Time spent on smartphones isn’t damaging teens’ mental health

In the last decade, many commentators have expressed concern over how much time we spend using technology and its effects on mental health. This is particularly an issue with younger people, who can experience high rates of cyber bullying and can have adverse reactions to social media. However, teens themselves don’t necessarily agree, with surveys showing they are aware of the potential downsides of using technology but are also positive about its benefits.

A new study from the University of California, Irvine, investigated this issue by tracking how much time teens spent on their phones and seeing if this was linked to worse mental health outcomes. And spoiler alert: The researchers didn’t find a link between technology use and mental health. The team surveyed over 2000 young people and then specifically tracked the smartphone use of nearly 400 subjects between the ages of 10 and 15 for two weeks. They also collected information about the teens’ mental health status three times per day during the same period.

Having collected this data, they looked at whether teens who spent more time with digital technologies were more likely to experience mental health problems later, and whether spending more time on technology on a particular day was linked to worse mental health on that day. They found the answer was no in both cases.

“Contrary to the common belief that smartphones and social media are damaging adolescents’ mental health, we don’t see much support for the idea that time spent on phones and online is associated with increased risk for mental health problems,” lead author Michaeline Jensen, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, said in a statement.

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Instead, the researchers suggest that to improve teens’ mental health, we should focus on their overall quality of life. “It may be time for adults to stop arguing over whether smartphones and social media are good or bad for teens’ mental health and start figuring out ways to best support them in both their offline and online lives,” Candice Odgers, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, said.

The findings are published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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