University of California Irvine researchers studied 400 adolescents, investigating whether the time they spent using digital technology was linked to worse mental health outcomes.

By Maressa Brown
September 05, 2019
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The amount of time kids spend engaging with their devices is undoubtedly a main concern for parents and educators these days. We know from Pew Center research conducted last year that the vast majority of teens in the United States have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent are online on a near constant basis. In turn, parents can't help but wonder how practically perpetual screen time might be influencing their kids' emotional and mental well-being. Thankfully, the research community is on it; a variety of studies have attempted to shed light on the downstream effect of teens' device use. The latest, out of the University of California Irvine, has concluded that tech time shouldn't be to blame for teens' mental health challenges.

Published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, the study surveyed more than 2,000 adolescents and then more intensively tracked a subsample of 400 teens on their smartphones multiple times a day for two weeks. The kids were between 10 to 15 years old and "represented the economically and racially diverse population of youth attending North Carolina public schools," according to Science Daily.

The researchers took reports from the teens on their mental health symptoms three times a day, and the subjects also reported on their daily technology usage each night. Their goal: to see whether more time spent using digital technology was linked to worse mental health outcomes both in the long-run and short-term. And in both cases, increased digital technology use was not related to worse mental health, according to the researchers.

The authors noted that when associations were observed, they were small and in the opposite direction that would be expected. For example, adolescents who sent more texts reported feeling better/less depressed than those who were less frequent texters.

One of the study authors Candice Odgers, professor of psychological science at the University of California, concluded, "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."

It does bear noting that this finding is at odds with a study published last fall in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, which concluded that young people who spend seven hours or more a day on screens (not associated with schoolwork) are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those who use screens for an hour a day. That study was based on data from more than 40,000 kids ages two to 17 that was collected as part of the Census Bureau’s 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health. It also concluded that kids who were spending seven-plus hours per day on screens were more easily distracted, less emotionally stable, and had more problems finishing tasks and making friends compared to those who spent an hour a day on screens.

That said, it might bear noting that, as Brian Primack, a professor of medicine and pediatrics and director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, told Time.com last year, no single study can offer "a complete picture" on the effects of devices on adolescents' mental health. Ultimately, this is an area of study that the research community will need to stay on top of, as, according to Primack, "we now have enough evidence of concern that we should be exerting more caution than we are."

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