What is the impact of technology on adolescent brains? We still don’t have enough research to find out.
As the United States continues to struggle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing recommendations remain in place, millions of American children and teens are not should attend school in person in the fall – which means that they will often be stuck inside their homes and use the internet as their primary means of human connection. The situation resurfaced an long-standing question that’s hard to answer: Will technology ruin my teenager’s brain?
For years some have blamed the increasing rate of adolescents suffering of mental health issues in the United States on the drastic increase in how well they interact with digital devices compared to previous generations – but there isn’t much hard evidence to back up these claims.
It is true that we are seeing unprecedented levels of teens using digital devices – around 95% of American teens have access to a smartphone and 45% say they are online “almost constantly”. according to a 2018 Pew poll. And during the same period that internet and smartphone use has increased for a generation of young people, the suicide rate in the United States also increased steadily (all ages combined), with a disproportionate increase in preteen rate from 10 to 14 years in particular.
But the rise in teenage social media use along with rising rates of depression shows a correlation, not a causal one. This means that there is no evidence to prove that teen use of social media is the reason why we see this increase in depression instead of a number of other confounding factors – like their family life, their economic conditions or whatever. To find out whether this is the case or not, we need much more comprehensive research that isolates these other factors.
Given the scale of the stakes, it is important to answer this question – and it is urgent.
A new report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, a national advocacy group focused on digital access and the safety of children and families, reflects the urgency and state of the conversation. The report, written by Candice Odgers, professor of child psychology at UC Irvine and Michael Robb, research director of Common Sense, attempted to review existing research on the effects of the use of technology on children. adolescents, to draw conclusions about the overall risks and benefits, and to suggest recommendations to parents. educators and the public. But one of the biggest findings of the Common Sense report is that the existing research doesn’t tell us enough and that we need more refined scientific evidence to know anything conclusive about the effects of social media on social media. adolescent mental health.
In the meantime, it’s important to understand what the concerns are about the impact of social media on adolescent mental health – and what to consider when determining how to help teens have a life. balanced relationship with technology, especially when experiencing a pandemic. .
The concern: “Our children are walking around with slot machines in their pockets”
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s first partner, who contributed to an essay for the report, wrote that she understands that digital devices like tablets and laptops are necessary tools for getting an education during Covid-19 school closures. But she says she is also worried about the effects of these devices on the mental health of children and adolescents.
“[A]his mum, I can’t ignore the reality at home. Distance learning for my four children this spring opened the doors to the media and its harmful effects. What started with using Zoom and Gmail for homework has grown into Internet searches bringing in age-inappropriate information – and misinformation, ”Siebel Newsom wrote. “Suddenly my oldest was sneaking into his room or hiding devices under his bed at night.”
Siebel Newsom and others who contributed to the report, like former Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, want to see tech and media companies accept more responsibility for their impact on children, even though we don’t We have no research yet showing exactly what this impact is. Yang, in particular, called on the government to fund significantly more research and intervene, if necessary, to get tech companies to educate children, rather than entertain them, to raise advertising dollars. (The digital children’s advertising market is expected to reach $ 1.7 billion by 2021, according to a PwC report.)
“Right now, the interests of parents are in direct conflict with the interests of technology companies,” Yang wrote. “They monetize our attention and take advantage of our time. As they say, the addictive nature of smartphones is a feature, not a bug. We parents are helpless and utterly lost. “
Newsom and Yang’s comments build on much greater concerns among the American public about what children are doing with their time online and how it will impact their development.
Evidence is inconclusive and more research is needed
So while there are plenty of concerns about how much time teens are spending on their phones, what does the research say?
Unfortunately, that’s not enough for us to draw evidence-based quantitative conclusions – and that’s why we should start doing more serious research now. The report’s meta-analysis of the most recent research on social media and depression revealed a mix of ‘small positive, negative and above all neutral links’ between teenage use of technology like social media and their health. mental.
The authors of the report looked at two large-scale reviews of existing research on the topic published earlier this year and found findings linking adolescent mental health and digital technology use to be “inconsistent” – even when a combination was present, this was less than 1 percent of the variation.
This inability to find a stronger link between adolescent depression and the use of technology “is not surprising,” write Odgers and Robb, “given that mental health disorders emerge from a complex set of social, genetic and experiential factors, which have a variable influence during development. and situations. Still, “small effects can be significant,” the report says, “but with the existing evidence, we have no way to separate cause from effect in social media research with adolescents.”
If researchers really wanted to separate cause from effect, we would need research that asks more specific questions and draws on stronger data, as my Vox colleague Brian Resnick previously explained. Self-reported adolescent well-being surveys can be biased – so another option would be for scientists to use brain scans showing neurodevelopment over time to track the tangible effects of social media on children’s well-being. children.
Although there is at least a great study like this in progress, funded by the National Institutes of Health, it will take several years to see results. Until then, researchers are asking for more granular data from companies like Apple and Google to help them understand exactly how kids use their devices. Are they binge on Fortnite or watch educational YouTube videos? So far, tech companies like Apple have largely not given researchers the ability to see people’s screen time data that shows how much they use different apps on their phones – even with their consent. .
With all of this in mind, the report calls on the government and other groups to fund more research on this topic.
Recommendations: quality rather than quantity
While the jury is still out on exactly how social media affects teens, the report offers recommendations backed by child psychologists for the use of technology in teens.
An important point: it’s not how often teenagers use apps that matters, but how they use these apps. Essentially, it’s quality over quantity. Examples of quality use include a teenager using multiplayer video games to socialize with peers and build stronger friendships, according to the report. Another example of the positive use of technology is when college freshmen use their smartphones to maintain close contact with their parents. A study cited in the report found that these students were better able to recover from external stress than their peers who remained in contact with their families less often.
The report points out that while many families have instituted rules for their children’s use of technology, arguments parents have with their children about it actually make matters worse. In fact, “screen conflict is likely to be more harmful to adolescent mental health than screen time itself,” the Common Sense report states.
While much is still unknown about the technology and its impact on adolescent mental health, it is a significant problem that is only getting worse during the pandemic. This is why we need better research before drawing any conclusions.
You can read the entire report here.