Demonizing tech won’t help us

It’s not the daily quantity and frequency of technology use that drive adolescent mental health symptoms
Marco Verch, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Marco Verch, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

As a clinical psychologist who studies and works with adolescents and their families, I am often asked by parents, “Should I let my tween get a phone?” and “Should I be worried about how much time my teen is spending online?” Many of these parents have seen scary headlines warning that “screen time” might cause depression or even suicide, and they are understandably concerned for their kids.

At the same time, many parents tell me that mobile phones and the internet are useful tools for communicating with their teens, and that they want their kids to know how to use them. This conflict leaves them feeling stuck as they make day-to-day decisions about their teens’ technology use. Today’s parents are unable to turn to their own childhoods or their own parents as models to guide their decisions concerning modern communication technologies, as they are the first to parent teens in the rapidly changing digital age.

Science hasn’t provided much of a road map; it has been slow to catch up to changing trends among youth and has yielded mixed results. Early surveys have shown that kids who spend more time on technology tend to report slightly worse mental health. Unfortunately, there have been few longitudinal studies, in which the same young people are followed over time, so it has been difficult to determine whether spending more time on technology causes worse mental health, or whether youth with worse mental health choose to spend more time on technology.

Another issue is one of generalizability: Even if it were true that adolescents who spend more time online tend to have worse mental health (comparing some teens to other teens), that wouldn’t necessarily mean that a day on which an individual adolescent spends more time online is more likely to be a day when he or she experiences worse mental health symptoms (comparing each teen to himself or herself over time).

This tendency to assume that patterns observed when we compare people to each other work the same way within a single person is an example of the ecological fallacy (a related concept is called “Simpson’s paradox”). We fall prey to the ecological fallacy quite often in trying to understand human behavior, so it is important to make sure that our study designs are able to determine whether findings from studies that compare people to each other are generalizable to within-person comparisons.

Little evidence of a link between tech use and mental health

Our team (Madeleine George, Mike Russell, Candice Odgers, and I) set out to address these important questions about longitudinal and daily linkages between technology use and mental health. Adolescents in the study ranged from 10 to 15 years of age and represent the economically and racially diverse population of youth attending North Carolina public schools. In 2015 we surveyed over 2,000 early adolescents, and about two years later we followed almost 400 of them closely for 14 days. An innovative feature of this study was that it pinged adolescents’ smartphones multiple times daily to ask about their daily mental health symptoms and technology use, yielding a total of 13,017 observations over 5,270 study days.

This body of rich, intensive longitudinal data collected in the course of daily life enabled us to ask the longitudinal questions (such as “Does adolescents’ self-reported access to and use of technology predict later mental health?”) as well as the daily questions (such as “Do adolescents experience more mental health problems on days when they use more technology?) to which we most need answers.

“There are no convincing data showing that time spent using digital technologies is inherently harmful, and it appears that the quantity of technology use poses little risk to adolescents’ mental health.”

Our results are quite straightforward: We found no evidence of longitudinal or daily linkages between quantity of technology use and adolescent mental health. In our representative sample, phone ownership, having a social media account, and frequency of social media use were unrelated to mental health problems about two years later. We also found no evidence that adolescents experienced worse mental health on days when they spent more time using technology.

The only time we did see any significant links between digital tech use and mental health was when we averaged the data across the observation period (between-person findings), and these links were the opposite of what we had expected: For instance, teens who reported sending more text messages over the study period actually reported feeling better (less depressed) than teens who were less frequent texters. Another surprising result was that on average, adolescents who spent more time using technology for schoolwork (the one type of technology use that we wouldn’t expect to have negative linkages) over the two-week study reported more inattention/hyperactivity symptoms.

We also explored whether there might be a “Goldilocks” effect – in other words, whether very low use and very high use of technology might signal mental health risks, while moderate amounts would be the most adaptive. In addition, we tested a “poor-get-poorer” hypothesis, which suggests that youth with pre-existing risk factors might be most susceptible to the detrimental effects of technology use on their mental health. We found little to support either of these exploratory hypotheses.

Quality over quantity

Overall, we found very little evidence to support a linkage, correlational or causal, between the quantity of adolescent technology use and mental health.

These findings stand in stark contrast to the prevalent narrative that widespread smartphone use and increasing time spent online is a huge risk factor for mental health problems among the youth of Generation Z.

“I recommend that parents address technology use as they do other aspects of parenting: in ways that are consistent with their family values and with attention to the content and quality of what their teens are doing online.”

Now, when I’m asked for advice on how to parent adolescents around technology use, I have an evidence-based response: There are no convincing data showing that time spent using digital technologies is inherently harmful, and it appears that the quantity of technology use poses little risk to adolescents’ mental health.

I recommend that parents address technology use as they do other aspects of parenting: in ways that are consistent with their family values and with attention to the content and quality of what their teens are doing online. Most importantly, I caution them against automatically accepting the fear-filled messages that they are hearing, urging them instead to spend time with their teens so that they have a better understanding of what their children are drawn to in online spaces. After all, it is unlikely that adolescents will be giving up their smartphones or Xboxes anytime soon.

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