Teens and screens: A new study says don’t worry
“Screen time: How much is too much?” asked Nature in an editorial. The answer is that we don’t really know—but however much time kids and teens spend looking at screens, the effect is a lot smaller than the overwrought warnings make it appear. A new Oxford University study that brings together data on 355,358 adolescents showed some association between the time that teens spend looking at screens and measures of happiness. “But the effects are so small, explaining at most 0.4 percent of the variation in well-being, as to be of little practical value.” Time spent on computers and phones was less of a factor in adolescent happiness than biking—strongly associated with well-being—or wearing glasses, which had a greater negative association. This isn’t the last word on kids and screens, but it does suggest that “dire warnings are not warranted.”
Many previous studies came up with contradictory findings about screen use, said Robbie Gonzalez in Wired.com. That’s because “small changes in analytic approach can lead to dramatically different findings,” as researchers fiddle with how to weight different definitions of well-being. “Researchers will essentially torture the data until it gives them a statistically significant result that they can publish,” said one author of the new paper. The Oxford scientists analyzed thousands of ways to carve up the data, instead of cherry-picking the results they preferred. A few analyses showed big effects from technology. Most did not. It’s not that screens don’t matter, said Shannon Palus in Slate.com, “it’s that it’s too general of a question, like asking if sugar is good or killing us.” When we ask questions like that about sugar, we know we need to clarify whether sugar means constant chocolate cake or the occasional granola bar. Same with screens: It matters whether kids are looking at models on Instagram or “Skyping with grandma.”
Just don’t be too quick to “let our phones off the hook for any negative consequences” of technology, said Casey Newton in TheVerge.com. Many of the questions the Oxford study analyzed feel “fusty,” such as whether a child uses a computer or plays “weekday electronic games” or uses the internet at home. The data encompasses how much time children spend online, and if they’ve been bullied, but not whether those factors have gone together. These days “bullying and screen time are linked,” and this study doesn’t take that into account. For the most part “these are pre-smartphone data categories being applied to a post-smartphone world.” If you’re not asking about things like online bullying, social media, and hate speech, you’re not asking the right questions about how young people really use their screens.