We’re told that too much screen time hurts our kids. Where’s the evidence? | Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben | Opinion

If you had attended the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ international congress in London last week you could have been forgiven for coming away with the following thoughts. Addiction to Fortnite, the online game, is a real disorder; social media is depleting “our neurotransmitter deposits”; and “excess screen time has reduced our attention span to eight seconds, one less than that of a goldfish”.

Scary stuff! Only problem is, none of these claims is supported by facts or a drop of scientific evidence.

Fears that the digital world is harmful have proliferated for years. Narratives about smartphones, social media or video games causing mental health problems are especially popular. Rarely a month goes by without former tech luminaries turning on their creation, or the launch of a book cataloguing the negative or addictive impacts of digital technologies.

There are subtle variations, but the core idea peddled by these moral entrepreneurs and gurus follows a well-worn script. It includes headline-grabbing ideas – smartphones are destroying a generation, say, or Silicon Valley founders are pushing digital heroin while sending their own children to tech-free schools, or apps are driving teens to self-harm or even suicide.

However, in a world witnessing ecological destruction, political polarisation and growing social divides, should fears about technology really occupy the limited space in the forefront of our minds? Concerns about smartphones might fade away in the coming decade, just as anxieties about video arcades, Dungeons & Dragons and Elvis’s hips did in previous generations.

Unfortunately, the accelerating and highly lucrative hyperbole – of course, there are books to sell, detox clinics to market, speaking tours to book – has left us no closer to an answer to the key questions. Essentially, do digital technologies actually harm our children? And should we, as a society, act rapidly to stop this? The basic idea underlying these genuine concerns – one of us writes also as a parent – is that time spent on digital devices negatively affects young people; kids forgo “organic” opportunities for face-to-face socialising, opting instead for lower quality experiences such as app-based Snapstreaks or TikTok reactions.

As the story goes, a steady digital diet of this social “junk food” isn’t psychologically nutritious and it crowds out wholesome analogue experiences. Consequently, young people are falling prey to the innovative technological and psychological tricks of the all-powerful puppet masters of Silicon Valley.

While it is true that some research suggests that young people who report higher social media use show slightly lower levels of wellbeing, most of these findings are unreliable and their conclusions might amount to little more than statistical noise.

These problems are well known to scientists working on the topic, but many commentators don’t know – or don’t care – that they are cherry-picking from an evidence base riddled with errors. What’s more, sitting in on the psychiatry conference in London, you’d have had no way of knowing this is shoddy science. Instead of speculating about technology effects, we need to test how social media and life satisfaction influence each other and to do so over time. To that end, for our work (published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), we focused on a sample of more than 10,000 preteens and teens, analysing nearly a decade of longitudinal data collected from British adolescents.

Each year, teens and preteens rated their social media use and told us how satisfied they were with aspects of their life. We were interested in testing both whether changes in social media use over time actually preceded shifts in life satisfaction and whether such changes influenced subsequent social media use. In simple terms, are you more likely to “use” if you’re happy or sad?

What did we find? Well, mostly nothing! In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested, we found nothing more than random statistical noise. In the remainder, we did find some small trends over time – these were mostly clustered in data provided by teenage girls. Decreases in satisfaction with school, family, appearance and friends presaged increased social media use, and increases in social media use preceded decreases in satisfaction with school, family, and friends. You can see then how, if you were determined to extract a story, you could cook up one about teenage girls and unhappiness.

But – and this is key – it’s not an exaggeration to say that these effects were minuscule by the standards of science and trivial if you want to inform personal parenting decisions. Our results indicated that 99.6% of the variability in adolescent girls’ satisfaction with life had nothing to do with how much they used social media.

But instead of seeing these results as disappointing – as they might be in a journalistic story sense – in science the lack of an expected finding is inherently valuable, making us reconsider, challenge and update our notion of how social media is affecting us.

Where do we go from here? Well, it’s probably best to retire the idea that the amount of time teens spend on social media is a meaningful metric influencing their wellbeing. There are many good reasons to be sceptical of the role of Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in our society but it would be a mistake to assume science supports fears that every minute online compromises mental health. In fact, this idea risks trivialising and stigmatising those who struggle with mental health on a daily basis.

Moving beyond screen time to explain the interplay between technology and the wellbeing of our adolescent population requires us to face some tough questions. It’s all well and good to remember “neurotransmitter deposits” aren’t a thing, and this goldfish nonsense has been repeatedly debunked. But it remains the case that we don’t understand fully the impact of big tech on our society.

The fact is that much of the data that would enable scientists to uncover the nuanced and complex effects of technology is locked behind closed doors in Silicon Valley. Until Google, Facebook and the large gaming companies share the data being saved on to their servers with every click, tap or swipe on their products, we will be in the dark about the effects of these products on mental health. Until then, we’ll all be dancing to the steady drumbeat of monetised fear sold by the moral entrepreneurs.

Andrew Przybylski is Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII).

Amy Orben is a researcher at the OII and a lecturer in Psychology at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

Via The Morning News

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