Saul Rosenthal, PhD

HEALTH PSYCHOLOGIST


A recent article published in the academic journal Psychological Science questions the generally held belief that lots of screen time, especially around bedtime, is bad for adolescents. The article, “Screens, Teens, and Psychological Well-Being: Evidence From Three Time-Use-Diary Studies” followed over 17,000 teens in three countries.

This is an important study for a number of reasons. First, it includes a very large number of participants. Second, rather than relying on retrospective measures of technology use, the study uses a technique in which adolescents’ use is recorded throughout the day. Third, well-being is measured by caregivers as well as the adolescents. Finally, statistical analysis was designed before data collection. In other words, it’s not a fishing expedition. This is a really nicely designed study, strengthening confidence in its conclusions.

The results in general find very small or non-existant links between screen use time and well-being. Using screens within 30-60 minutes of bedtime show even smaller links. In other words, the study’s findings suggest that screen use does not harm general well-being.

Even though I see all sorts of poor health consequences related to technology misuse, I am confident that the study’s results are valid. The large sample size, procedure for measuring screen time, and pre-designed approach to data analysis make one of the best designed studies we have on the topic. It is a study for others to emulate.

In fact, even before the study, I believed that, in general, screen use does not lead to negative outcomes. Unfortunately, there is an almost universally-accepted assumption that screen time is inherently problematic. It’s poorly tested, but concern about screen time drives legislation, regulations, and plenty of articles and books. So much so that while it is still mostly an assumption, we tend to accept it as Truth. One of the points of the Psychological Science study is to take a systematic look at the assumption. The authors do a great job, and find the assumption doesn’t hold up.

However…

This is not a study designed to focus on the role screen use plays in individuals who are troubled. The study focuses on a group of teens who are representative of the general population. In fact, I do not think screen time in general causes mental health issues for the general population. But, I do think that for certain people screen time is inherently risky. The best studies focus on clinical rather than general populations. So, for example, brain scan studies of individuals who are problematic gamers show patterns similar to the brains of substance abusers. Experimental studies show that using tablets before bed can change sleep quality (that’s one reason so many devices allow you to shift to yellow from blue at night, although it’s an assumption that the shift helps).

In other words, the link between screen use and health is complicated. We need to start applying strict investigative approaches to populations of people who have or are at risk for attention problems, social anxiety, depression, or are on the autism spectrum. Based on the small studies we have, along with our clinical experience, I think we would find that for these (and perhaps other) segments of the population, screens are a risk factor. 

Obviously digital technology is here to stay. Simply calling it a risk factor is a vague statement that gets nowhere useful. From a health perspective, we should focus on segments of the population that we believe are negatively affected by screen time, and impose the rigor of the Psychological Science study onto the investigation. That approach will almost certainly yield information that better specifies effects of tech overuse and suggests the useful directions to mitigate that overuse.

June 2nd, 2019

Posted In: Digital Citizenship, Internet Addiction, Psychology of Technology

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