Study suggests little to no increase over time in association between adolescents’ technology engagement and mental health problems, urges more transparent collaborations between academia and industry
4 May 2021
A new Oxford University study examined data from over 430,000 adolescents in the UK and US to investigate how associations between adolescents’ technology use and mental health have changed over the past 30 years.
The Oxford researchers investigated the links between social media use and depression, emotional problems and conduct problems. Researchers also examined the associations between television viewing and suicidality as well as the conditions mentioned above. In addition, the study explored digital device use and suicidality.
The study found little evidence for increases in associations between adolescents’ technology engagement and mental health. Over the eight associations studied, only three indicated some change over time: social media use and television viewing had become less strongly associated with depression, but, on the other hand, social media’s association with emotional problems had increased. The observed changes over time were, however, small. Consistent changes in technology engagement’s associations with conduct problems or suicidality were not detected.
The suggestion that technologies we worry the most about now (such as smartphones) are becoming more harmful was not consistently supported in the data analysed by the research team.
Crucially, the study highlighted a lack of long enough time frames and high enough resolution and detail in technology engagement data as key factors in hindering scientists’ ability to conclusively determine technologies’ associations to mental health, or, indeed, potential changes therein. Furthermore, available data on technology engagement, such as that used by the Oxford team, relies on self-reporting on things like time spent using screens, which has been found inaccurate. To enable a robust study of life in the digital age, the authors suggested an urgent need for more credible and transparent collaborations between technology companies and independent scientists.
Dr Matti Vuorre, a post-doctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and the lead author of the paper noted:
“If we want to understand the relationship between tech and wellbeing today, we need to first go back and look at historic data – as far back as when parents were concerned too much TV would give their kids square eyes – in order to bring the contemporary concerns we have about newer technologies into focus.”
Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research, Oxford Internet Institute and senior author of the study, said:
“As more data accumulates on adolescents’ use of emerging technologies, our knowledge of them and their effects on mental health will become more precise. So it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions about the increasing, or declining, associations between social media and adolescent mental health, and it is certainly way too soon to be making policy or regulation on this basis.
“We need more transparent and credible collaborations between scientists and technology companies to unlock the answers. The data exists within the tech industry, scientists just need to be able to access it for neutral and independent investigation.”
The full study, ‘There is no evidence that associations between adolescents’ digital technology engagement and mental health problems have increased’ by Dr Matti Vuorre, Dr Amy Orben and Professor Andrew Przybylski is published open access in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
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Notes to Editors
About the research
The study focused on adolescents aged 10yrs-15yrs. Researchers analysed data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) annual survey carried out by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and the Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance System (YRBS) study, conducted in the US by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers also looked at the “Understanding Society” survey, from the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex in the UK. The study was funded by The Huo Family Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council. It is peer-reviewed and published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. The data supporting this study is available on the YRBS, MTF, and US websites. All code supporting the study is available at https://osf.io/4zat9/.
About the Oxford Internet Institute (OII)
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.