Published: March 18, 2021 By

Children with tablets

CU research finds technology use in children and teens may not be as dire as many assume. 

“Put your phone away!” “No more video games!” “Ten more minutes of YouTube, and you’re done!” 

Kids growing up in the mobile internet era have heard it all, often uttered by well-meaning parents fearing too much screen time could spur lasting problems.

But a series of studies by CU Boulder sociology professor Stefanie Mollborn suggests such fears may be overblown.

“What the data suggests is that the majority of American teens are not becoming irrevocably addicted to technology,” said Mollborn.

For her multi-year project, Mollborn analyzed national surveys, interviewed kids and young adults and followed 20 families over the years as their technology use changed.

Since 1997, she found, digital technology use has risen 32% among 2-to5-year-olds and 23% among 6-to-11-year-olds. Even before the pandemic, adolescents spent 33 hours per week using it outside of school.

Such trends have led to what Mollborn describes as a “moral panic” much like that which arose with the birth of comic books, radio and TV.

“We see that everyone is drawn to it, we get scared and we assume it is going to ruin today’s youth,” she said.

But as it turns out, teens have, in many ways, just swapped one form of tech for another — streaming YouTube instead of watching TV or texting instead of talking on the phone. Compared to 2002, teens spent only about 40 minutes more per week in technology-focused activities in 2016.

And in most cases, the research found, tech use does not crowd out sleep or exercise.

Surprisingly, things like setting time limits or prohibiting kids from watching shows during mealtimes appear to have no effect on how much those kids use technology as adults.

“What we do as parents matters less than most of us believe it will,” Mollborn said.

All this is not to say that no one ever gets addicted, or that parents shouldn’t talk to their kids about tech’s pros and cons.

But amid a pandemic, when even playdates have to happen on screens, her work suggests parents may have one less thing to worry about.