It has become common wisdom that too much time spent on smartphones and social media is responsible for a spike in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, especially among teenagers.
But a growing number of academic researchers have produced studies that suggest the common wisdom is wrong. The latest research, published by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, the professors said, is small and inconsistent.
“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Worries about smartphones have led Congress to pass legislation to examine smartphone use. The World Health Organization said last year that infants younger than 1 should not be exposed to electronic screens and that children between ages 2 and 4 should not have more than an hour of “sedentary screen time” each day.
But some researchers question whether those fears are justified. They are not arguing that intensive use of phones does not matter. Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise. And research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate the problems of vulnerable groups, like children with mental health issues.
They are, however, challenging the belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers. In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone. The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to protect teenagers’ privacy.
The new article by Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the publication of work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions.
“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Hancock said. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”