How can I address screen time and its effects on mental health?

8 min read
December 7, 2022

In today’s world, technology is everywhere, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the increase in screen use among teens and adults. The total amount of screen media used by 8- to 12-year-olds grew by about 1 hour per day between 2019 and 2021, and the total amount used by 13- to 18-year-olds grew by about 1.5 hours per day. Additionally, media use increased by 17% for tweens and teens from 2019 to 2021 alone, which is a much faster increase than was seen in the previous four years.

Research has shown that an increase in screen time is associated with decreased self-esteem and an increased risk of obesity and has been correlated with insufficient levels of physical activity. Additionally, cyberbullying and compulsive internet use (the inability to regulate how much time they spend on the internet) can add to the detrimental effects that screen time has had on youth mental health.

Many educators and parents may feel like they have no control over their teen's screen time, especially in today’s digital age. Technology is certainly not going away any time soon. However, there are many steps you can take to address screen time and its effects on student mental health. There are ways to help teens manage their screen time without taking away their freedoms. Giving your students the tools to better manage their media use can show them that there are things they can do to improve their mental health and well-being now– leaving them feeling empowered and ready to thrive in the classroom and beyond.

Create daily screen-free time

Designate times throughout the day when students can take a break from screens. This can look like incorporating stretching sessions or walking breaks in between lessons. By showing your students how time away from the screen can actually be rejuvenating, it can encourage them to implement similar screen-free time outside of school. Likewise, giving students structured screen time can reduce conflict around usage throughout the school day. Rather than labeling phones and screens as explicitly bad, remind students that it’s essential to find balance.

You can also try using a Digital Learning Agreement (or another classroom contract) to open up the conversation surrounding screen use in the classroom. Making sure that you and your students are on the same page can not only improve their overall mental health but will also increase a sense of community and understanding.

Encourage your students to avoid screens before bed

Teenagers are growing every day and need about 8-10 hours of sleep a night. Encourage your students to limit their screen use before bed by informing them of the negative effects this habit may have on their overall health. 

Phone use before bed has been shown to be harmful for many reasons. Screen time before bed can increase alertness at night, compromises alertness the next morning, and reduces the total amount of REM sleep your body gets. Additionally, the blue light emitted by your cell phone screen restrains the production of melatonin– which is the hormone that controls your sleep. Studies have also shown that blue light can cause damage to your retinas. The National Sleep Foundation recommends stopping using electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. 

Not sure if students will cut down? Make things fun by creating a challenge for your students– see who can get a streak of no phone use before bedtime or have students experiment to see if they feel better after one week of trying to not use their phones before bedtime and have them share their experiences with the class.

Invite your students to limit their notifications and edit their feeds

Oftentimes, we are bombarded with unnecessary notifications that can distract us throughout the day. This can be anything from notifications from Instagram, or notifications from your extended family’s Facebook group chat. It’s easy to get caught up in this media overload, so it may be helpful to encourage your students to think about what notifications they get on their devices and turn off the ones that they don't need.

You can also make scrolling through the feed more enjoyable for your students by encouraging them to be more intentional about who they’re following. Tell them to unfollow accounts that make them feel negative emotions and to follow accounts that make them smile or inspire them.

In addition to this, you can suggest an audit of their home screens: have them go through their phone and delete any apps they might not use regularly and edit how their home screens look. This will help students think about what they really need from their phones and reduce the noise and distractions from a busy home screen.

Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.

While screen use has undoubtedly had a negative impact on overall teen mental health, it’s important to remember that balance is key. The internet and social media can be a great place for young people to find inspiration and new ideas, and it can help them connect with people that they might not have otherwise interacted with in the past. 

The relationship between teens, their screens and their mental health is extremely complicated. Giving a happy teen a phone won’t turn them into a depressed and anxious teen. Often, young people turn to their screens to cope with negative feelings. As teachers, it can be helpful to have an open dialogue about how screens are actually affecting your students’ lives and work with them to find out which strategies work best.

Sources –
nih.gov, thensf.org