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Research: Teens’ engagement with technology ‘does not increase mental health problems’

There is little evidence to suggest that teenagers’ engagement with technology affects their mental health, a study by Oxford University researchers found.

The Oxford Internet Institute study explored the links between social media use and depression, emotional problems and conduct problems among 10-15 year-olds. Researchers also examined the associations between television viewing and suicidality as well as depression, emotional problems and conduct problems. In addition, the study explored digital device use and suicidality.

“There is therefore little evidence for increases in the associations between adolescents’ technology engagement and mental health. Information about new digital media has been collected for a relatively short time; drawing firm conclusions about changes in their associations with mental health may be premature. We urge transparent and credible collaborations between scientists and technology companies,” the report said.

Data from over 430,000 adolescents in the UK and US was examined to investigate how associations between adolescents’ technology use and mental health have changed over the past 30 years.

Over the eight associations studied, only three indicated some change over time:

- Social media use and television viewing had become less strongly associated with depression.

- Social media’s association with emotional problems had increased. The observed changes over time were, however, small. 

- Consistent changes in technology engagement’s associations with conduct problems or suicidality were not detected.

- The suggestion that technologies we worry the most about now (such as smartphones) are becoming more harmful was not consistently supported in the data analysed by the research team.

However, the study highlighted a lack of long enough time frames and high enough resolution and detail in technology engagement data as key factors in hindering scientists’ ability to conclusively determine technologies’ associations to mental health, or potential changes.

Available data on technology engagement, which was used in this study, relies on self-reporting on things like time spent using screens, which has been found inaccurate. The authors suggest an urgent need for more credible and transparent collaborations between technology companies and independent scientists, to enable a robust study of life in the digital age.

Lead author Dr Matti Vuorre, a post-doctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “If we want to understand the relationship between tech and wellbeing today, we need to first go back and look at historic data – as far back as when parents were concerned too much TV would give their kids square eyes – in order to bring the contemporary concerns we have about newer technologies into focus.”

Senior author Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research, Oxford Internet Institute added: “As more data accumulates on adolescents’ use of emerging technologies, our knowledge of them and their effects on mental health will become more precise. So it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions about the increasing, or declining, associations between social media and adolescent mental health, and it is certainly way too soon to be making policy or regulation on this basis.

“We need more transparent and credible collaborations between scientists and technology companies to unlock the answers. The data exists within the tech industry, scientists just need to be able to access it for neutral and independent investigation,” he added.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet.

There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased

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