New study finds no link between teen tech use and mental health problems
Over the past century there have been frequent societal concerns over the impact of novel technologies on the well-being of young people. Yet, as time passed, those concerns were consistently forgotten and apprehensions quickly shifted to the next new technology. A new study from the University of Oxford has analyzed 30 years of data tracking the relationship between young peoples’ technology engagement and mental health, from television watching to smartphone social media use, and found little to no association.
"If we want to understand the relationship between tech and well-being today, we need to first go back and look at historic data – as far back as when parents were concerned too much TV would give their kids square eyes – in order to bring the contemporary concerns we have about newer technologies into focus," explains the study’s lead author Matti Vuorre, from the Oxford Internet Institute.
In the early 20th century the rapid popularity of household radio sparked concern amongst parents in the United States. By the mid-1930s nine out of 10 households owned a radio, and it was estimated children spent up to three hours a day listening to the devices. A parenting magazine at the time voiced the common concern that excessive radio listening may be harming children and parents were powerless to fight it.
“We may question the quality of its offering for our children, we may approve or deplore its entertainments and enchantments; but we are powerless to shut it out ... it comes into our very homes and captures our children before our very eyes,” the magazine claimed.
The rise of comic books, television and video games all spawned similar, and ultimately baseless, panics over the subsequent decades. The new research looked at 30 years of data spanning three large-scale studies to try and detect whether teenage metal health problems have increased over time in relation to their engagement with technology. Digital device and social media use by recent adolescents was compared to television use by adolescents across the 1990s and early 2000s.
Overall, the study found little evidence to show technology use is becoming more harmful to a young person’s mental health over time. There was some evidence social media use was slightly linked with increased emotional problems in young people, however, contrasting this the data revealed a decrease in the relationship between technology use and depression over the past decade.
Andrew Przybylski, director of the Oxford Internet Institute and senior author on the new study, has been researching the impact of new technology on mental health for several years. His prior work found digital screen time has little impact on teenage well-being or children’s sleep patterns.
He has argued for more nuance in academic screen time studies, pointing out not all screen time is created equal, and instead of generating broad recommendations limiting digital device use in the young there needs to be greater focus on how the technology is being used.
"As more data accumulates on adolescents' use of emerging technologies, our knowledge of them and their effects on mental health will become more precise," says Przybylski. "So, it's too soon to draw firm conclusions about the increasing, or declining, associations between social media and adolescent mental health, and it is certainly way too soon to be making policy or regulation on this basis.”
The new study was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Source: Oxford Internet Institute
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Is online bullying a tech use problem or a problem that happens to use tech? Should one blame the tech for people's abhorrent behaviour even if it does facilitate that behaviour?