Not All Screen Time Is the Same

An enormous new study suggests that smartphones aren’t bad for teens’ mental health. The research underscores how we’ve oversimplified the questions we ask about screen time.

a cell phone screen
Ben White/Unsplash

Screens are bad, especially for young people is an enticing piece of modern day common wisdom. “Our kids are literally dying because of excessive cell phone use,” writes a therapist on Psychology Today. A Medium piece offers up “signs your child might be addicted to tech.” An Atlantic cover story asking “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” became the fifth most engaging story of 2017, according to Chartbeat. In it, Jean Twenge argued that those born between 1995 and 2012 should be thought of as ‘iGen,’ a group of people growing up in a world where the internet and smartphones are ubiquitous, and harmful. This reality would mean their emotional states would suffer from this new screen-filled normal; the kids of today, Twenge wrote, are “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.”

Well, researchers just published a thorough assessment in Nature Human Behaviour on screen time and mental health in teens, and it turns out that on balance, screens don’t seem to be harming them. Examining datasets including a whopping 355,358 people, researchers found that there is a negative association between screen time and teen wellbeing, but it is so itty bitty as to be practically meaningless. Digital technology use at most accounts for a dip of about half a percent in the well being of teens—putting it on par with the mental health hazard of eating potatoes.

This study doesn’t separate correlation from causation—meaning that it doesn’t assess if teens are being made slightly worse of by their screens, or if screens are attracting slightly sadder teens. But the effective message is that the difference on a population level is so incredibly slight it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Takes on whether screens are good or bad have “taken the media by storm,” says first author of this new paper Amy Orben, an experimental psychologist at Oxford. This is happening in part because phones’ newness makes them an easy scapegoat, Lisa Guernsey argued cogently in Slate in 2017. But the research itself has been all over the map, too, That’s likely because “there are millions of ways to analyze the data,” says Orben, which means researchers end up making choices that subtly bias the results. To combat that, she and her co-author Andrew Przybylski looked at the results of hundreds of thousands of statistical analyses in their giant data set. “Many thousands of theoretically defensible analysis options revealed negative correlations, each could have been a paper claiming negative technology effects,” they wrote of the results. But many others yielded results that were insignificant, and still others contained results supporting a narrative that’s optimistic about tech.

It’s not that screens are fine—it’s that that’s too general of a question, like asking if sugar is good or killing us (something that we also do). With sugar you’d need to ask, “is it chocolate cake every hour? A granola bar every month?,” says Orben. When it comes to screens are kids looking at, “thin models on Instagram? Skyping with Grandma?” Przybylski even published a paper in 2017 suggesting that moderate screen time might actually be helpful to teen mental health, which he called the “Goldilocks hypothesis.”

Like many substances we interact with on a regular basis—sugar, water, carbon dioxide, wine, parabens, family members—screens can be toxic. But it depends greatly on the context and dose; the parameters of which are discoverable through more nuanced research, and, on a personal level, the hard work of introspection.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.