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University of Colorado Boulder researchers are debunking a longtime trend among parents concerned with the amount of screen time their children are exposed to.

For years, parents have worried about the idea that too much technology and screen time might cause some severe problems for their children down the road.

A new study at the University of Colorado Boulder says differently: The amount of time technology is used by children does not determine how much time they will spend on electronics as an adult.

The study consisted of almost 1,200 young adults and more than 50 interviews. Researchers started collecting the data before the pandemic, so the data shows a dramatic increase in technology use. However, the study found that parents may have a lot less to worry about than they may have previously thought.

“This research addresses the moral panic about technology that we so often see,” said Joshua Goode, a doctoral student in sociology and co-author of the paper. “Many of those fears were anecdotal, but now that we have some data, they aren’t bearing out.”

The researchers defined screen time as video games, smartphones, tablets, computers and anything with a user interface and a screen.

Since 1997, time spent with digital technology has risen 32% among 2- to 5-year-olds and 23% among 6- to 11-year-olds, the team’s previous papers found. Even before the pandemic, adolescents spent 33 hours a week using digital technology outside a school setting.

The research also explained the tendencies of 18- to 30-year-olds.

Adults who had strict guidelines placed on them as children — such as time constraints and other restrictions — do not spend any less time using technology compared to those who had fewer guidelines. However, children who had access to fewer devices tend to use technology slightly less, albeit the relationship found is weak.

Stefanie Mollborn, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Institute of Behavioral Science, said, “Young adults who hang out with a lot of people who are parents spend more time with technology. Those whose friends are single tend toward higher use than the married crowd. College students, meantime, tend to believe they spend more time with technology than they ever have before or ever plan to again.

“Teens, however, are facing a new challenge due to the pandemic. It seems many teens now heavily rely on social media and other technology and devices for social interaction with their friends. Teens and parents both acknowledge how important this time and usage is, and we know developmentally, peers are critical to teens.”

Other areas of technology use may deserve more consideration from parents when regarding children’s health, according to the research. For example, the research found that adolescents who play video games more frequently exercise less, but for the most part, digital technology does not necessarily extract exercise. What seems to be the case is that adolescents prefer to engage with new media such as YouTube, rather than old media such as television.

Mollborn said, “What brought us to the study was the question of if a young person starts using technology at a young age does that set them on a path where technology determines how they function. … As people’s social context changes, their technology use changes as they go through life. So how much they used technology as a teenager matters a little bit, but it doesn’t matter much at all, relative to other things, some which can be explained, and some can’t.”