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Research by Oxford University academics has found little evidence of a relationship between screen time and wellbeing in adolescents. Based on data from more than 17,000 teenagers, the study casts doubt on the widely accepted notion that spending time online, gaming or watching TV, especially before bedtime, can damage young people’s mental health.
“Implementing best practice statistical and methodological techniques we found little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement and adolescent wellbeing,” said Amy Orben, a Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and College Lecturer at the Queen’s College, University of Oxford.
“While psychological science can be a powerful tool for understanding the link between screen use and adolescent wellbeing, it still routinely fails to supply stakeholders and the public with high-quality, transparent and objective investigations into growing concerns about digital technologies. Analysing three different datasets, which include improved measurements of screen time, we found little clear-cut evidence that screen time decreases adolescent wellbeing, even if the use of digital technology occurs directly before bedtime,” said Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the OII and co-author on the study.
The research found that adolescents’ total screen time per day had little impact on their mental health, both on weekends and weekdays. It also found that the use of digital screens two hours, one hour or 30 minutes before bedtime didn’t have clear associations with decreases in adolescent wellbeing, even though this is often taken as a fact by media reports and public debates.
Unlike other studies, the Oxford research analysed data from Ireland, the US and the UK to support its conclusions. The researchers used a more rigorous methodology to gather how much time an adolescent spends on screens per day, including both self-reported measures and time-use diaries. This is important as many studies investigating adolescent digital technology use are unreliable: they are based solely on self-reported digital technology use even though recent work found only one third of participants give accurate accounts of how much time they spend online when asked after the fact. Additionally, the study used preregistration, an approach that ensured scientific rigour by requiring the researchers to provide detail of how they were going to analyse the data before it was released. This prevents hypothesising after the results are known, a challenge for controversial research topics.
“Because technologies are embedded in our social and professional lives, research concerning digital-screen use and its effects on adolescent wellbeing is under increasing scrutiny,” said Orben. “To retain influence and trust, robust and transparent research practices will need to become the norm—not the exception. We hope our approach will set a new baseline for new research on the psychological study of technology,” added Przybylski.
The insights come days ahead of the anticipated release of the UK government’s new White Paper on Online Harms, which is expected to set out plans for legislation governing social media companies. This new study builds on previous work by Orben and Przybylski that used novel and transparent statistical approaches to show that technology use explains at most 0.4% of adolescent wellbeing. The study, published at the beginning of this year in Nature Human Behaviour, made headlines with the finding that wearing glasses had a more negative association with adolescent wellbeing than ‘screen time’.
The study used data from Ireland, the US and the UK. In Ireland, it covered 5,363 young people tracked under the Growing Up in Ireland project. In the US, the data covered 709 subjects of a variety of ages compiled by the United States Panel Study of Income Dynamics. And in the UK, the dataset included responses from 11,884 adolescents and their caregivers surveyed as part of the Millennium Cohort Study.