Thursday, July 9, 2020

Healthy Habits: Screen Use and Teen Mental Health

Youth are growing up in a digital world with screen time and social media being a part of their daily routine. Some experts are divided on whether an increase in teen suicides in the United States can be attributed to an increased use of social screen media. New research findings published in Wiley Online Library's Developmental Science journal suggest that current survey data does not support the contention that there are links between screen use and mental health issues.

The "Links Between Screen Use and Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents Over 16 Years: Is There Evidence for Increased Harm?" journal article is based on research by Chris Ferguson, PhD, professor of psychology at Stetson University. Dr. Ferguson is a media effects, screen, video game and virtual reality expert.

The research study used the Florida Youth Risk Behavior Survey data from 2001-2017 to track effect sizes for screen/depression correlations. A second dataset from the United Kingdom Understanding Society was used to study the association between the time spent on social media and emotional problems. Dr. Ferguson's research indicates that screen use and social media are not associated with teen mental health issues and there is no evidence that shows screen time has contributed to the rise in teen suicides.

I had a chance to interview him to learn more.

Why has it sometimes been speculated that there may be a link between screen use and mental health?
Well, we see this fairly often when new technology are introduced into society. We've seen previous moral panics on rock music, Dungeons and Dragons and "violent" video games. It's just social media's turn. So we're seeing some big claims about social media contributing to a recent rise in teen suicides, ignoring the fact that middle aged adult suicides are far more prevalent and have seen a great increase in numbers. Generally, people seem eager to blame our problems on technology and media. So we'll see more headlines comparing social media to heroin and other, honestly, ridiculous claims.

Are there negative impacts screen use can have on mental health?
The good news is there doesn't seem to be evidence for a direct relationship between screen use and mental health. Screen time in general is a poor predictor of mental health and there's no reason to believe that screens have any involvement with youth suicides (even the belief that 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix show about teen suicide was dangerous has largely been discredited). 

However, there are some legitimate risks that do come with social media. Privacy concerns are an issue and teens may put too much personal information on the internet. With the explosion of "cancel culture", anything ill-considered that teens put on the internet could haunt them for life. Many people behave badly online, so teens (and adults!) may be exposed to bullying, harassment and other noxious behaviors online. So it's important for parents to talk to their kids about internet safety.

What are some ways that screen use can actually be beneficial for mental health?
Particularly during the covid era, social media has become essential for people (and teens) to stay in contact when face to face interactions are hard. There's no getting around that. All screens can be helpful to reduce stress, remain socially active, and to keep busy. Video games and social media undoubtedly played a positive role in helping kids stay happy and safe, and keep in contact socially during a very difficult time. Hopefully we're turning a corner on our societal reaction to technology and media.

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