It's Not About Goldilocks

It's Not About Goldilocks

There was an interesting study on the effect of screen time for teens, testing the “Goldilocks theory” of exposure to screen time for teens. The question was whether exposure to screen time was like smoking (always bad) or like eating – it depends on whether you eat too much, too little, or just right. Thus the name Goldilocks: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. 

The conclusion of the study was that teenagers can spend a substantial amount of time on devices without harmful effects on their mental well-being, described as “thinking clearly” and “solving problems well.” But after a certain amount of time it becomes detrimental. So the study confirmed the Goldilocks idea, and determined that the tipping point was about 1 ½ to two hours a day of smartphone and computer use and three to four hours a day of video games and entertainment. Beyond these bounds, screen time negatively correlated with mental well-being.

That this was the primary concern for screen time and teens was evidenced by the title of the Wall Street Journal article describing the results: “How Much Screen Time Is Safe for Teens?” The verdict was that the study declared screen time, in appropriate amounts, safe. As long as it doesn’t affect our mental abilities, then we can all heave a huge sigh of collective relief and start buying smartphones for our 5-year-olds. 

As the Wall Street Journal article concluded: “There are still lots of reasons for worrying about your teenager, of course. They’re at special risk for car accidents, suicide and gun violence. But, with a little common sense, screen time may not be among those perils.”

But safety when it comes to screen time, is not about a Goldilocks tipping point. It’s not about finding a magic number of minutes your child can be exposed that’s “just right.” 


Because mental well-being, as defined by the study, is not the only issue related to screen time safety. It’s not even the primary issue. 

The real question is content. It’s about what they are viewing, not for how long they are viewing it. It’s about whether they can spend time on certain websites being exposed to certain material without harmful effects on their character, perspective, morals, relationships, attitudes and – dare I say it – souls.

When they are on online, they can be (and often are) exposed to images that are pornographic and violent, not to mention worldviews espousing radical Islam and neo-atheism. So when the researchers glibly suggested that car accidents, suicide and gun violence should loom much larger in a parent’s psyche as opposed to screen time, they missed the elephant in the room.

It’s not the time on the screen…

… it’s what’s on the screen.

James Emery White



Andrew K. Przybylski & Netta Weinstein, “A Large-Scale Test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis,” Sage Journals, January 13, 2017, read online.

“How Much Screen Time Is Safe for Teens?,” The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2017, read online

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.