Little association between tech and mental health problems in teens, claims study


A new Oxford University study that examined data from over 430,000 adolescents in the UK and US claims there is “little association” between technology and mental-health problems.

The Oxford researchers investigated the links between social media use and depression, emotional problems and conduct problems. Researchers also examined the associations between television viewing and suicidality as well as depression, emotional problems and conduct problems. In addition, the study explored digital device use and suicidality.

The study found little evidence for increases in associations between adolescents’ technology engagement and mental health. Over the eight associations studied, only three indicated some change over time: social media use and television viewing had become less strongly associated with depression, but, on the other hand, social media’s association with emotional problems had increased. 

The observed changes over time were, however,  small. Consistent changes in technology engagement’s associations with conduct problems or suicidality were not detected. The suggestion that technologies we worry the most about now (such as smartphones) are becoming more harmful was not consistently supported in the data analysed by the research team.

Crucially, the study highlighted a lack of long enough time frames and high enough resolution and detail in technology engagement data as key factors in hindering scientists’ ability to conclusively determine technologies’ associations to mental health, or, indeed, potential changes therein. 

Further, available data on technology engagement, such as used by the Oxford team, relies on self-reporting on things like time spent using screens, which has been found inaccurate. To enable a robust study of life in the digital age, the authors suggested an urgent need for more credible and transparent collaborations between technology companies and independent scientists.

Dr Matti Vuorre, a post-doctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and the lead author of the paper noted:

“If we want to understand the relationship between tech and wellbeing 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.”

Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research, Oxford Internet Institute and senior author of the study, added:

“As more data accumulates on adolescents’ use of emerging technologies, our knowledge of them and their effects on mental health will become more precise. 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.”

The full study, ‘There is no evidence that associations between adolescents’ digital technology engagement and mental health problems have increased’ by Dr Matti VuorreDr Amy Orben and Professor Andrew Przybylski is published open access in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Chris Price
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