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This alarming study just sparked a fierce debate about screen time and teen mental health

Being a teen today means wrestling with how social media and screens shape the very essence of your identity. The anecdotal truth is that both can tear you down as quickly as they build you up; friends and followers can turn into enemies while the promise of human connection can give way to profound loneliness.  

Whether or not that dynamic is significant enough to take a toll on our emotional and mental wellbeing still isn’t clear. In fact, researchers are engaged in an intense debate over what it would take to prove that outcome. 

One recent study found that using Facebook can actually people feel worse. Another study on teenagers, however, found that moderate use of digital technology isn’t “intrinsically harmful.”

On Monday, a study published in Clinical Psychological Science found that increased screen time might be linked to the increase, between 2010 and 2015, in depressive symptoms and suicide for teen girls.  

“There’s definitely something going on in the mental health of teens today.”

The study’s authors analyzed the results of two large middle and high school survey datasets, and the results suggest that teens who spent excessive time using electronic devices every day were significantly more likely to report higher levels of depression. They were also more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome, such as reporting hopelessness or plans to attempt suicide, than their peers who used electronic devices for less time. 

The coauthors’ analysis also suggests a link between increased social media and depression. In both cases, the effect on girls was noticeable, but it didn’t really materialize for boys, who’ve also seen an uptick in the rate of suicide and depression.  

“There’s definitely something going on in the mental health of teens today, and it started around 2011 and 2012,” says Jean Twenge, the study’s lead author and a San Diego State University psychology professor. 

As the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us, Twenge has made a career out of arguing that the something is the rise of screen time and social media. 

While her new study lends credence to that theory, other researchers say it sows unwarranted doubt and alarm for teens and their parents. Pete Etchells, a lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University in the U.K., called for “more sense and less hype” in a Guardian column about the study. 

Amy Orben, a social media psychologist and college lecturer at The Queens College at the University of Oxford, wrote a Medium post criticizing Twenge’s study for drawing “grand conclusions with widespread implications using such weak and inconsistent links.” 

Put another way, there’s panic over the fact that Twenge’s research might be creating moral panic about the role that social media and screens play in teenagers’ lives. Casual observers might not care about this debate, but it reveals the challenges of evaluating the potential enormous risk of putting a smartphone or screen in every teenager’s hands.

“If this is true, it would have massive implications.” 

“If this is true, it would have massive implications,” says Orben of Twenge’s findings. 

Orben’s incredulousness, however, stems from questions about Twenge’s methodology. She doesn’t believe that Twenge sufficiently ruled out alternative explanations for the rise in depression and suicide, noting that the study didn’t include measures to assess students’ stress level about the future. Orben also didn’t consider the Dow Jones Index, which Twenge and her coauthors used to look for correlations between economic insecurity and mental health, an appropriate metric for that analysis. 

Most importantly, Orben has concerns about the study’s analysis of survey responses regarding how frequently students use social media, as well as the study’s small correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms, loneliness and low self-esteem. The fact that the effects only show up in girls also gives Orben pause, because it might indicate that the results are a statistical error or noise. (Twenge thinks one possible explanation is that boys might conceal their symptoms more.)

“It’s necessary we interpret the results with caution,” Orben says. “It isn’t as good as it’s supposed to be for making such claims.” 

Twenge is forthright about the fact that the study doesn’t prove causation — that screen time and social media definitively led to poorer mental health outcomes. She also acknowledges that the survey metric about social media use that Orben challenged is unlikely to yield an indisputable correlation between that and mental health. Yet, a different metric about electronic device use from another survey produced a much larger effect.

Twenge is perhaps most worried by the finding that teens who spend more than five hours a day on electronic devices are much more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome than those who spend only an hour on devices. 

“There’s something to be said for limiting screen time, that it might be beneficial for mental health,” says Twenge. “But don’t take your kids’ phone away.” 

Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of The Jed Foundation, a suicide prevention nonprofit, says the study’s findings are “extremely plausible.” 

If teens are using electronic devices and social media to the exclusion of in-person social interactions and other fulfilling activities, like sports or religious participation, it could potentially lead to isolation, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thinking. The same could be true if teens sacrifice important sleep to spend time online.

“We’re in the beginning of a tremendous social experiment,” he says. “Young teenagers are learning how to interact with people, and you’re missing something very important if you’re looking at a screen.”

“We’re in the beginning of a tremendous social experiment.”

Orben also expressed a sense of trying to study and understand uncharted territory, which is why her critique of Twenge’s work includes a focus on improving research transparency so that fellow scientists can access study data, see firsthand the way things are coded and categorized, and use that information to try replicating experiments. 

“We’re not ready for the amount of public interest we’re getting at this moment,” she says, referring to the age of social media and how it might psychologically affect users, including teens. “We slept through a very big development, and we’re trying to catch up.” 

For her part, Twenge isn’t comfortable waiting until the science is incontrovertible; if there’s a mental health risk associated with using screens and social media, we should have that conversation sooner than later. 

“I disagree with idea of telling people not to worry until we have proof,” she says. “We’ve got to figure out what’s going on here.”

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources. 

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