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Kill screentime: New study on teens, screens and social media

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.

Key findings:

  • 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)

Kill Screentime

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.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

    • It’s wonderful to hear about the positive learning progress your baby has made since you stopped allowing her to watch YouTube videos. Limiting screen time can indeed contribute to improved attention span and responsiveness in young children. It’s great that you’ve observed such positive changes, and it emphasizes the importance of mindful screen use in early childhood development. If you have concerns about your child’s development, consulting with a healthcare professional can provide valuable insights and guidance.

  • I really believe that screentime has an effect to our brain and in our behavior. My baby had a lot of learning progress since I stopped letting her watch YouTube videos, plus her attention span became incredible. He is quite responsive too, as I thought he had autism before.

  • I recently wrote an article on a similar topic, and came to the disappointing conclusion: in the age of technology, the productivity of teenagers has decreased. Constant access to the Internet, which is a distraction from the educational, does not favorably affect the assessments of young people. It is foolish to argue with the fact that the Internet opens unlimited access to information, but unfortunately, many students use the Internet for other purposes.

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  • Despite the fact that most parents are against such a pastime, I do not see such a global problem in this. After all, the Internet is a place with an unlimited flow of information that can be useful and I do not understand why this is being swept aside. Plus, there is some research that shows social media is a cure for loneliness. Why not remember this?

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  • 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

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.