The Debate Over Screens and Health is More Contentious Than Ever

Kids are staring at screens all day. Is that unhealthy? Experts can’t agree.

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
15 min readMay 1, 2020

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Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants

Every generation of parents faces its own new challenges. For the current crop of moms and dads — and in the midst of a pandemic, when screen time has in many cases become a necessity, rather than a choice — questions surrounding technology and adolescent mental health are among the most pressing and bewildering.

Are all screens created equal? And how much screen time is too much? Is social media uniquely dangerous? Different studies seem to yield different answers. While one group of experts issues warnings, another argues that concerns are overblown. Competing op-eds alarm or pacify.

This expert debate is set against a backdrop of what most consider to be historically steep increases in adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide, even before the pandemic. “It’s unequivocally the case that we have one of the worst mental health situations among our youth that has been documented,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California.

That situation is showing no signs of improving. According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.