Academic Minute Podcast
Linda Charmaraman, Wellesley College – When It Comes to Teens and Screens, Pets Can Have Surprising Benefits
Pets can have many benefits, including some that are unseen.
Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab. Her research
interests include technology and adolescent health, digital citizenship, innovative research
methods to include overlooked and hidden populations, and how social identities such as
gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and political affiliation affect wellbeing.
When It Comes to Teens and Screens, Pets Can Have Surprising Benefits
The majority of households in the U.S. have pets. Beyond the fact that pets can be adorable and loving, having them in the house can offer unexpected benefits for adolescents—particularly when it comes to screen time.
Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, my colleagues and I conducted a study of middle schoolers and their relationships with their pets, through their parents’ point of view. The most surprising finding from our study involved the relationship between pets and social technology use.
During the pandemic, teens’ use of social media rose considerably: They dealt with feelings of social isolation with the help of their digital devices. But their parents shared that pets actually helped reduce screen time. Teens would stay away from devices when they were playing with their pets.
When teens did go online, pets featured heavily on their social media—it gave them something to share, and they sought out pet-loving online communities as a way to find connection with other humans. In addition, pets provided emotional comfort during remote online classes, which could be especially distressing for teens, particularly during the early days of lockdown.
Our results indicated that pets are a source of companionship, a way to learn responsibility and become less self-centered, and a bridge to more comfortable social interactions. Parents said that teens not only relied on pets to manage anxiety and loneliness but also to process feelings of anger and grief.
The picture wasn’t entirely rosy. Many parents noted difficulties in sharing pet caretaking duties—and pets sometimes ended up more distracting than cute during remote learning technology use. But overall parents believed that the benefits of having pets outweighed the challenges. In particular, they were pleasantly surprised by the positive relationship between teens, their pets, and technology.