‘If as a parent you’re making decisions based on this fear narrative that’s out there about social media causing depression and anxiety, that information is not supported by the evidence’
Are you fearful that too much screen time may cause your child to experience anxiety or depression? You’re not alone.
Sixty-five percent of parents in the U.S. say they worry their teen is spending too much time in front of screens, and over half of parents limit their children’s screen use, according to a study by Pew Research Center.
But such fears could be overblown. A growing number of researchers are beginning to question the validity of concerns about children’s screen-related habits and the impact on mental health.
The newest research, published earlier this month in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry analyzed 40 studies examining the link between social media use and depression and anxiety among adolescents and found the link was small and inconsistent.
“If as a parent you’re making decisions based on this fear narrative that’s out there about social media causing depression and anxiety, that information is not supported by the evidence,” said Candice L. Odgers, lead author of the paper and a psychology professor at the University of California Irvine.
With teen anxiety and depression on the rise, blaming screens can be problematic, Odgers argues, as it may distract parents — and society more broadly — from addressing the underlying issues driving the problems truly driving teen mental health challenges.
‘Smartphones are an easy target’
The most surprising thing about the study, said Odgers, was the disparity between how strong public fears were about the relationship between smartphones and teen mental health and the lack of evidence to back up such fears.
So what could be driving such a mismatch between evidence and public perception? It could be that the rising levels of teen anxiety and depression are making parents eager to find solutions to help their children cope, Odgers said.
“Smartphones are an easy target,” said Odgers. “I think people are searching for answers, and if the answer was the smartphone, you could get rid of that. It’s an oversimplified position that has swept through the media and through parenting circles.”
Fear of new technology and its impact on children’s well-being is nothing new, said Jordan Shapiro, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of “The New Childhood: How Kids Can Live, Learn, and Love in a Connected World.”
As far back as when the printing press was invented, parents worried that by having the chance to read individual books by themselves, children would socially isolate themselves — no longer forced to go to church to be entertained or educated by the written word.
But making smartphones the scapegoat for teen’s mental health struggles may be misguided, Shapiro said, as such an explanation belies the complex patchwork of problems facing our nation and the world that may be to blame for making adolescents feel more anxious and overwhelmed, he said.
“The economic recession, the opioid crisis, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on young people in terms of admissions for college,” she said. “There’s so many contributing factors, that to accept this simple story about cellphones is a disservice to young people who are struggling with depression.”
Less restriction, more parental supervision
In recent years, parents, political leaders and even global organizations have taken steps to restrict children and teens use of screens. Worries about smartphones have led Congress to pass legislation to examine the impact of smartphone use, and caused the World Health Organization to advise against exposing infants to screens. Even Silicon Valley executives have publicly stated they are keeping the devices away from their own kids.
But some experts question the merits of restricting access to smartphones and screens. The best way to look out for your children — both in terms of safety and emotional well-being — may actually be less restriction, and more parental supervision, argues Shapiro, author of “The New Childhood.” It’s not about the device itself, but whether the relationship your child has to the device is safe and healthy — and it’s up to the parent to help the children learn how to create that relationship, he said.
Right now, the average age for an American child to get a smartphone in America is about 13, which is a “terrible idea,” said Shapiro.
“Pre-puberty is the worst possible time to introduce someone to this kind of technology,” he said, because it is the exact age when children are the most likely to want to rebel, ignore the advice of their parents, and engage in risk-taking behavior.
That’s why Shapiro argues that children should get smartphones much earlier, as young as 8. When children are young, he said, they are more likely to trust their parents’ advice, respect their authority, and follow their parents’ rules.
At age 8, a parent can help their children understand how to use smartphones safely and wisely but set expectations about kindness in engaging on social media. Just as parents have a responsibility to help children learn to safely socialize at birthday parties and playgrounds, parents should help children learn to do the same thing online, so they are prepared and confident and sure of who they are as they get older, said Shapiro.
Most parents think waiting to expose their children to smartphones protects them, he said. In fact, this actually neglects them — leaving them to navigate the new and complicated world of the internet alone during puberty, when the world is often seems the most confusing and overwhelming to begin with — and one’s parents the least trustworthy guide, Shapiro argued.
But with the debate over screen time and adolescent mental health far from settled, Shapiro’s strategy of exposing children to smartphones at a young age may be a difficult sell to some parents who remain concerned by the dire predictions of some studies on this subject. A widely publicized 2017 study in the Clinical Psychological Science journal found that the more time adolescents spent on screens, the greater the chances that they developed symptoms of depression or that they attempted suicide. By contrast, the more time they spent on activities that didn’t require screens, the less likely they were to face those mental health challenges.
Social media helps teens ‘feed their friendships’
While scientific evidence may not have shown a definitive link between teen anxiety and depression and screen use, that doesn’t mean the impact of smartphone use on adolescents doesn’t matter, said Odgers.
Teens themselves have voiced their own concerns about the topic. In a 2018 Pew survey, 56% of teens said they associated the absence of their cellphone with at least one of these three emotions: loneliness, being upset or feeling anxious, and 36% said they themselves spend too much time on their cellphone.
But teens also reported that social media has a positive impact on various aspects of their lives: 81% saying social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, according to Pew.
“We see that teens generally believe social media helps feed their friendships and they’re more likely to equate social media with positive emotions than negative emotions,” said Monica Anderson, associate director at Pew Research Center.
Many teens who are struggling with their mental health actually seek out help from online counselors or support groups, and teens who may feel different or isolated — LGBTQ teens, or racial or religious minorities — can find support online, said Odgers. Others may find creative outlets through using their devices, such as coding or 3D printing.
But even if parents don’t see smartphones in a positive light, the important thing is that their decisions about their children’s screen time aren’t influenced by unproven fears about how smartphones cause teen mental health problems, said Odgers.
“Parents are entitled to make decisions about how smartphones are integrated with their family,” she said. “But they shouldn’t be making those decisions based on the idea that smartphones are causing depression and anxiety.”