The results of a recent study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science are bound to surprise (and perhaps relieve) many parents. Researchers found no connection between the time kids and teens spend online and mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety. In fact, they found a small association showing that young people who sent more text messages actually reported better mental health.
Online connections can boost mental health.
Candice Odgers, professor of psychological science at the University of California-Irvine, worked on the study and was recently a guest on Scientific American’s 60-Second Science podcast. “Now, again, this was a small association, but it reflects what other people have found, that people who are very connected offline, that use technology in the positive ways to stay connected often are more connected online as well and experiencing better mental health,” she explained.
The study tracked the behavior of approximately 400 North Carolina students ages 10-14 over several years. The group included kids of all races and socio-economic backgrounds. Researchers found that, on average, they spend five to seven hours a day on their devices.
However, not everyone agrees.
The issue of mental health and screen time is hotly debated among researchers. In an article published in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, argues that “rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Other researchers are not so sure. In an interview with NPR, Amy Orben, a psychologist at Oxford University, said lots of factors can negatively impact a teen’s mental health. Also, kids today might be more willing to talk openly about their mental health challenges, in part due to the influence of social media. “A lot of teenagers are a lot more OK to say they’re not OK,” she said.
Common sense is key.
While scientists disagree on the severity of screen time’s effects on the mental health of kids, most can get behind common-sense limitations. For parents, that means making sure their teens aren’t using their phones in their bedrooms late at night, and always encouraging a healthy balance of exercise and in-person time with friends and family.
If you’re concerned about your child’s device usage, you can do more than just track the hours they spend online. Experts at Central Michigan University developed a tool to help determine whether or not kids are “addicted” to screen time.