Using social media is ‘no more harmful’ to young people’s mental health than watching TV was to youngsters in the 1990s, a new study claims.
Researchers from Oxford University used data from three large surveys to look into the lives of more than 400,000 young people in the UK and US.
It is popularly believed that new technology, particularly social media, is responsible for declining mental health among young people and a range of other social ills.
The team explored the associations between technology use and mental health problems in teenagers, declaring the link between the two is ‘thin at best’.
They found some limited link between emotional problems and social media, but no ‘smoking gun’ pointing to any wider mental health problems linked to its use.
Researchers from Oxford University used data from three large surveys to look into the lives of more than 400,000 young people in the UK and US
WHAT IS SMARTPHONE ADDICTION?
The term ‘smartphone addiction’ has often e been criticised in the scientific literature.
Some experts argue the lack of severe negative consequences compared to other forms of addiction make the name misleading.
Some say the issue isn’t with the smartphone, but it is merely a medium to access social media and the internet.
Alternative terms such as ‘problematic smartphone use’ and concepts have been proposed instead.
Despite the controversy on the term ‘smartphone addiction’, as described above, it is still the prevailing term in the scientific world.
Additionally, the psychometric instruments used in many studies explicitly refer to the concept of ‘smartphone addiction’.
In the upcoming years, a shift away from the term ‘smartphone addiction’ towards more appropriate terms, as discussed above, might be seen.
Lead author Dr Matt Vuorre says concerns of this type are not new, nor are they well justified by current data.
He compared the ‘fear of social media’ to warnings of ‘square eyes’ if children watch too much television, or that radio would turn teens to a life of crime.
Then, as now, says Dr Vuorre, the popular idea does not appear to be supported by hard evidence, or that technology use has become more harmful over time.
‘Any understanding of 21st-century adolescence would be incomplete without an appreciation of social-media platforms and other digital technologies, which have become an integral element of young people’s everyday lives over the past few decades,’ the team wrote.
The research involved three large surveys of young people who reported on their personal use of technology and various mental health-related issues.
Using this large data set, the team set about investigating links between technology use and mental health problems, and whether they have increased over time.
They studied this question by modelling four different mental health outcomes against three forms of technology use across three large nationally representative data sets.
From these eight models, they found one clinically relevant self-reported mental health outcome, depression, for which the links to technology use had become consistently less negative over time.
However, this decline was found for both television and social media.
According to Dr Vuorre, these survey responses do not establish a smoking gun link between the use of technology and mental health issues.
They found some limited link between emotional problems and social media, but no ‘smoking gun’ pointing to any wider mental health problems linked to its use
He said nor do they show technologies have become more harmful over time.
‘We did find some limited associations between social media use and emotional problems, for instance,’ he said.
The researcher added that ‘it is hard to know why they are associated.’
‘It could be a number of factors [perhaps people with problems spend more time on social media seeking peer support?].
‘Furthermore, there was very little evidence to suggest those associations have increased over time.’
In fact, according to the new research, ‘technology engagement had become less strongly associated with depression in the past decade, but social-media use had become more strongly associated with emotional problems.’
The study concludes: ‘The argument that fast-paced changes to social media platforms and devices have made them more harmful for adolescent mental health in the past decade is, therefore, not strongly supported by current data either.’
These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse as it is ‘difficult to determine the role of technology in young people’s lives’.
‘Even with some of the larger data sets available to scientists, it is difficult conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives, and how their impacts might change over time,’ said Dr Vuorre.
It is popularly believed that new technology, particularly social media, is responsible for declining mental health among young people and a range of other social ills
‘Scientists are working hard on these questions, but their work is made more difficult by the fact that most of the data collected on online behaviours remains hidden in technology companies’ data warehouses.’
In the context of older technologies, such as TV, knowledge of social-media and digital-device use is necessarily limited by their comparatively brief existence.
Therefore, researchers say their results may partly reflect the shorter observation window of social-media and digital-device use, in comparison with TV.
Dr Vuorre adds: ‘We need more transparent research collaborations between independent researchers and technology companies. Before we do, we are generally in the dark.’
The findings have been published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
METHODS FOR PARENTS TO KEEP THEIR CHILDREN SAFE ONLINE
Children as young as two are using social media, research from charity Barnardo’s has suggested.
Internet companies are being pushed to do more to combat harmful content online but parents can also take steps to alter how their children use the web.
Here are some suggestions of how parents can help their children.
Use parental controls
Both iOS and Google offer features that enable parents to filter content and set time limits on apps.
For iOS devices, such as an iPhone or iPad, you can make use of the Screen Time feature to block certain apps, content types or functions.
On iOS 12, this can be done by going to settings and selecting Screen Time.
For Android, you can install the Family Link app from the Google Play Store.
Talk to your children
Many charities, including the NSPCC, say talking to children about their online activity is vital to keep them safe.
Its website features a number of tips on how to start a conversation with children about using social media and the wider internet, including having parents visit sites with their children to learn about them together and discussing how to stay safe online and act responsibly.
Understand their internet usage
There are tools available for parents to learn more about how social media platforms operate.
Net Aware, a website run in partnership by the NSPCC and O2, offers information about social media sites, including age requirement guidance.
Limit screen time
The World Health Organisation recommends parents should limit young children to 60 minutes of screen time every day.
The guidelines, published in April, suggest children aged between two and five are restricted to an hour of daily sedentary screen time.
They also recommend babies avoid any sedentary screen time, including watching TV or sitting still playing games on devices.