendships and provide opportunities for social learning. Without in-person school or extracurriculars, or even with smaller and socially distanced classes, youth have lost easy access to friends and social time. During the pandemic, social media platforms large and small have helped them stay connected.

Opportunities for positive exploration and identity development

Online time can provide nearly limitless opportunities for exploration. Adolescents want to explore the world to learn who they are and what their place in the world is. Even with shelter-in-place orders, screen time and the internet allow us to discover what and who is out there in the world. You have to wonder if Minecraft is so popular because it offers a rare opportunity to “run free” outside and away from parents. Roblox, another popular platform with a large adolescent presence, offers the chance to explore millions of games as well as the opportunity to build and share your own. Avatars let gamers project their own style choices in clothing and hair. New communities also offer individuals the chance to change it up and start fresh by trying out different identities, personalities, and places.

Opportunities for skill development

Beyond social skills, some online platforms enable users to develop valuable real-world skills. In Minecraft and Roblox, players can take control of the game environment using code. YouTube and other platforms let users create their own videos, often featuring adolescents teaching adolescents. Through a simple search, it is possible to find short videos on how to bake a cake, apply artful makeup, or build your own computer. Smartphones and video editing apps enable experimentation with timing, effects, storytelling, and other arts.


The internet is full of metrics such as likes, views, and subscribers. These measurements can become a core concern of everyday life when we’re adolescents. This is a perfectly sensible response if you consider that these metrics reflect a deep desire to matter. In other words, an interest in “likes” and subscribers might not be totally self-centered—it might stem from a deep interest in belonging. As adolescents explore the wider world, it is important that they find places to belong and contribute. Social connection, identity formation, and skill-building are all a part of mattering. Online, adolescents can escape the confines of their home to make friends, create content, and give back to the broader community.

Bullying and predators are, of course, still a concern online, as in the physical world. And it is true that screen time should not be allowed to destroy sleep. Caregivers need to strike a balance between protection and freedom that facilitates autonomy and the development of the whole person. Open conversations can help families scaffold this transition to greater independence and the balance of time spent online and IRL. Acknowledging and understanding the positive motivations underlying the pursuit of screen time is a good place to start.

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