There may be a digital ‘sweet spot’ between low and high technology use where screen time is not harmful and could even benefit teens’ well-being by providing opportunities to develop social connections and skills, scientists say. New findings from over 120,000 adolescents in the UK indicate that the relationship between screen time and well-being is weak at best, even at high levels of digital engagement.
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“Digital screens are now an inextricable part of modern childhood. Depending on who you ask they’re either part of creating a generation of so called ‘digital natives’ or a bogey man who may dispose young people to all kinds of delinquencies,” said lead researcher, Andrew Przybylski from the University of Oxford.
“Our findings suggest that adolescents’ moderate screen use has no detectable link to well-being and levels of engagement above these points are modestly correlated with well-being,” said Przybylski.
Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University noticed a critical gap between what people believe about the effects of teens’ screen time and what scientific research actually shows. “We were surprised how poorly linked the literature was to the advice provided to caregivers and educators,” Przybylski said.
The researchers analysed digital screen time data collected from a large and representative national cohort of British teens. The teens completed a self-report measure of mental well-being and answered questions gauging how much time they spent engaging with different types of digital activities, including watching TV and other media, playing computer- and console-based games, using computers to surf the web and check email and smartphones for social activities.
In contrast to the argument that the detrimental effects of technology are likely to increase as usage increases, researchers hypothesised that there may be a digital “sweet spot” between low and high technology use. In this sweet spot, they speculate, screen time is not harmful and may even benefit teens’ well-being by providing opportunities to develop social connections and skills.
Nearly all – 99.9 per cent – of the participating adolescents reported spending time using at least one type of digital technology on a daily basis. The data for all digital activities, on both weekdays and weekends, showed trends consistent with the sweet spot hypothesis – teens’ well-being increased as their screen time increased, up to a certain point. After that point, increased screen time was associated with decreased well-being.
These curvilinear trends remained even after Przybylski and colleagues accounted for participants’ gender, ethnic background, and socioeconomic background, researchers said. The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.