We should kill “screentime” as an unhelpful and meaningless term.
That’s is the central recommendation of a new review of research into the relationship between digital technology and wellbeing by Dr. Amy Orben from the Medical Research Council of the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge.
Published in January 2020 in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (PDF), the study reviews 23 meta-analyses assessing the relationship between teen screentime, social media use and mental wellbeing.
- There is little evidence to warrant a change to the current expert view that “There is, as yet, no scientific consensus on the impact of screen-based lifestyles on the mental health of young people”
- There is a lack of high-quality research in the area, with many studies producing conflicting findings using poorly specified variables (e.g. “screentime”) and that do not control for individual differences or different activities
- To date and overall, the evidence available points to towards very small negative association between digital technology use and teen wellbeing, but the direction of the link is unclear (low wellbeing may prompt increased screentime or social media use)
Dr. Orben, like Prof. Andrew Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute, suggests that it is time we retire the term “screentime” as blunt and unhelpful because screentime can encompass an ever-widening range of diverse activities (reading on a Kindle, video-calling relatives, watching classes and lectures, taking photos…).
Likewise, “social media” is an unhelpful label, representing a diverse basket of different activities – from passive scrolling to active chatting, play, entertainment and learning. For example, some research points to a positive link between active and authentic social media use and wellbeing in terms of self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and reduced loneliness. Other research has linked passive social media activity to lower wellbeing.
To understand the effects of different screen-based activities on wellbeing, we need a more granular approach.
Orben, A. (2020). Teenagers, screens and social media: a narrative review of reviews and key studies. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 1-8.