Screens are increasingly accepted as an important part of children and adolescents’ lives, expedited by the move to online learning and socialising due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But access to digital technology is unequal. Closing the digital divide requires viewing digital technology as a social safety net that can protect and support in times of hardship.

Digital technology can be a social safety net

Screen time, at high levels, has traditionally been viewed in mainstream media as inherently bad for young people. But the fear around screens has often arisen from assumptions and scaremongering, and not necessarily from the science. A new report from Common Sense Media summarises the evidence around ‘tweens, teens, tech, and mental health’, supporting what scientists in this area already know – that, to date, there is little evidence of a link between mental health problems and screen time.

Now that young people have been encouraged to spend more time than ever on their screens – to learn and socialise throughout the pandemic – the narrative has started to change. In the words of Professor Candice Odgers, one of the report’s authors, “the COVID-19 pandemic has finally ‘flipped the script’ on screen time”. Screens are starting to be viewed more positively, and as a crucial way for children to keep in touch with teachers, peers, and family. This is in contrast to the previously dominant narrative around children and screens, which emphasised potential links with mental ill health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has finally ‘flipped the script’ on screen time.”

The report describes digital technology as a ‘lifeline’ for many children, and calls for digital technology to be leveraged as a social safety net during the pandemic. Odgers told me that “social safety nets are programs and protections put in place to aid people in times of crisis or hardship to stabilize loss and prevent them from falling through the cracks of society”. Odgers pointed to the opportunities provided by digital technology in terms of access to learning opportunities, health care, and services that meet basic needs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The digital divide widens attainment gaps

Unfortunately access to this social safety net is not equal – there is a digital divide. According to the report, young people from low income households have less reliable access to digital technology, and are less likely to receive support and scaffolding while using devices.

Those from higher income households can use digital technology to their advantage, making the most of opportunities afforded by access, connectivity, and parental scaffolding. Unfortunately, this translates into a “rich-get-richer” outcome and the widening of attainment gaps. Clearly, as Odgers said, “all families now need reliable access to the online world and we need to ensure that the most vulnerable are not left out or left further behind”.

Odgers told me that “closing the digital divide will require public and private investments in infrastructure, equipment, and digital literacy across multiple sectors” and, importantly, “will need to involve young people in designing solutions that will stick”. Targeted recommendations for parents, teachers, the tech industry, and policymakers are given in the report.

In addition to access and connectivity, the recommendations highlight the importance of improving wellbeing, protecting mental health, safeguarding, and ensuring privacy and security. This isn’t about simply handing out a smartphone or laptop to every child – it’s about how the technology is used.

This welcome shift in narrative is paving the way for evidence-based discussions around supporting equal access to digital technology and ways to use it safely and effectively. Moving away from unrealistic limits on screens allows us to see digital technology as the lifeline it should be, rather than the risk it has previously been considered.

“Screens can and should be part of the solution to mental health concerns.”

Legitimate concerns around mental health problems and use of digital technology remain and warrant further research (see, for example, the small uncertain associations between social media and worse mental health in girls described in the report). However, screens can and should be part of the solution to mental health concerns. Digital technology should be one of many means of support available to all young people. As Odgers told me, “the digital divide can no longer be tolerated”.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter