One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and a year spent on lockdown is an increased dependence on technology.
Adolescents who were already spending much of their day online have now added virtual school and more time for gaming and social media. Electronic devices have become school and social life and lifeline to the outside world, all rolled into one.
The million dollar question is, is increased technology use harming teens’ mental health?
On the one hand, a number of studies have raised the alarm on the link between screen time and mental health. Rising rates of depression, anxiety, anti-social behavior, and suicide have all been linked to the increase in social media and other online usage.
For example, one recent study from the Education Policy Institute reports that heavy social media use leads to lower self-esteem, more psychological distress, and decreased overall wellbeing in teens ages 14 to 17.
Another disturbing study found that adolescents who spent more time online (including social media and other activities using electronic devices) were more likely to report mental health issues, while adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports, homework) were less likely.
When asked, the majority of parents say they are at least somewhat concerned about their kids’ screen time. In addition to concerns over mental health, some of the worries cited include online bullying, access to inappropriate or dangerous content, and less time spent doing real-world activities. A full 71% believe the widespread use of smartphones has resulted in more harm than benefit.
Even teens themselves are concerned. In a widely-reported Pew Research report, 54% of U.S. teens said that they spent too much time on their phones. Approximately the same percentage say they have taken steps to reduce their time spent on social media (57%) or playing video games (58%). Four-in-ten admit they feel anxious without their cellphone on them.
Overall, 56% of teens in the survey associated the absence of their cellphones with loneliness, feeling anxious or upset. And a full 9 out of 10 teens say that spending too much time using technology is a serious problem facing their generation.
Despite the abundance of academic and anecdotal evidence, other findings tell a different story.
A number of recent studies and news articles are questioning the consensus that technology is to blame for the rise in adolescent mental health problems.
Notably, a 2020 survey of the current research determined that the fears surrounding tech use have been overstated. While conceding that heavy technology use can exacerbate existing mental health problems, the team determined that the link between time spent online and the rise in teen anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, was small and inconsistent.
Even more surprising, an Oxford University study published earlier this month found “little evidence” of a connection between teens’ technology use and mental health problems. The researchers assert that the impact technology has on adolescent mental health is a developing field in need of more research, and that earlier reports of negative affects was incomplete and/or inaccurate.
The only thing that doesn’t seem to be contested is just how prevalent teen technology use is.
According to Common Sense Media and Pew, the average teen spends 7.5 hours a day using a digital device. The figure is higher when you factor in multi-tasking (texting and doing homework, scanning Instagram while watching Youtube videos). And when you consider that these numbers were pre-pandemic, there’s no doubt the amount of time teens are spending online is at an all-time high.
While psychologists and researchers continue to study the effects tech use has on adolescent mental health, one thing is for sure.
Teen technology use—like so many other adolescent issues—doesn’t have a black-or-white, one-size-fits-all answer.
Sometimes social media can support good mental health through providing resources and connection.
But sometimes time spent online contributes to less time spent in arguably healthier offline activities (such as exercising, socializing, or participating in extracurricular activities).
Sometimes smartphones can be a lifeline for depressed or lonely teens.
And sometimes, heavy technology use leads to dramatically worse mental health outcomes.
The link between technology use and adolescent health may be more complex and nuanced than originally thought. But that doesn’t mean that we hand our kids their phones and say “have at it.”
We don’t need to fully understand all there is to know about teens and tech to do something to help.
We can help teens find balance, encourage outdoor activities and regular exercise, watch for signs of a worsening mental health condition, use common sense, and don’t panic.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock, for The Forge School
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. As always, if your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.