Teen screen use as harmful as eating potatoes


Analysis suggests the mental health impacts of digital tech have been markedly exaggerated. Nick Carne reports.


It could be worse. He could be eating chips.

It could be worse. He could be eating chips.

Schedivy Pictures Inc./Getty Images

The impact of screen time on the well-being of adolescents is too small to warrant policy change, according to a British study.

In fact, researchers from the University of Oxford suggest, technology use is responsible for just 0.4% of young people's mental health impact, and comparable to “the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes”.

The researchers, Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, found the impact of technology fell well short of bullying or marijuana use, which on average have a 4.3 times and 2.7 times more negative association with mental health issues. Activities such as getting enough sleep and eating breakfast also are important but are often overlooked in media coverage.

Other negative factors examined included fighting, smoking and getting arrested. Neutral factors ranged from milk, to music, to doing homework.

“While we find that digital technology use has a small negative association with adolescent well-being, this finding is best understood in terms of other human behaviours captured in these large-scale social datasets,” they write in a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Orben and Przybylski looked at data from more than 300,000 teenagers and parents in the UK and the US, making the paper, they say, the most definitive study of its kind. They stress, however, that it does not provide a “definitive answer” to the question, in part because they were indeed working with large-scale datasets.

They are confident, though, that the use of a “novel” methodology called Specification Curve Analysis avoided much of the data analysis bias that has led to conflicting and confusing results in the past.

“Even when using the same datasets, each researcher brings different biases with them and analyses the data slightly differently,” Orben says.

“Of the three datasets we analysed for this study, we found over 600 million possible ways to analyse the data. We calculated a large sample of these and found that – if you wanted – you could come up with a large range of positive or negative associations between technology and well-being, or no effect at all.”

In order to remove bias and examine practical rather than statistical significance, the researchers used information from other questions in the same dataset to put the statistical findings in context.

“Research’s reliance on statistical significance can yield bizarre results,” Orben says.

“We need to look at the size of the association to make a judgement on practical significance. If you told me the amount of time a teenager spends on digital devices, I could not do very well predicting their overall well-being, as only 0.4% is associated with technology use.”

The bottom line, the researchers suggest, is that the nuanced picture provided by their results is “in line with previous psychological and epidemiological research suggesting that the associations between digital screen-time and child outcomes are not as simple as many might think”.

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0506-1
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