With anxiety and mental health issues in youth on the rise over the last few years, parents and educators have scrambled to find the culprit and have identified a likely one in new technology and smartphones. The rise in the ubiquity of smartphones has coincided with the rise in psychological distress among teens, and there are more than a few intuitive reasons to believe the two trends are connected. Smartphones and social media have given teenagers, who are in the process of developing a sense of self, an unbridled ability to compare themselves and new mediums through which to be bullied by “angsty” peers. Throw in the ability to escape from the world and its problems anywhere they go through games, movies, and other forms of media, and it is easy to see why parents are concerned that “smartphones have destroyed a generation.”
Having grown up during the smartphone revolution, I understand the validity of these concerns and related worries. But from personal experience, I also know that there are a number of other factors that influence my well-being and the well-being of my peers. With a topic such as mental health that has so many determinants, it is important to be cautious about assuming that a correlation confirms our hypotheses and look instead to what the research says about the importance of a particular variable. Thus far, the research has been mixed: many studies have confirmed the correlation, but none have found a causal link that can confirm technology or social media are leading to an increase in teen mental health issues.
The association between increased digital technology use and psychological distress is well documented. Psychological distress in general has increased in the United States over the last 10 years, at the same time that smartphone ownership has increased from 35% to 81%. This increase has been especially pronounced for Generation Z, the generation that has grown up with smartphones. Individual-level survey data show similar correlations, with data from multiple surveys across different locations and years showing that increased digital technology use is associated with increased psychological distress for individuals.
These correlations have rung alarm bells, but researchers have yet to find a causal link confirming the negative effects of technology on mental health. Most importantly, they still have not determined the direction of the relationship between increased psychological distress and increased digital technology use. It could be that increased screen time is causing mood disorders, but it could also be that teens with mood disorders are more likely to spend time in front of screens. Published research in psychology has not yet produced a study that clarifies this relationship and confirms that it is indeed increased digital technology use that leads to mental distress, and not vice versa. Neuroscience research has been similarly fruitless, with nothing being found to suggest that increased digital technology use alters our brain and its functioning.
We may, however, be looking and waiting in vain for a question that cannot be answered. Digital technology can take on many forms and mediums, each with different effects on the human psyche. Using technology to webcam a long-distance relative, for example, will likely alleviate feelings of loneliness, whereas spending hours scrolling through Instagram may exacerbate one’s social anxiety. Mental health is similarly broad, with technology affecting different aspects asymmetrically. I have friends for whom Netflix has helped boost their happiness through TV shows and providing a cultural connection to others, and others of whom it’s been a drain of time and a reason for their anxiety. We may never know what the effects of digital technology on mental health are, because it may be too broad of a question with different implications for different people.
So, what do we know from the research about teens and technology? One major finding is the negative effect technology has had on teens’ sleeping habits. A recent survey report by Common Sense Media revealed that 68% of teens take their devices into the bedroom at night and 29% sleep with their devices in their beds. Many studies have shown the deleterious effects of technology use before bed, as the blue light emitted by smartphones disrupts the production of sleep hormones and thus decreases sleep quality. Even more alarming for parents, 36% of teenagers wake up and check their devices at least once a night. The survey confirms what parents may see themselves: that increased smartphone use in the bedroom, especially right before sleeping, has the potential to decrease both the quantity and quality of children’s sleep. And sleep, we know from many academic studies over the years, is a major determinant of mental stability.
Although we don’t yet fully know all the effects technology has on teenagers, we do not need academia to illuminate everything before we make targeted interventions. Research has not shown that technology is the boogie man we think it to be, but we have little to lose and much to gain in promoting healthy technology habits. As with other instances of healthy habit promotion, it is more easily passed on when parents abide by the healthy habits themselves. Unfortunately, that is largely not the case for how adults use their smartphones and other devices. In the Common Sense Media report, the adults’ technology use and bedtime sleeping habits were just as poor as their children’s. 62% of parents kept their mobile devices near their beds, and 26% of parents woke up to check their devices at least once a night. To change teenagers’ technology habits, parents should model positive use themselves. Whether it be refraining from texting during conversations or mealtimes, or setting limits to the amount of time one uses their laptop in the evenings, teenagers will take more positively to advice from someone who themselves is making such lifestyle choices. By modeling these behaviors early, one is also more likely to have their child adopt these healthy habits with tech from a young age.
Technology and mental health are complicated, and it is difficult to fully understand the relationship between the two. Some aspects of technology may have negative effects on mental health, while other aspects may have positive ones. Part of the reason we don’t fully understand the relationship between the two is that we have not asked enough specific, targeted questions. A question about how technology is affecting sleep is one example of a good one, and there are countless others that parents can ask and observe for answers that may be unique for their child. Whether it be wondering how technology affects their child’s ability to focus or how it affects their patience, parents should continue to closely watch for positive and negative patterns in behavior or attitude and experiment with media rules to find what fits their family’s needs. For some ideas on managing digital media, explore these tips and resources from Challenge Success.
Shayan Lavasani is a Research Intern with Challenge Success. He helps aid the research process and parent survey data management. He is currently studying Public Policy Analysis with a concentration in Economic policy at Pomona College and hopes to work in education after graduating.