There is “little evidence” of a link between teens’ technology use and mental health problems, according to a new Oxford University study published Tuesday, which could throw into question the myriad policies and laws implemented under the long-held assumption that technology is harmful to children.
Over 430,000 adolescents from the U.K. and the U.S. took part in the study, which used questionnaires dating back to 1991.
The researchers—who compared mental health indicators like depression and emotional problems with watching television, social media use and device use—found small drops in the association between television and social media use and depression in those filling in the questionnaires across the thirty year period studied.
In the same period, there was a small increase in association between emotional problems and social media use, though the researchers noted in each case that the change was slight.
The researchers said the commonly-used argument that social media platforms and devices are harmful to adolescents is not borne out by the data and research available.
Professor Andy Przybylski, a senior author of the study, said it is too early to make any firm conclusions on the relationship between teen tech use and mental health and “certainly way too soon to be making policy or regulation.”
Przybylski called for more transparency from the tech sector, urging them to unlock their data for “neutral and independent investigation.”
Technology is often blamed for mental health problems among children and teens. The issue, along with enhancing privacy and wellbeing online, commands strong consensus among legislators and regulators, who often point to risks of addiction, depression and anxiety among users. While there are studies suggesting social media and device use is harmful for teens’ mental health, it is contentious and the data is emerging and incomplete for newer technologies.
The impact technology has on the mental health of teens and children is a complex and developing topic and there are a number of reports pointing to a more harmful relationship. For younger children under the age of five, the World Health Organization recommended in 2019 that they spend no more than one hour in front of a screen a day in order to boost physical activity, for example. For teens, there are numerous reports linking social media use with increases in suicide and depression. Across a number of studies, reports and polls, teenage girls seem to be particularly affected.
What We Don’t Know
This study only evaluated the time spent using the technology and did not examine how it was being used. The study relied heavily on self-reporting, which can be inaccurate.
There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased (Clinical Psychological Science)