More evidence teen smartphone use & screen time is not associated with mental health problems
A robust new study tracking associations between adolescent digital technology use and mental health problems has found absolutely no link between excessive smartphone use and depression, loneliness or suicidal ideation. The research follows on from a recent study that did find a potential link between frequent social media use and increased feelings of distress in teenage girls, but the association was attributed to disruptions in sleep and exercise rather than the medium itself.
Mental health problems in adolescents have been rapidly rising over the past decade. The trend is strikingly clear, however what is not clear is what is causing the increase. Many commentators have unsurprisingly pointed to the growth of digital media, smartphones and social media as the most probable culprit. But so far, there has been very little evidence to back up that hypothesis. In fact, a great deal of research suggests screen time and social media use is not particularly related to mental health outcomes in young people.
A new longitudinal study, tracking nearly 400 adolescents over several years, has again found no correlation between increased digital technology usage and mental health problems. The subjects studied were aged between 12 and 15, with daily technology use measured via self-reporting across a number of different measures, including number of text messages sent each day, and hours spent using a device each day. Time spent on digital devices was broken down to separate social media communications from school work or content creation.
The results revealed no association between frequent technology use and increased mental health issues. The researchers note only two significant associations appearing in the data, and both were somewhat unexpected. Most strangely, the study showed the more text messages an individual sent, the lower the depression symptoms reported. Higher levels of time spent on technology for school work was also found to be linked with frequent ADHD symptoms.
“Contrary to the common belief that smartphones and social media are damaging adolescents’ mental health, we don’t see much support for the idea that time spent on phones and online is associated with increased risk for mental health problems,” says Michaeline Jensen, a psychologist working on the research from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The study follows on from another recently published paper looking at data from almost 10,000 teenagers aged between 13 and 16. That research found higher levels of psychological distress could be associated with very frequent social media use. This association was primarily identified in girls and not boys.
Digging into the behavioral data the researchers suggest the correlation between reduced well-being and social media use is not due to the effects of the technology but rather more related to factors such as loss of sleep, lack of exercise and exposure to cyberbullying.
“Our results suggest that social media itself doesn’t cause harm, but that frequent use may disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health such as sleeping and exercising, while increasing exposure of young people to harmful content, particularly the negative experience of cyber-bullying,” explains Russell Viner, lead on the research from University College London.
The research recalls compelling work from a team of Oxford University researchers published earlier this year finding digital technology use having a minimal effect on a young person's overall negative well-being. Accounting for a large array of factors that influence a young person’s well-being, that Oxford research concluded wearing glasses seemed to confer a greater negative effect on adolescent well-being than digital technology use.
Candice Odgers, from University of California, Irvine, who worked on this latest study with Michaeline Jensen, suggests it is now important to broaden the conversation past simply blaming smartphones and social media for all the problems arising in modern youth, and instead start discussing how to better support our teenagers.
“It may be time for adults to stop arguing over whether smartphones and social media are good or bad for teens’ mental health and start figuring out ways to best support them in both their offline and online lives,” says Odgers.
The new research was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Source: University of California, Irvine