Today, teenagers and young adults have access to affordable technology that was out of reach to young people just three decades ago. The explosion in the number of digital entertainment options, combined with the recent lockdowns, has generated a debate. The discussion surrounds the potentially damaging effects that tech might have on young people’s long-term mental health.
A new study published in Clinical Psychological Science might surprise some of you. The research suggests that there has not been a pronounced increase in the link between technology use in the last three decades with mental health disorders.
So are smartphones or computers anywhere near as detrimental to our mental health as we once thought?
A landmark study of UK and US adolescents
Many participants took part in the study, including 430,000 young people from both the UK and the USA. To see if mental health would be affected by technology, the researchers focused on social media, television and digital devices. The researchers tried to find links between the devices and problems such as emotional issues, depression and suicidality.
If technology and social media use are linked to a decline in our emotional and mental wellbeing, the researchers would have expected to see a strong correlation between the eight associations.
Of the eight associations in the study, only three showed even the slightest change as time progressed. Social media use was one of the only factors that demonstrated some link with an increase in emotional problems. Again, however, the association was only slight.
Watching television and using social media was not strongly associated with depression. Despite the number of people using technology, the researchers could not find a relationship between technology engagement and conduct problems or suicidality.
What can be learned from the research?
One of the lead authors of the paper, Matti Vuorre, commented on the findings made by his team:
“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.”
The harmful effects that modern tech might be having on young people has been debated for decades now. Continued research into the link between new technologies and their impact on health will give us sharper, more precise insights.
Research about how social media and technology influences mental health has been limited to links and relationships. Until the underlying factors that cause these links are found, it might be too soon to draw firm conclusions about the long-term effects. However, as time goes on, we will start to get a much clearer picture of the associations between social media and adolescent mental health. Andy Przybylski, the senior author of the study, said:
“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.”
Technology is now deeply entwined with our everyday lives. Whether you are a child, teenager, or adult, you will have at least some modern phone or computer experience. Despite the anxiety many of us have about the impact these devices can have on our mental wellbeing, papers like this might help to alleviate some concerns.
- Vuorre, M., Orben, A. and Przybylski, A.K. (2021). There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased. Clinical Psychological Science, [online] p.216770262199454. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702621994549 [Accessed 7 May 2021].