Teens, tech and mental health: Oxford study finds no link

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A study of more than 430,000 young people aged 10-15, using data gathered over a period of 28 years, has found “little association” between tech use and mental health problems.

It looked at TV viewing, social media use and device use and compared them with feelings of depression, suicidal tendencies and behavioural problems.

It found no notable changes over time.

The Oxford Internet Institute team did observe one small rise – in emotional issues and social media use.

In addition, depression had become less strongly associated with both social media use and TV viewing.

However the changes were small.

“We’re not saying that fewer happy people use more social media, we’re saying that the connection is not getting stronger,” said study co-author Prof Andrew Przybylski.

“We couldn’t tell the difference between social media impact and mental health in 2010 and 2019.”

Prof Przybylski described the outcome as a warning to tech regulators and law-makers who may choose to focus on commonly-held beliefs about the harmful effects of tech on young people’s mental health when developing new policies.

But the study did have its flaws. Participants graded their own feelings using set questions with sliding scale responses, and the data used did not include the nature of social media or device activity, only its duration, which was also self-reported. So a person may have said that they spent four hours on their smartphone, but it was not clear what they were doing on it in that time.

There is currently no formal way for researchers to access this data other than requesting it from the tech firms, who do not have to comply, or from participants themselves.

The data for the Oxford study came from surveys carried out in the US and UK between 1991 and 2019 – a period during which the type of technology favoured by young people and the amount of time they spent on it has rapidly evolved.

In addition, devices have become far more multi-functional during that time, with changing trends and a constant flow of new apps to use on them even if the device itself does not change.

The paper is published today in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Research in this area is divided in its conclusions. In January 2021 a study found that heavy social media use was linked to negative wellbeing and self-esteem among teens.

There are also other factors affecting young people’s mental health including most recently the Coronavirus pandemic.

The UK government recently announced £500m investment in mental health services, with £79m earmarked for children and young people.

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