‘All day on a screen’ doesn’t affect teens’ mental health, study finds

Oxford scientists say days spent looking at screens isn't harming teens' mental health (Getty)
Oxford scientists say days spent looking at screens isn’t harming teens’ mental health (Getty)

Teenagers who stare at screens all day are not ruining their mental health like many parents seem to think, Oxford scientists have found.

Spending time on social media or watching television is not linked to depression and emotional problems among tech-hungry teens, according to a new study.

Children aged between five and 16 in the UK spend on average more than six hours a day looking at screens, including television, computers and mobile phones.

The boom in digital entertainment combined with staying indoors during lockdown has fuelled concerns that ‘all this screen time’ could be damaging children’s mental health.

But scientists at the University of Oxford have found little evidence to support parents’ wildest tech fears.

More research is needed for a verdict on how screens impact mental health, especially among young people.

But for this to happen, big tech firms have to start playing ball, the researchers say.

Author Dr Matti Vuorre said: ‘If we want to understand the relationship between tech and well-being 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.’

The researchers analysed data on 430,000 teenagers living in the UK and United States to see whether different kinds of screens impacted their mental health.

They looked at whether spending more time on social media was linked to depression or emotional and behavioural problems.

Also, whether watching more television had an effect on these mental health conditions or led to having suicidal thoughts.

Overall, eight associations between digital devices and mental health issues were explored and only three showed some change over time, the researchers found.

The effects of using social media and sitting in front of the telly on mental health became weaker, the researchers found.

Children who spent more time on social media were more likely to experience emotional problems, but only slightly.

MERSIN, TURKEY - DECEMBER 11: Controller Gamepad of Xbox Gaming Console is seen as a television screen displays Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 Video game in back of it, in Mersin, Turkey on December 11, 2019. (Photo by Sezgin Pancar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Children aged between five and 16 in the UK spend on average more than six hours a day looking at screens (Getty)

Being glued to a screen did not however fuel behavioural problems or suicidal thoughts, the researchers found.

The findings suggest more research is needed before policies to promote or regulate screen time are put forward.

Senior author professor Andy Przybylski said: ‘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.’

One of the main challenges is accessing data on how teenagers are using digital devices from big tech firms.

Professor Przybylski said: ‘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.’

The findings were published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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