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Flawed Knowledge Led to Findings of a Connection Between Time Spent on Units and Psychological Well being Issues – New Analysis

By Craig JR Sewall, University of Pittsburgh

Even the casual reader of the last few years’ news has likely come across reports of research showing that digital technologies like social media and smartphones are damaging to the mental health of young people. Depression and suicide rates among young people have risen steadily since the mid-2000s, around the time the first smartphones and social media platforms hit the market. These technologies have become ubiquitous and the plight of young people has continued to increase ever since.

Many articles in the popular and academic press claim that digital technology is to blame. Some experts, including those featured recently in reports from major news outlets, note that overuse of digital technologies is clearly linked to psychological distress in young people. Denying this connection, according to a prominent proponent of the connection, is tantamount to denying the connection between human activity and climate change.

To protect young people from the damage caused by digital technologies, some politicians have passed laws that would, among other things, automatically limit the length of time users spend on a social media platform to 30 minutes a day. If the evidence is so clear that digital technology is causing such significant harm to America’s youth, then reducing the use of these devices by young people could be one of the most important public health measures in American history.

There’s only one problem: the evidence of a link between time spent using technology and mental health is fatal.

Know yourself – easier said than done

The discussion about the supposed damage of digital technologies lacks the fact that practically all academic studies in this area have used highly flawed self-disclosure standards. These actions typically ask people to give their best estimates of how often they’ve used digital technology in the past week, month, or even a year. The problem is that people are poorly judged about their use of digital technology, and there is evidence that people with mental health problems are even worse at it. This is understandable as it is very difficult to pay attention to anything and to remember exactly what you do frequently and habitually.

Researchers have recently started uncovering the discrepancy between self-reported and actual technology usage, including for Facebook, smartphones and the internet. My colleagues and I conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of the discrepancies between actual and self-reported digital media usage and found that self-reported usage rarely reflected actual usage.

This has a huge impact. Measurement is not a sexy topic, but it forms the basis of scientific research. Simply put, in order to draw conclusions – and make recommendations based on it – about something you are studying, you need to make sure that you are measuring what you want to measure. If your actions are inadequate, then your data cannot be trusted. And if the measurements are less accurate for certain people – like young people or people with depression – then the data is even more unreliable. This applies to most of the research on the effects of technology use over the past 15 years.

Imagine that everything that is known about the COVID-19 pandemic is based on people making their best guesses about whether they have the virus, rather than highly reliable medical tests. Now imagine that people who actually have the virus are more likely to misdiagnose themselves. The consequences of relying on this unreliable measure would be far-reaching. The health effects of the virus, how it spreads, how to fight it – virtually any information gathered about the virus would be corrupted. And the resources expended due to this inaccurate information would be largely wasted.

The inconvenient truth is that poor measurements, as well as other methodological problems, including inconsistent perceptions about different ways of using digital technologies and research designs that do not establish a causal relationship, are common. This means that the supposed connection between digital technology and psychological stress is not clear.

A hand is holding a smartphone on a screen with the inscription

Social media has a lot to answer for, but when it comes to the amount of time it spends on it, young people’s mental health may not be on the list.

David Stewart / Flickr, CC BY

In my own research as a PhD student in social work, I found that the relationship between digital technology use and mental health was stronger when self-reporting measures were used than when objective measures were used. An example of an objective metric is Apple’s Screen Time application, which automatically tracks device usage. Anxiety or suicidal thoughts: In fact, those who used their smartphones more often reported lower levels of depression and anxiety.

From believer to skeptic

It would have been a great surprise to me five years ago that the connection between the use of digital technology and psychological stress is not clear. I was shocked at the level of depression and suicidal ideation among the students I treated while working as a psychotherapist in a college counseling center. Like most people, I’ve accepted the conventional narrative that all of these smartphones and social media are harmful to young people.

To investigate this further, I left clinical practice for a Ph.D. Program so that I could investigate why these technologies are harmful and what could be done to prevent this damage. As I delved into the scientific literature and did my own research, I realized that the connection between digital technology and wellbeing was much more complicated than the typical narrative portrayed by popular media. The scientific literature was a jumble of contradictions: some studies found harmful effects, others found positive effects, and still others found no effects. The reasons for this inconsistency are many, but incorrect measurements are high on the list.

This is unfortunate, not only because it is a tremendous waste of time and resources, or because the story that these technologies are harmful to young people is widespread and difficult to get the cat back in the poke, but also, because it forces I agree with Mark Zuckerberg.

Come to the truth

However, this does not mean that all amounts or types of digital technology use are okay. It’s pretty clear that certain aspects like cyber victimization and exposure to harmful online content can be harmful to young people. But simply removing the technology may not fix the problem, and some researchers suggest it might actually do more harm than good.

Whether, how and for whom the use of digital technologies is harmful is likely to be far more complicated than the image often presented in popular media. However, the reality is likely to remain unclear until more reliable evidence is available.

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Craig JR Sewall, Postdoctoral Scholar of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, University of Pittsburgh

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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