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Electronics and Mental Health: Not as Scary as It Seems?

— February 5, 2020

How bad is screen time for children and adolescents, really?

Most parents believe too much time spent on electronics such as smartphones and social media is responsible for mental health ailments including depression and anxiety.  However, researchers are now saying that this is not necessarily the case.  The latest academic research examines forty studies focused on the link between the use of electronics and mental health among adolescents, and that link, they say, is “small and inconsistent.”

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the current study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. “The debate over the harm we — and especially our children — are doing to ourselves by staring into phones is generally predicated on the assumption that the machines we carry in our pockets pose a significant risk to our mental health.”

Electronics and Mental Health: Not as Scary as It Seems?
Photo by McKaela Lee on Unsplash

The World Health Organization said, “infants under a year old should not be exposed to electronic screens and that children between the ages of 2 and 4 should not have more than an hour of sedentary screen time each day.”  Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise, they argue, and research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate problems of certain vulnerable groups, like those with diagnosable mental health issues.

In the current study, researchers agreed but are “challenging the widespread belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers.  In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.”

“Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and they are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society,” said Andrew Przybylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

The new article by Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro published just a few weeks after the publication a study by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of a piece of Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab, which reach similar conclusions regarding electronics and mental health.

“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Hancock said. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”  His analysis of about 226 studies on the well-being of phone users concluded that “when you look at all these different kinds of well-being, the net effect size is essentially zero.”

Dr. Megan Moreno, one of the lead authors of the new study and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, said the original statement was a problem “because it created panic without a strong basis of evidence.”  She added that she has been “struck by the number of children with mental health problems who are helped by social media because of the resources and connections it provides.”  The key, of course, is to monitor and limit access to sites with inappropriate conduct.


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