Parents and teachers have long been concerned about the mental health effects of excessive screen time on the children we care for, and teach. Oftentimes, we compare the lived experiences of modern day teens and young adults with what we went through at that age. Legitimate worries are attributed to questions surrounding disproportionate tech use – questions such as:
- Are students today less fit and healthy than they were before the World Wide Web became mainstream?
- What are the negative mental health effects of social media on adolescents?
- Is there a causal link between tech use and mental health issues in teens?
- Has technology usage increased the prevalence of mental health issues in teens?
The short answer to the last question is that there’s not enough evidence to suggest that tech use has increased mental health issues in teens – that, at least, is the conclusion of a recent Oxford University study. Unfortunately, however, the directness of this conclusion was lost on the BBC who made the unforgivable blunder of misrepresenting the study completely. Their headline shockingly reads ‘Teens, tech and mental health: Oxford study finds no link’
To most professionals in education this BBC headline, and indeed the conclusions of the actual study itself, seem premature, inaccurate and potentially misleading given evidence that has arisen from other studies that aimed to investigate causal links between screen time and mental health issues in children, teens and young adults.
So, what was special about the Oxford study? Were the researchers even able to come to such a broad, valid conclusion in the first place? I will answer these questions via a series of bullet-points:
- The sample size was large, with 430,561 teenagers and high school children being involved in the study
- Only UK and US students were studied
- Participants were aged 10 – 15 years old
- The data was collected by MTF (since 1991), UndSoc (since 2009) and YRBS (since 1991). Only 40,000 out of the 430,561 students were from the UK.
- Only 139,264 of of the participants were asked about their social media usage (because, of course, much of the data was collected before 2009, which is when social media became accessible via mobile devices).
So, basically, what have the Oxford team done? That’s right – they’ve taken legacy data, overwhelmingly biased towards the American demographic, and analyzed the results using some statistical tests. Apparently, this is enough for the esteemed academics at Oxford to come to the conclusion that “There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased”. The BBC takes this adulteration further by boldly stating that “There remains ‘little association’ between technology use and mental-health problems, a study of more than 430,000 10 to 15-year-olds suggests.“
A teacher’s perspective
I’m personally quite angry by the misleading messages that these inaccurate conclusions have transmitted to the masses. Anyone reading the BBC article, in particular, would think that there’s no need to be concerned about excessive screen time and social media usage in teens. The real story, however, is quite different:
- A Dutch study involving 10,000 participants in Rotterdam concluded that smartphones are causing nearsightedness in children. This has also been backed up by studies and observations in Canada, America and Ireland.
- The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health caused shockwaves in 2016 with the conclusion of its study: that smartphone and tablet use correlates strongly with obesity in teens. Similar findings have come from a number of respectable sources, including a massive, global joint study between Stanford University and the American National Institutes of Health which was concluded in 2015.
- Sleep-deprivation is a common side-effect of smartphone and tablet addiction. Research from the Division of Cardiology at the University of California (San Francisco), for example, has found that the use of mobile devices near bedtime is connected with low-quality sleep.
However, these aforementioned studies focus on the physical effects of screen time on children: nearsightedness, obesity and sleep-deprivation. The Oxford ‘study’ focused on mental health issues, so what point am I am trying to make?
Do causal links exist between nearsightedness, obesity, sleep-deprivation and mental health in children and teens?
- A number of studies have reported significant associations between obesity and poor psychological wellbeing in children but findings have been inconsistent. A 2007 study of 3,898 children from England concluded that “being overweight, rather than obese, had no impact on overall reported mental health.” However, “17% of children with obesity were above the suggested screening threshold for emotional problems“.
- Perhaps the most obvious link occurs between sleep-deprivation and mental health, and numerous studies conclude that a causal relationship does exist. A 2013 study concluded, for example, that “early sleep deprivation in childhood may result in long-term behaviour issues” and even that “sleep problems impact core symptoms of common neurodevelopmental disorders”.
Studies such as these seem to have been ignored by the Oxford team. Maybe, however, I’m making tentative links between mental health and physical problems, and then linking those tentatively to screen-time and social media usage?
Hold your horses, because there’s more.
A report published by the Telegraph includes a headline is enough to stun any parent or teacher:
Children spend up to 10 hours a day ‘mindlessly swiping’ their mobiles, study finds
The article summarizes the findings of technological research into what young people actually do online. It’s thought to be the first time that technology has been used to analyse the mobile-device usage habits of children.
The findings are alarming:
- Behavior is compulsive, with young people typically spending no longer than one-minute looking at any particular page of content before swiping to something else
- Social media takes up hours and hours of teenagers’ free time
- Children from ‘low-income’ households seem more prone to compulsive use of social media than others
- Many children in the study admitted to falling asleep at night whilst on their phones
- Many children admitted that they felt that their compulsions were “mindless” and “pointless”, but felt compelled to use their smartphones on a near-constant basis anyway because there’s a feeling of incompleteness or ‘losing out’ when the phone is not being checked.
- Some children in the study felt the need to check their phones whilst actually being interviewed by the research panel
In many cases, children are spending up to 12 hours on their phones per day! Take this shocking example for instance (quoted from the Telegraph article):
Typical was Olympia, aged 17, who in one 24-hour period spent 3.3 hours on Snapchat, 2.5 hours on Instagram, 2 hours on Face Time, 2.4 hours on What’s App and 1.8 hours on Safari – a total of 12 hours.
I could go on to explore more sources to support the argument that social media usage, and screen-time, negatively affect the mental health of teens and children. I fear that this blog post would become a behemoth of statistics if I were to do that, however, so I’ll leave you with a few links to peruse yourself:
- Ofcom 2017 ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report‘. Amongst the key findings were the shocking revelation that 77% of 12-15 year olds play computer games for around 12 hours per week, and 99% go online for around 21 hours per week. The 2020 report suggests that screen-time has increased, with children using devices for a much wider-variety of purposes than in 2017.
- A November 2020 study by the University of British Columbia found that “Longer screen time (more than two hours a day) was associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and optimism, and higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
I think it was highly negligent of the University of Oxford to ignore the links that clearly exist between screen time and….
- Lower levels of life satisfaction and optimism [UBC]
- Higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms [UBC]
As an influential university, Oxford should really have done it’s due diligence before releasing the paper. The message that has been interpreted: that no causal link exists between tech use and poor mental health, is just plain wrong. The BBC, also, should be held to account for their blatant dilution of the study’s findings: from “There’s not enough evidence to suggest that mental health issues have increased as a result of tech” (the Oxford conclusion) to “No link exists between teens, tech and mental health”.
If anything, today’s blog post has been an interesting expose’ of big institutions, and their overwhelming negligence despite their good public standing.