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The ‘Goldilocks Hypothesis’ and ‘just-right’ screen time

Beautiful Goldilocks woman with bowls of too hot, too cold and just right porridge

Not too much, not too little. Just the right amount. A large scale study published in the journal Psychological Science has found that the relationship between digital screen-time and teen wellbeing is… complicated.

Just as Goldilocks in the fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears finds that moderation (in porridge (not too hot, not too cold), and beds (not too hard, not too soft)) is “just right”, so too would it seem to be for screen time.

The study, which involved 120,115 English 15-year olds and was conducted in 2016, looked at the link between digital screen time (smartphone, computer, consoles and TV) and wellbeing as measured by the 14 question Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale*.

The study, led by Andrew K. Przybylski (University of Oxford) and Netta Weinstein (Cardiff University) found that high levels of daily screen-time (e.g. 2+ hours of smartphone use) particularly on weekdays was linked to lower levels of wellbeing. But the study also found that extremely low (or no) daily screen time was also linked to lower levels of wellbeing (e.g. no smartphone use has the same negative outcomes as 2hrs per day). For smartphones, optimum wellbeing was associated with just under one hour’s use per day.

The authors call this curvilinear relationship between digital screen time and wellbeing the ‘digital Goldilocks hypothesis’, and suggest that it should replace a simplistic ‘displacement hypothesis’ – the idea that digital screen use is intrinsically harmful because it displaces (replaces) activities that would otherwise contribute positively to wellbeing (such as physical activity, in-person social interaction or even sleep).

The authors conclude that their findings support the Goldilocks hypothesis and refute the displacement hypothesis. The data suggests that moderate digital screen use may actually be contributing positively to wellbeing by enabling and empowering people to pursue their goals, be more active, feel connected with others and enjoy life. Any detrimental impact of screen time may be small and limited to extensive screen time that displaces activities that promote wellbeing.

Like other correlation or regression studies, this study does not demonstrate causality, but it does suggest that the link between screen time and wellbeing is more complicated than a dose-dependent ‘more is worse’ relationship.

The full study “A Large Scale Test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis: Quantifying the Relations Between Digital Screens and the Mental Well-Being of Adolescents” can be dowloaded here.


Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2017). A large-scale test of the goldilocks hypothesis: quantifying the relations between digital-screen use and the mental well-being of adolescents. Psychological Science, 28(2), 204-215.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.