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New Study Finds That Screen Time Is Not Associated With Worsening Mental Health

It suggests that the widespread panic about teens and screens is at the very least overblown.

Do parents worry too much about the long-term effects of screen time on their kids? Yep! A new study published in August, and just featured on a podcast for Scientific American, demonstrates what many experts have been saying for years: Worrying about your kid’s brain melting-out because of screen time isn’t really backed by any real science.

“Despite this widespread public attention to the negative implications of technology use, the research base around technology and mental health is far from conclusive,” write the four psychology professors behind a new study in Clinical Psychological Science that explores how screen time—termed “digital technology use” by the experts—affects the mental health of young adolescents.

After acknowledging some of the potential benefits of screen time found in earlier research, they write that the “[f]indings from this EMA study do not support the narrative that young adolescents’ digital technology usage is associated with elevated mental health symptoms.”

But before you get rid of the screen time limits you’ve set for your kids, it’s important to consider what this study is and where it fits into the larger context of what we know about how digital technology use affects mental health. The authors cite earlier work finding that “the research base around technology and mental health is far from conclusive.”

The study team compared a baseline survey given to nearly 400 adolescents (living in either rural or urban regions of North Carolina) in 2015 to data from an longitudinal ecological momentary assessment designed to “facilitate in-the-moment reporting on lived experiences, such as time spent using technology and daily mental health” in the form of three daily surveys administered every day over a two-week period to the same group of adolescents.

Longitudinally, they found that “adolescents’ phone ownership, social-media access, and frequency of social media use were unrelated to later depression, worry, and inattention/hyperactivity symptoms” as well as later conduct problems and mental health symptoms. On a daily basis, greater use of digital technology was not linked to more mental health symptoms in adolescents.

The only two significant associations found by the study were that adolescents who sent more texts reported, on average, lower average depressive symptoms. Those who spent more time on technology for schoolwork on average reported more frequent symptoms of inattention/hyperactivity that could be attributed to how adolescents with various difficulties might be stuck with more computerized homework assignments.

Those who spend the most time on technology creating their own content may actually have better mental health, which makes sense when you consider the benefits of creativity to kids.

Still, self-reported data from 388 kids in North Carolina isn’t perfect, and the authors agree that objective measures of screen time like device logs and mental health like analyses of text message content is needed.

But more broadly, there’s a need to move beyond panicking about adolescents’ screen time use “and toward a more comprehensive approach to establishing best practices for educating, parenting, and supporting young people growing up in the digital age.”

One of the authors of the study said that “[t]he hope is that more parents will hear this message and relax and spend kind of less time worrying about smartphones and more time just talking to their kids.”