Good? Bad? Technology's Effect on Mental Health is U-Shaped

By classifying all time spent on social media together, studies overlook the fact that people do all sorts of things on the web, writes author Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal 12:2505.06.18

It feels impossible to tell if the technology our kids use should be celebrated or feared. A few years ago I wrote a book, Hooked, about how technology can be used to change our habits. I intended the book to teach startups how to build healthy habits, but now I’m not so sure. With headlines telling us technology is hijacking our brains, I started second guessing the impact of our devices, especially when it comes to our kids.


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How alarmed should we be? Is this a crisis or a fear frenzy? I wanted to understand what the studies tell us about the effect personal technology is having on our children.


One side believes the kids are not okay. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” wrote Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University in an article in The Atlantic. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”


Social media (illustration). Photo: Shutterstock Social media (illustration). Photo: Shutterstock



According to the tech critics like Ms. Twenge, this generation can’t look each other in the eye, isn’t comfortable in conversation, and therefore can’t form deep relationships. They are cyberbullied, like-obsessed, and more prone to killing themselves, she says. According to Ms. Twenge’s article, the teen suicide rate is now higher than the teen homicide rate, with three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls and twice as many boys killing themselves in 2015 as in 2007.


Jan Odiaga, Program Director of the Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Program at Rush University College of Nursing, says she now asks kids questions about technology use at their annual physicals. Ms. Odiaga is a mother of two daughters, ages 14 and 16. “It is an epidemic. I think the thing that scares me the most is that there’s so many mental health issues, depression, and anxiety,” she says. “People are tracking it back to social pressures and social media. That frightens me. I think it’s going to escalate and get worse… What’s going to happen next?”


As a father of a pre-teen myself, I worry. It’s easy to get worked up about what technology might be doing to kids’ brains. However, there is also an argument to be made that it’s the adults, and not the teens, being overly dramatic.


Studies like Ms. Twenge’s work like this: researchers look for correlations between various things to try and make connections. If thing A and thing B go up over the same period, researchers conclude there may be something there.


For example, if Ivan the ice cream man opens a new ice cream shop and subsequently sales of ice cream in the town rise, one might conclude that the store opening was correlated with more ice cream consumption. Taking this one step further, some might believe the store caused people to eat more ice cream.


However, there might be other factors at play that account for the change in the town’s ice cream eating. If Ivan opened his ice cream shop in the heat of June, rather than cold of December, then we might wonder whether the weather had something to do with the rise in sales. Variables, like the weather, could affect the increase in sales of ice cream as might the opening of Ivan’s shop. Ivan’s shop could have driven more ice cream consumption, but we wouldn’t know how much Ivan’s ice cream shop accounted for the change unless we excluded other variables, such as the temperature outdoors.


It’s true that in Ms. Twenge’s study, social media exposure was correlated with depressive symptoms in some adolescents. But there’s much, much more to the story than Ms. Twenge and most journalists who covered the study let on.


Firstly, many potential variables correlate with adolescent depression. Household income, parental education, and family history all play a role, just as the weather plays a role in ice cream consumption. Ms. Twenge’s study was cited hundreds of times in news outlets, but according to a report by Wired exposure to social media could explain only explain 0.36 percent of the covariance for depressive symptoms in the study.


The report cites Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, on the figure. It goes on to quote Mr. Przybylski as saying that based on the data set used in the study one can also conclude eating potatoes has the same negative effect. Mr. Pryzbylski is further cited as saying the even the weak correlation presented in the study does not hold true for boys.


In a rebuttal to The Atlantic article that said kids are on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades, Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh, a PhD and associate professor at Assumption College in Boston, wrote in Psychology Today that “the data the author chooses to present are cherry-picked, by which I mean she reviews only those studies that support her idea and ignores studies that suggest that screen use is not associated with outcomes like depression and loneliness.”


One of many studies not cherry-picked was conducted by Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University and published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly. Ferguson’s study found only a negligible relationship between screen time and depression. “Although an ‘everything in moderation’ message when discussing screen time with parents may be most productive, our results do not support a strong focus on screen time as a preventative measure for youth problem behaviors,” Mr. Ferguson is cited as saying in an article in Science Daily.


