Screen time given too much blame for its effect on young people's mental health, study finds – ABC News Express News

Among the many perils that face young people, screen time is one that looms large, at least if mainstream media is to be believed.

But a recent study has found the negative effects of digital technology may have been overstated.

In fact, screen time has such a small negative correlation with adolescents’ psychological wellbeing it is on par with eating potatoes, according to the study, published this week in Nature Human Behaviour.

While that may seem like a strange parallel to draw, it illustrates the fact the overall effect of using digital technology on youth mental health is miniscule, said lead author Amy Orben, from the University of Oxford.

“What it shows us is digital technology use in general, in the whole context of a child’s and adolescent’s life, is less important than a lot of the public debate makes it out to be,” Ms Orben said.

Don’t shoot the messenger app

Parents’ uncertainty around how their kids use technology, especially social media, is largely driven by fear of the unknown, said Brad Ridout, a University of Sydney psychologist specialising in technology and young people’s wellbeing.

“A childhood today looks very different to previous generations — the generation before’s childhood looked different to the one before that,” said Dr Ridout, who was not involved in the study.

“I think there’s generally a lack of appreciation for how intertwined the online and offline worlds are for our kids. It’s not a clear separation like there was 20 years ago.”

But kids are still kids, he pointed out. What used to be notes passed across the classroom or gossip spread in the playground now happens using different tools.

“That can obviously bring added risk, but it can also bring added benefit,” Dr Ridout said.

“There’s no doubt that problematic internet use can have a serious impact on wellbeing, but the data shows that this affects just a very small percentage of adolescents.”

What’s more, kids often use their time online to build important connections with peers, he said.

“Social media’s actually played a huge role in destigmatising help-seeking for depression and self-harm and mental health issues,” Dr Ridout said.

Rethink the concept of screen time

Parents who are concerned about how to help their kids navigate the digital landscape need to think beyond screen time as something inherently dangerous that needs to be limited, Dr Ridout said.

“Parents should move beyond counting minutes and hours and focus on how and when their children are using their time online,” he said.

“The context and the content are far more important than how long they’re spending online.”

Dr Ridout encouraged parents to talk openly with their kids about their internet use in a non-judgemental way, rather than letting it become a subject of conflict. That way, you can be more aware of how their online activities might affect them.

“If you can have an open relationship with your kids about how you spend your time online and encourage them to talk to you about it, you’ll be more able to recognise any issues that may come up,” he said.

“Your child will feel more comfortable to come to you and talk about any concerns they have.”

So if you are going to set rules around technology use, make sure you are leading by example and setting rules the whole family will follow, Dr Ridout advised.

How can we support youngsters’ mental health?

Ms Orben and her colleague Andrew Przybylski did not just look at technology use in the study. They analysed huge datasets from the United Kingdom and found associations between all sorts of different lifestyle factors and adolescent wellbeing.

While there was a very small negative relationship with digital technology use — accounting for about 0.4 per cent of the variation in wellbeing — they found other factors such as bullying and marijuana use had much stronger negative associations with wellbeing.

Likewise, things like eating breakfast and getting enough sleep had very strong positive associations.

“Because these more traditional self-care activities have so much larger effects than technology use, more focus should be given to those, especially when interventions or monetary decisions are taken by policy makers,” Ms Orben said.

How digital technology is used and its impact on mental health is poorly studied.

“One of the things this study highlights is we really don’t have good quality evidence in this area,” Dr Ridout said.

“We can’t dismiss concerns about screen time outright, they don’t come out of nothing. Obviously there are concerns that parents and policy makers have.

“Better quality research that focuses on the content and context is needed, so that we can find out more about the relationship between technology and mental health and how we foster the benefits and minimise the risk.”

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