Screen Use And Mental Health: Part 1

The most common complaint I hear from parents is around screen use in their children and teens. The issue is that their child spends far too much time on screens, impacting mood, anxiety, social life, academic life, sleep, and time with the family. The question I am usually asked is, “What do I do about it?” To date, I have never had a parent complain that their child should be using their screens more!

I am going to write a series of articles about screen use in children and teens, how it relates to mental health, and what individuals and parents can do about it. I’ll start today with a general overview, and an introduction to the problems associated with smartphones. It will be highly opinionated, but the next few articles will talk about the research in more detail. If you have any questions or suggestions throughout this series, please don’t hesitate to email me!

The Internet Started It All

The internet really became a thing only 25-30 years ago. Before that, teens were watching TV. Access to personal screen use on a regular basis became apparent in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s as phones became mobile and computers and computer games developed more. The advent of smartphones, around 2007ish, marked a level of immersion and behavioral change not seen before. The internet at your fingertips, all the time. This is when researchers such as Jean Twenge, in her article in the Atlantic, associated screen time with a whole host of social and other difficulties. The problem for psychologists such as myself is knowing what to do about it. And, to play Devil’s advocate, is it even a problem?

Phones Can Be Good

Before answering whether screens are a problem, it’s important to note that screens are obviously tools that can enrich our adult lives, and a teen’s life as well. The reason they are so used, and depending on the study around 65+% of teens have them, is because they are so reinforcing. The research shows that on average many people have more than one phones. In some markets the percentage saturation is over 200% which means people have on average 2+ phones! It’s easy to know why. You can do everything on your phone. Talk to all your friends, watch videos, listen to music, read about news or what your friends are up to. These can be really good things. I don’t need to go into this, because you already know the benefits.

Theoretically, because they are a tool that enhances our ability to function in so many aspects, they should improve our quality of life. They should, in theory, help with stress management and enjoyment, academic performance, enhancing social interactions, and with our connectedness with others. Yet, various data shows that different types of screen use are associated with all sorts of mental health difficulties, social difficulties, and academic problems. In fact, there are various different labs, and even entire clinics, that exist to study and treat of “internet addiction.” (Note: This is not something recognized by the American Psychological Association, and is a controversial issue.) Because smartphones increase the ability for teens to immediately use the internet, does this mean that they are a problem?

Are Smartphones a Problem?

The initial research would say, yes. Anecdotally, I would say yes. Specifically, that they can be a problem. However, there have only been ten years with which to study the effects of smartphones on mental health. Quite honestly, the state of the literature on the effects of smartphones on mental health is a total mess. There are so many questions to answer. There are almost no studies that track kids over time, with most being what we call “cross-sectional” studies that only measure data at one point in time. For example, here are some questions that we don’t know about smartphone and screen use:

Is it the total amount of screen time that is a problem, or just smartphones?

Is it not how much screen time there is, but when it occurs that matters (think about how it affects sleep)?

Does the type of use matter (e.g. social use vs. non-social use)?

Does the age at which screen use begins matter?

Do screens even cause problems, or do kids predisposed to mental health difficulties end up withdrawing into screens?

Are there any interaction effects going on? For example, do screens only become a problem when a person doesn’t do extra-curricular activities?

Is screen social time any different than in-person social time in terms of mental health outcomes?

To date, the research can’t actually answer most of these questions very well. As such, be sure to take what you hear in the news with big pinch of salt. Yet these are some pretty critical questions when parents need definitive answers on how to manage screen use in their children.

It’s Difficult Top Research This Issue

It’s really hard to do good research on smartphones or internet use. Ideally, we would randomize who has a smartphone and then look to see whether people with and without smartphones differ over time. It’s not a type of study we can really do because it would mean taking away screens from certain kids for years, which many people may not be willing to do.

Instead, one of the better ways of studying the effect of smart phones is looking at “new users” and seeing how access to smartphones changes their behavior.

A Case Example

One study published in 2015 gave university students smartphones at the beginning of an academic year for the first time in their life. They answered questions before getting their phone, and then again after 1 year of having a phone, responding to questions on a 1-5 scale (1=strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). I’ve summarized the results below, altering the data into what answer it most closely corresponded to on the questionnaire. Amazingly, on every single one of the questions below, the pre-phone answer (prediction) was significantly different to their belief after one year of having the phone (in reality). Just to reiterate, the differences between the “prediction” and “in reality” columns were highly significant, with a 999 in 1000 confidence that the difference is accurate.

Take a look at the results below!


As you can see, the results quite overwhelmingly show that although people thought the smartphone would help them academically, in fact the results showed that they were more of a hindrance.

The Statements You Commonly Read About Go Way Beyond the Data

Although this is an interesting study, the research on the internet, smartphones, and other electronics, and their impact on mental health and functioning is really quite limited. You can read many articles about the dangers of screen time for your teens, even its link to suicide, depression, and anxiety. I’m not saying any of those articles are mistaken, but I caution you that the data really is limited and most of our knowledge is only correlational in nature. For example, it could be that screen use per se isn’t the problem, but rather its effect on sleep or some other variable. There are very few controlled studies on this topic, following the same kids over time or looking at the effects of experimental manipulation. This is a BIG problem, and I don’t want to undersell its importance. If you’re not familiar with the pitfalls of correlational data, take a look at this website on spurious correlations.

What’s Next?

That concludes my intro article into this issue. Coming up will be articles on screens/phones and sleep, anxiety, depression, suicide, and a discussion on whether it’s an addiction.

Thanks as always for reading!

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