Too much blame on screen time?
Screen time given too much blame for its effect on young people's mental health, study finds
Posted on 21.01.2019
Among the many perils that face young people, screen time is one that looms large, at least if mainstream media is to be believed.
But a recent study has found the negative effects of digital technology may have been overstated.
In fact, screen time has such a small negative correlation with adolescents’ psychological wellbeing it is on par with eating potatoes, according to the study, published this week in Nature Human Behaviour.
While that may seem like a strange parallel to draw, it illustrates the fact the overall effect of using digital technology on youth mental health is miniscule, said lead author Amy Orben, from the University of Oxford.
“What it shows us is digital technology use in general, in the whole context of a child’s and adolescent’s life, is less important than a lot of the public debate makes it out to be,” Ms Orben said.
Don’t shoot the messenger app
Parents’ uncertainty around how their kids use technology, especially social media, is largely driven by fear of the unknown, said Brad Ridout, a University of Sydney psychologist specialising in technology and young people’s wellbeing.
“A childhood today looks very different to previous generations — the generation before’s childhood looked different to the one before that,” said Dr Ridout, who was not involved in the study.
“I think there’s generally a lack of appreciation for how intertwined the online and offline worlds are for our kids. It’s not a clear separation like there was 20 years ago.”
But kids are still kids, he pointed out. What used to be notes passed across the classroom or gossip spread in the playground now happens using different tools.
“That can obviously bring added risk, but it can also bring added benefit,” Dr Ridout said.
“There’s no doubt that problematic internet use can have a serious impact on wellbeing, but the data shows that this affects just a very small percentage of adolescents.”
What’s more, kids often use their time online to build important connections with peers, he said.
“Social media’s actually played a huge role in destigmatising help-seeking for depression and self-harm and mental health issues,” Dr Ridout said.
“Saying screens are bad is like saying food is bad. Obviously some foods are better than others but if you were going to spend all of your time eating, even if it was healthy food, you’re going to run into trouble.”
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