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Is technology use linked to poor mental health in young people? New data suggests not

Exposure to technology over time has little to no impact on mental health, according to new findings.

In a study conducted by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, use of electronic devices had a limited affect – if any at all – on rates of mental health issues.

Examining data from over 430,000 adolescents in the UK and US over a 30-year period, the team specifically looked at digital device use, social media use and television viewing and their impact on rates of depression, emotional problems, conduct problems and suicidal thoughts.

Out of the 8 associations they studied, the team found that just 3 changed over time: the link between depression and both social media and television viewing became weaker, while the link between social media use and emotional problems became stronger.

Even in the event that an association increased, the increase was too small to confirm a genuine link.

Changes in conduct problems or suicidal thoughts in response to technology use were also inconsistent.

The findings suggest that fears of ever-evolving technologies becoming more harmful to the mental health of young people is unclear and unfounded.

However, more long-term data with better methods of measuring technology engagement is needed to truly confirm any link with mental health, say the study authors.

“As more data accumulates on adolescents’ use of emerging technologies, our knowledge of them and their effects on mental health will become more precise," says Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research, Oxford Internet Institute and senior author of the study.

"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."

Previous work by Przybylski has challenged the introduction of policies to protect young people from technology use, specifically with regards to gaming.

In a survey of almost 3300 gamers, Przybylski and his team found that the more a person played video games, the better their mental wellbeing was likely to be.

The conclusion contradicts previous claims linking gaming with adverse effects on mental health and brings into question plans for a regulator to protect children from “excessive screen time” that were announced by Boris Johnson’s government last year.

The strength of the conclusion relied on its approach to measuring emotional responses to gaming: rather than solely relying on self-reported survey results, the team measured actual gaming time and compared it to questionnaire responses.

The result was a more accurate picture of respondents' mental health over time, according to the study authors, which Przybylski described as "a template for crafting high-quality evidence to support health policymakers."

Przybylski and his team call for similar approaches to analysing the link between technology and mental wellbeing, suggesting that stronger relationships between technology organisations and researchers are needed for more conclusive evidence to be gathered.

“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," says Przybylski.

To read the full study, click here.


Written by Marco Ricci

Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health


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