‘Little to no increase’ in link between childhood mental health issues and digital tech use, researchers say

WASHINGTON — It’s never been easier for kids to spend all day staring at various screens. Besides all the endless options at their fingertips, going outside and seeing other people has been discouraged for over a year now. Regardless of the pandemic, many parents say they worry about how technology is influencing their children’s mental health. Surprisingly, however, a new study suggests there is little evidence of an increased association between adolescent technology use and falling mental health rates over the past 30 years.

In other words, this work does not support the popular belief that smartphones and other devices are actively harming our collective mental health.

In total, this work included 430,000 U.K. and U.S. adolescents, and looked for links between tech use and depression, anxiety, emotional issues, and conduct problems. Additionally, researchers assessed the association between TV consumption and various problems such as suicidal thoughts and depression.

Social media may cause emotional issues, but no major problems

Among eight different categories, only three showed any significant changes over time. Social media and TV use actually became less strongly connected with depression. Meanwhile, social media did see a slight uptick in regards to emotional problems. Additionally, the team did not discover any meaningful connections between modern technology and suicidal thoughts or behavioral issues.

“If we want to understand the relationship between tech and well-being today, we need to first go back and look at historic data–as far back as when parents were concerned too much TV would give their kids square eyes–in order to bring the contemporary concerns we have about newer technologies into focus,” says lead study author Matti Vuorre, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, in a media release.

“As more data accumulates on adolescents’ use of emerging technologies, our knowledge of them and their effects on mental health will become more precise,” says Andy Przybylski, director of research at Oxford Internet Institute and senior author of the study. “So, it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions about the increasing, or declining, associations between social media and adolescent mental health, and it is certainly way too soon to be making policy or regulation on this basis.”

“We need more transparent and credible collaborations between scientists and technology companies to unlock the answers. The data exists within the tech industry; scientists just need to be able to access it for neutral and independent investigation,” Przybylski concludes.

The study appears in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.