Screen time is one of the more divisive contemporary issues in psychological science. In a sense, this is no surprise – smartphone use, particularly among children and adolescents, has consistently increased in recent years. And as with any new form of disruptive technology, there are questions around what constitutes healthy and maladaptive use, both at an individual and societal level.
The problem with the debate about screen time, however, is that very often the arguments devolve into overly-simplistic scaremongering claims. This peaked back in August, with the publication of an opinion piece in the Atlantic by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Under the headline Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, Twenge argued that teenagers are on the verge of a catastrophic mental health crisis, and the culprit was the smartphone.
Among those that actively research screen time, Twenge’s arguments have been dismissed at best as falling foul of the old correlation/causation fallacy, and of cherry-picking evidence to suit a particular opinion about smartphones being “bad”. This problem is compounded by the fact that the research field is relatively young, and there simply isn’t enough convincing evidence to come to any firm conclusions yet.
Nevertheless, today sees the publication of a new research article by Twenge and colleagues in Clinical Psychological Science that raises another alarm about screen use. Using data from a couple of nationally representative surveys in the US, they claim that between 2010 and 2015, reports of depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and rates of suicide in US teens have been increasing, and that this is correlated with an increase in smartphone use over the same time period.
The paper makes for a confusing read. Although the data are clearly correlational, the language veers over into making causal claims throughout. Moreover, assuming that the data are correctly reported, the study actually shows that for male teens, depressive symptoms have flatlined since 2010, and suicide-related outcomes have actually decreased. What upward trends we do see seem to be driven by data from female teens – but the effects are weak. An excellent analysis by Amy Orben at Oxford University suggests that only 0.36% of reported depressive symptoms in the females in the sample can be predicted by social media use. The simple fact of the matter is that the paper doesn’t seem to account for any of the important factors that might be driving depression and suicide rates in US teens. “It’s another entry in a long list of exploratory findings that either affirm your pre-existing biases about screen time or stoke your worst fears as a parent” says Professor Andy Przybylski, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. “But empirically, there’s nothing new here.”
Twenge is the author of a recent popular science book, iGen: why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood. The book broadly makes the same claims as outlined in the Atlantic article, and clearly position Twenge’s negative stance on digital activities. Alongside consultancy work on the topic (which will of course benefit from media coverage of her scientific publishing), she is becoming the go-to accessible voice on the subject for news outlets – potentially drowning out more balanced viewpoints based on more robust science. All in all, this paper doesn’t seem to add anything new to an already confusing research literature, and will likely be picked up in other news outlets as the latest study to show that smartphones are having a calamitous effect on the youth of today.
When it comes to screen time research, we seem to be stuck in a cycle of correlational findings stoking the flames of scaremongering articles in the media, and it’s not getting us anywhere. We’re at a point where we need to take stock of what the current research tells us, what are the key questions we need to be asking, and what research we can do to try and answer those questions. In January 2018, I’m organising a meeting at the Wellcome Collection in London to try and do just that. The aim is to bring together researchers, funders, science journalists, parents and other interested parties to discuss how we can move screen time research forward in a positive and productive way. The evidence needed to develop a useful and sustainable policy on screen time is lacking, and it is my hope that the meeting will provide a starting point for changing this. If you are a researcher with an interest in screen time, a healthcare professional who comes across screen time issues in your practice, or you’re just interested in what the current state of the art is, all are welcome to attend.
If we want to get out of the rut of overly hyped stories about screen time, we need to start planning the next generation of robust studies that can actually tell us something useful about digital technology, and we need to figure out how best to communicate that research.