Young people today are growing up in a digital world, and the hours they spend on their smartphones every day has many parents worried. But how justified are the concerns?
Among the public, there's a popular narrative that smartphones are destroying the next generation, causing a surge in teen depression, anxiety, and suicide. Yet despite all the hysteria, there's hardly any solid evidence on whether digital screen time causes mental health problems in youth.
The reality is, children and teens are not going to stop using social media anytime soon, and a new study suggests maybe they don't need to. Tracking smartphone use in American adolescents, these researchers found increased screen time is not related to worse mental health.
In fact, in some cases, the use of technology actually reduced feelings of worry and symptoms of depression among participants.
"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 psychologist Michaeline Jensen at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
For the research, Jensen and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 young people, between 9 and 15 years old, at an economically and racially diverse public school in North Carolina. These students were asked questions about their mental health symptoms three times a day and at the end of each day, they reported on their daily technology use.
A year later, a sub-sample of nearly 400 participants had their smartphone use intensively tracked by the researchers, multiple times a day for two weeks.
"In our longitudinal study of adolescents followed intensively over time on their mobile devices, we found little evidence to support a linkage, correlational or causal, between adolescents' digital technology usage and mental-health symptoms," the authors conclude.
Remarkably, the authors even found some benefits of smartphone use. Those young people who texted more, for instance, reported lower levels of depression.
"Here, instead, we see that those adolescents who spend the most time on technology creating their own content may instead be enjoying better mental health," the authors suggest.
The findings enter a mixed bag of results with small effect sizes. While some past studies have found correlations between social media use and subjective well-being, a number of other longitudinal studies have demonstrated no connection whatsoever, or associations too small to hold any meaning.
In 2017, for instance, psychologist Jean Twenge authored a widely-read article - adapted from her book - published in The Atlantic. The viral read claimed that the effect of screen activities in her research is "unmistakable", increasing the risk of depression by nearly a third among heavy users.
Over the years, however, Twenge's conclusions have been met with skepticism. When Oxford researchers used the same data, they couldn't find such a clear connection at all. Instead, they found a teenager's need to wear glasses was more predictive of mental health issues than the time they spent using digital technology each day.
At this stage, it's just too early to say how technology is impacting the newest generation and their mental health. And focusing on screen time and frequency may be a complete red herring.
"The existing literature highlights the importance of measuring both the quality and the quantity of the different types of activities youths engage in online," the authors of the new study argue, "rather than just relying on a gross sum of time spent on screens, which may include potentially beneficial social interactions with close friends alongside likely less beneficial passive viewing of content."
In other words, the key to understanding the role of technology in mental health could lie in understanding how it is used, not how often.
Children these days are socialising more and more online, and keeping them offline could isolate them from their peers. On the other hand, aimless scrolling or hours of video-watching might not be a bad thing to limit, especially if there's school work that needs to be completed.
The authors suggest that from now on, studies should focus less on screen time itself and more on how we can best educate and support the young people growing up in the digital age.
"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 psychologist Candice Odgers from the University of California, Irvine.
The findings have been published in Clinical Psychological Science.