Researchers find no link between tech and teen mental health

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In December, Apple will offer free coding classes to teach kids and teens.
Teens spend plenty of time using tech. Is it hurting them?
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A new study suggests that there is “little evidence” for the supposed link between technology and problems with mental health among teenagers.

The study, carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute, cross-referenced longitudinal viewing and usage habits with depression, behavioral problems, and even suicidal tendencies among 430,000 people between the ages of 10 and 15.

Some variation, but not much

In an abstract for their paper, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, the researchers write that:

“To investigate whether technology is becoming more harmful, we examined changes in associations between technology engagement and mental health in three nationally representative samples. Results were mixed across types of technology and mental health outcomes: Technology engagement had become less strongly associated with depression in the past decade, but social-media use had become more strongly associated with emotional problems. We detected no changes in five other associations or differential associations by sex.”

In other words, there was some fluctuation, but not enough to draw any specific conclusions. One of the study co-authors, Professor Andrew Przybylski, told BBC technology journalist Zoe Kleinman that, “We couldn’t tell the difference between social-media impact and mental health in 2010 and 2019.”

In the study, participants in the UK and United States graded their own responses on a set scale. They were asked about the duration of their time spent on social media. However, they weren’t specifically asked about how social media was being used.

A complex debate

The question of how technology use relates to mental health is a complex, and ongoing, debate. Researchers such as Jean Twenge have given compelling evidence on a possible correlation in works such as her book iGen. So has Jaron Lanier, the pioneer behind virtual reality. Apple has also seemingly listened, as seen through the introduction of tools like its Screen Time feature. Earlier this year, a Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma explored, as it phrased it, “the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.”

However, it’s also easy to think back to past moral panics about everything from rock-and-roll to comic books. Will we one day view the concerns about social media in the same way we view handwringing over Elvis? That remains to be seen.

For now, though, research such as this underlines just how nuanced this debate is.

What are your thoughts on this debate? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.