Tech critics tend not to discuss the nuances of what their studies reveal about how time spent online affects teens. But as so often is the case, the devil is in the digital details. A closer read finds the correlation only with extreme amounts of time spent online. Ms. Twenge’s study shows teenage girls who spent over five hours per day tended to have more depressive or suicidal thoughts. But common sense would have us ask whether it’s just as likely that kids who have a propensity to spend that much time online have other issues in their lives. Isn’t five hours a day on any form of media a symptom of a more significant problem? In fact, the study found that kids who spent two hours or less online per day did not have higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to controls.


A study conducted by Mr. Przybylski found mental well-being increased with moderate amounts of screen time before declining for excessive users.


Even if we believe something is happening to adolescents as a result of excessive social media use, there are still some important unanswered questions. For one, if we’re going to draw correlations between social media and bad things like depressive symptoms and suicide, shouldn’t we also look at the positive trends as well? In the same period that personal tech use has increased, many of the hallmarks of self-destructive teenage rebelliousness have decreased precipitously.


In the U.S., the juvenile arrest rate for vandalism fell 75 percent between 1994 and 2015, according to data by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. The past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana for eighth, 10th, and 12th graders came in at the lowest level in the 40 years of the survey, according to a survey by The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a U.S. federal research institute.


The fact that teen suicide rates are now higher than the teen homicide rates is due primarily to the remarkable drop in homicides, which have fallen far faster than suicides have risen. In California for example, “Social trends among California youth have been spectacular,” gushed The Sacramento Bee recently. Rates of arrests of Californians under age 20 have fallen by 80 percent, murder arrest by 85 percent, and gun killings by 75 percents, according to government data presented by the publication.


Like depression, these are correlated factors, and it’s difficult to conclude causation. There are undoubtedly other factors at play keeping kids safe. But it is worth considering whether tech use may be curtailing all sorts of dangerous behaviors as kids find less harmful ways to spend their time. A healthy amount of tech use may provide kids a way to socialize and blow off steam online instead of doing destructive things offline. Furthermore, perhaps knowing friends have cameras in their pockets reduces the likelihood kids do things in the real world they wouldn’t want to be posted on Instagram?


Critics blaming technology for kids’ ills also gloss over what exactly kids do online. By classifying all time spent on social media together, studies overlook the fact that people do all sorts of things on the web, some healthy and some not so healthy. Is a teenager spending time online being bullied or looking up ways to empower themselves and building confidence in a forum for people being bullied?


How you feel after using the web depends on how you use it. Facebook admits that spending time on its site can decrease feelings of well-being when the service is used passively. Scrolling past pictures of your friends having fun without you doesn’t make you feel good. However, when you interact with others’ posts — commenting, posting, and liking — studies have found your well-being increases, and you feel more connected to people you care about.


Although positive stories don’t make headlines and stoke fears the way those about depression and suicides do, the majority of teens use technology in positive ways. Some write music, create blogs, and use social media to stand up for social causes they believe in or stick up for those being bullied. Tech can open up new worlds for kids and give them skills they couldn’t learn otherwise.


Although thinking “this time is different” is a common reaction to rapid technological change, history tells another story. Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner worried about hand-held information device causing “confusing and harmful” consequences. That was 1565. He was talking about books.


In 1883, a New York medical journal predicted a new norm would “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” The journal was referring to public education.


Moral panics often follows leaps in technological innovation. “Each successive historical age has ardently believed that an unprecedented ‘crisis’ in youth behavior is taking place,” wrote Dr. Abigail Wills, an Oxford historian writing about youth culture and crime in Slate. “We are not unique; our fears do not differ significantly from those of our predecessors.”



It could well be that today’s technology does have negative consequences. However, it’s hard to know if the current technology backlash is simply society’s way of adjusting to some of the particularly bad elements of tech overuse and misuse. If fear turns in to action, we can adjust our tech use to moderate the harmful aspects while taking advantage of the benefits, just as we did with previous technologies. We can also adapt our technology use with new tech tools that help our kids' moderate overuse.


A research overview conducted by UNICEF found that the middle way is the best way. In terms of impact on children’s mental well-being, the most robust studies suggest that the relationship with technology "is U-shaped,” the study says. Where no use and excessive use can have a small negative impact on mental well-being, “moderate use can have a small positive impact,” according to the study.

If our fears paralyze us and we try to ban our kids from using their technology instead of helping them (and us) learn to use it responsibly, we may be doing more harm than good. Tech is powerful, and now is the time to teach kids to use that power rather than pretend we can keep them from it.


Originally published at www.nirandfar.com on May 21, 2018.


Nir Eyal is the author of "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products". He blogs about the psychology of products at NirAndFar.com .

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