In recent years, a rash of studies have suggested that digital technology can be extremely unhealthy for children. In particular, researchers have indicated that mobile devices and social media may be to blame for a steep rise in anxiety and depression among kids. Media outlets have responded by claiming that American youth faces a public-health crisis, and parents and educators have reacted to all this with varying degrees of hysteria.
Now comes along a new study that, if you believe the headlines, says there’s really nothing to worry about after all. As Forbes put it, “Screen Time May Be No Worse For Kids Than Eating Potatoes.” “Mental health risk of screens ‘no greater than wearing glasses,’” crowed the Times of London. But while the two Oxford University scientists who completed the study did conclude that it’s too early to craft policies in response to existing research on how new technologies are impacting adolescent well-being, they also didn’t say that any and all screen time is just fine for young people. Experimental psychologist Amy Orben who coauthored the study for the journal Nature Human Behaviour with Andrew Przbylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, told me that part of their goal was to move researchers and the media away from blanket statements about screen time and children’s health.
Naturally, this inspired a lot of blanket statements.
“I’ve been trying to take it all with some humor,” says Orben. “This project was really motivated by a sense of disillusionment that researchers could go and publish something and get huge press attention just because it’s about social media use.”
Orben told me she had grown concerned after noticing how studies looking at the relationships between digital-technology use and adolescent well-being could come to vastly different results despite analyzing identical data. She and Przbylski found that scientists looking at the same massive compilations of participant surveys were making opposing conclusions and claiming patterns of statistical significance due to the amount of data. Researcher bias was clearly playing a role. In their new project, Orben and Przbylski sought to neutralize those biases by applying a method called specification curve analysis across three very large sets of data collected from teens in the U.S. and UK. This method can reveal all of the possible ways one might combine and interpret variables, as well as the wide range of findings that could arise as a result. In other words, instead of walking one path through the proverbial forest of data, you can head down all the potential paths at the same time.
Looking for evidence of a correlation between adolescent well-being and digital-technology use—as reported by kids as well as caregivers—they found that overall, there was a small but statistically significant negative association, explaining at most just 0.4 percent of the variation in well-being. Using the same methodology, they also looked at the impact of other behaviors such as smoking marijuana, binge drinking, and getting bullied, all of which showed stronger negative effects on wellbeing. Eating breakfast and getting enough sleep, not surprisingly, had extremely positive associations with well-being. (And, yes, they also looked at eating potatoes, which apparently has a slightly negative effect.) Ultimately, Orben and Przbylski conclude that given the conflicting studies out there and their own findings, it’s premature for any group to make specific policy recommendations around youth and screen time.
“This is an incredibly important paper,” Candice Odgers, a psychologist who studies adolescent health and technology at the University of California, Irvine, told Scientific American. “The message … is painstakingly clear: The size of the association documented across these studies is not sufficient or measurable enough to warrant the current levels of panic and fear around this issue.”
Maybe so. But Orden and Przbylski are not telling us it’s fine to allow our teens to disappear into their phones. “Asking whether technology influences well-being is way too broad—it’s like asking whether sugar causes depression,” Orben says. “Reading a book on your Kindle, playing sudoku on your iPad, and spending eight hours a day on Snapchat are not the same. But it’s important for scientists to speak up and say we don’t actually understand this yet.”
That’s a crucial point that was lost in the hype around the study’s findings. The reality is, there are still a lot of good reasons to be cautious about how much technology we let our kids use. “First of all, we don’t even know what the long-term implications are going to be. We don’t have that data yet,” says Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology and founder of Cyber Civics, a curriculum for middle schoolers taught in more than 40 states. “Smartphones are made to capture and hold our attention. For a child, it’s a pull that’s impossible to step away from.” Graber doesn’t recommend sequestering kids from technology. Instead she argues that we need to teach them the benefits and pitfalls, so that they can manage their own use.
That would sit well with Orben. “I do feel like previous coverage about smartphones destroying a generation has been shaming parents,” says Amy Orben. “I hope this research empowers parents to really think about their child’s technology use and make their own judgments, because they are the people who know their children the best.”