Researchers from the University of Oxford examined data on more than 300,000 adolescents in both America and the UK to ascertain what impact various factors had on wellbeing.
Despite years of panic about children having too much “screen time”, the study concluded how long teenagers spent on their devices was almost entirely irrelevant.
“Our findings demonstrate that screen use itself has at most a tiny association with youth mental health,” lead researcher, Professor Andrew Przybylski, said.
Just 0.4 per cent of adolescent wellbeing could be associated with technology use, he added.
Activities including getting enough sleep and eating breakfast had much stronger impacts on mental health. Smoking cannabis was also 2.7 times more detrimental than screen time, while being bullied was 4.3 times more harmful.
Professor Przybylski, who is the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, said there was a lot of misinformation and badly explained research about children’s use of technology, which was confusing to parents and policy-makers.
“Within the same dataset, we were able to demonstrate that including potatoes in your diet showed a similar association with adolescent wellbeing. Wearing corrective lenses had an even worse association. We needed to take the topic beyond cherry-picked results, so we developed an approach that helped us harvest the whole orchard.”
Amy Orben, another Oxford academic who worked on the study, said previous researchers who have looked at the question of technology and mental health had allowed their own biases to drive their findings.
“Of the three datasets we analysed for this study, we found over 600 million possible ways to analyse the data. We calculated a large sample of these and found that – if you wanted – you could come up with a large range of positive or negative associations between technology and wellbeing, or no effect at all.”
Using a technique called specification curve analysis, researchers compared how teenagers reported their technology use with other more banal aspects of life – such as eating potatoes or wearing glasses – to ensure any impact on mental health was not just a statistical quirk, but a genuine finding.
There has been increasing fear among parents that children are being harmed by the proliferation of phones, tablets and game consoles.
However, earlier this month the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) reviewed the evidence on screen time and concluded there was not enough to show it was inherently harmful.
It therefore recommended the government did not make a formal recommendation on how much children should be allowed to use devices.
Dr Max Davie, who led the RCPCH review, said the Oxford study supported their own findings. “While there are some negative associations between screen time and poor mental health, we cannot be sure that these links are causal, or if other factors are causing both negative health outcomes and higher screen time.”
But Dr Ben Carter, an expert from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, said while the paper was “interesting”, some of the data it used was from as far back as 2007 and did not even mention social media.
“This makes it hard to relate these findings to adolescents in 2019,” he said.
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