Disconnection, not teens’ screen time, is the problem, research suggests

While many parents and caregivers believe teens spend too much time on smartphones, video games and social media, a Michigan State University researcher says not to worry about screen time.

Keith Hampton, a professor in the Department of Media and Information and director of academic research in the Quello Center, says he doesn’t worry about screen time — he worries about adolescents who are disconnected because they have limited access to the internet.

“Teens who are disconnected from today’s technologies are more isolated from their peers, which can lead to problems,” Hampton said. “Many young people are struggling with their mental health. While adolescents often grapple with self-esteem issues related to body image, peers, family and school, disconnection is a much greater threat than screen time. Social media and video games are deeply integrated into youth culture, and they do more than entertain. They help kids to socialize, they contribute to identity formation and provide a channel for social support.”

Hampton and his colleagues study disconnection. For most teens, internet access is a part of their everyday life. These teens only experience disconnection when they choose to limit their device use or when their parents step in to control the time they spend online.

However, a large pocket of teens, living primarily in rural America, is disconnected for a very different reason. They live in households where there is an extremely weak infrastructure for broadband connectivity. These teens often have no internet access outside of school, very slow access at home or spotty data coverage using a smartphone.

“Rural teens are the last remaining natural control group if we want insight into the mental health of adolescents who have no choice but to be disconnected from screens,” Hampton said.

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