Quantity of Teen Technology Use Not Harming Mental Health

Parents and the public are increasingly concerned that adolescents’ rapid adoption of the smartphone and other modern technologies is harming their mental health, and it is not uncommon for them to ask clinical psychologists and other mental health practitioners for guidance. Unfortunately, much of the research in this domain has yielded mixed results, which makes it difficult to offer concrete, evidence-based recommendations. Moreover, there have been very few well-controlled longitudinal studies, which makes it difficult to sort out—even in instances where correlations are observed—whether spending more time on technology is driving worse mental health, or whether those youth with worse mental health are seeking out more time online and on their phones (Huang, 2017).

The field at large has also struggled to design studies which enable us to understand within-person processes in technology and mental health, and to test whether those patterns that have been observed when we compare some teens to other teens (small associations suggesting that those teens who spend more time using technology exhibit slightly worse mental health; Orben & Przybylski, 2019) apply within any given teen. This is important, because psychology often suffers from the ecological fallacy in which we incorrectly assume that patterns observed when we compare people to each other work the same way within a single person (Fisher, Medaglia, & Jeronimus, 2018). This idea perhaps comes more easily to clinical psychologists, for whom within-person tracking of behavior or mood over time is a valuable aspect of the therapeutic process. For technology and mental health, what many of us really want to know is whether a day on which an individual adolescent spends more time using technology is more likely to be a day with more symptoms of internalizing or externalizing problems (comparing each teen to himself or herself over time).

Our recently published study (i.e., Jensen, George, Russell, & Odgers, 2019) addressed these longitudinal (“Does adolescents’ self-reported access to and use of technology predict later mental health?”) and daily (“Do adolescents experience more mental health problems on days when they use more technology?) study questions in a representative sample of early adolescents drawn from North Carolina public schools. We began by surveying over 2,000 early adolescents in 2015, and followed up with nearly 400 of them about 2 years later in 2 weeks of ecological momentary assessment surveys delivered multiple times daily straight to their smartphones. This method of data capture yielded a total of 13,017 observations over 5,270 study days, and rich information about when and how much youth were engaging in different types of technology use.

Our results did not suggest that there were longitudinal or daily linkages between quantity of adolescent technology use and symptoms of conduct problems, inattention/hyperactivity, depression, or worry. Specifically, phone ownership, having a social media account, and frequency of social media use were unrelated to mental health problems about two years later. We likewise did not find evidence that adolescents experienced worse mental health on days when they spent more time using technology.

Somewhat surprisingly, the only significant findings that emerged were very much contrary to the popular narrative about recreational screen time causing worse mental health: teens who reported sending more text messages over the study period actually reported feeling better (less depressed) than teens who were less frequent texters and those adolescents who spent the most time using technology for schoolwork (the one type of technology use we might have thought would be beneficial) reported more inattention/hyperactivity symptoms.

Taken together, our results suggest that the quantity of youth technology use does not seem to be causing worse mental health symptoms among modern adolescents. Now, when parents turn to me for guidance on this topic, I share this evidence that screen time is not inherently harmful. I encourage them to look beyond the fear filled messages they’ve heard and instead talk to their child about what they enjoy about online spaces and how they can ensure they’re navigating those spaces safely, responsibly, and in ways that promote their positive social and emotional development.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can clinicians help support families in the digital era?
  2. What are alternatives to purely time-based limits that can help scaffold healthy youth adoption of social media and other technologies?
  3. Are there ways that modern technologies might be leveraged to facilitate adolescent mental health and wellbeing?

 Reference Article

Jensen, M., George, M. J., Russell, M. R., & Odgers, C. L. (2019). Young Adolescents’ Digital Technology Use and Mental Health Symptoms: Little Evidence of Longitudinal or Daily Linkages. Clinical Psychological Science, 2167702619859336. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619859336

Author Bio

Michaeline Jensen, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at UNC Greensboro, where she studies the roles of social, cultural, and contextual factors in adolescent mental health and risk-taking behaviors. Her research leverages novel methodological techniques and mobile communication technologies to better understand these social risks and protective processes. Interactions and Relationships Lab: https://www.jensen-irl.com/

Twitter @Mikey-Jensen 


Fisher, A. J., Medaglia, J. D., & Jeronimus, B. F. (2018). Lack of group-to-individual generalizability is a threat to human subjects research. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/06/15/1711978115.abstract

Huang, C. (2017). Time Spent on Social Network Sites and Psychological Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 20(6), 346–354. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2016.0758

Jensen, M., George, M. J., Russell, M. R., & Odgers, C. L. (2019). Young Adolescents’ Digital Technology Use and Mental Health Symptoms: Little Evidence of Longitudinal or Daily Linkages. Clinical Psychological Science, 2167702619859336. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619859336

Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019). The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use. Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0506-1

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